TicketManager | Sports Partnerships from All Sides: Nationwide’s Comprehensive Sports Marketing Strategy

Sports Partnerships from All Sides: Nationwide’s Comprehensive Sports Marketing Strategy


Jim McCoy, Associate Vice President of Sports Marketing at Nationwide, joined podcast host Jim Andrews to break down the financial services company’s multi-faceted sponsorship portfolio and discuss new plans and activations for some of its leading programs, including its NFL and NWSL partnerships. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.

Jim A.: Nationwide has a diverse partnership portfolio. Can you walk us through the strategy behind it and how the target audiences and objectives may vary from deal to deal?

Jim M.: The portfolio has evolved over the years. It includes golf, NASCAR, and the NFL the last 10 years. We have also done a lot in the markets that we live and work in. It all tracks back to alignment with our business strategy and where we can drive real value against objectives.

We have a consistent model of trying to do things that drive brand—familiarity, awareness, consideration—all the key measures we try to grow through connecting with sports-related sponsorship audiences. We need to also drive immediate business, which can be large transactions directly with partners or entertainment opportunities where we see business grow over time.

And we always have a community philanthropic element to anything that we do. That is core to our DNA as a company. Our slogan “On Your Side” really means something to us and we want to be authentic and intentional about where we make investments and how we bring our brand to life.

Jim A.: I think of Nationwide as a property/casualty insurance company—and certainly that is a large part of your business, but when you and I spoke earlier, you mentioned all of the other businesses Nationwide is in with the broader category of financial services. What steps do you take to stand out when there are so many brands in those segments that are also active in sports marketing, sometimes even within the same properties as you are?

Jim M.: We are a very diverse business in the financial services space. We have 10 different business units. We are historically known as an auto insurer, but we do much more than that, including annuities, 401(k), life insurance and pet insurance.

It is a very competitive space in terms of advertising investment, with GEICO, State Farm and others spending millions of dollars. It has always been our strategy to try to find the white space that is available and not directly compete, because our spend is never going to be at their level. We make the dollars we invest go further and make a $50 million spend feel like $200 million through activation and the formula we have built with tier-one sports properties, tier-one talent and the media behind it to help tell our story.

Even in an area like the NFL, which has other P&C insurance companies involved, we have had success by finding a platform—the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award—that carves a space for us to have a real connection to the league, the fans and the players and also goes back to our authentic position as a company of supporting all the good work being done in communities all over the country.

It’s a balance of the right partner, right talent and right media to break through, but it is challenging and we have to evaluate that every year. It’s why we have deals that expire and we have to go into different areas.

Jim A.: With all that you have going on, I’d love to hear about the team behind that. Where do you sit in the organization, how many people are involved, do you have outside agency support, etc.?

Jim M.: We are small but mighty! We are a team of seven or eight that lives in corporate marketing, reporting up to Nationwide CMO Ramon Jones. The team is focused on different verticals, divided up between NFL, golf and a few other verticals, as well as event management and premier experiences.

We have also worked with Wasserman as our agency for 20-plus years. They are great partners of ours that help us divide and conquer on a lot of the strategic work, as well as the event coverage so that we’re not on an airplane every week executing events.

It’s been a great recipe for success. As a strategic partner, Wasserman has good insights into the sports world, but also if you show up to an event you wouldn’t know if it was a Nationwider or a Wasserman staff member you were talking to because they know our business and are integrated into everything we do.

Jim A.: With the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award presented by Nationwide, beyond the contractual relationship with the NFL, do you also work directly with the award winners each year?

Jim M.: We do. The great thing about the Man of the Year platform is you are working with the best of the best in the NFL. It’s an incredible filter. We are a 100-year-old brand that is pretty conservative and we want to make sure that when we partner with talent that it is the right fit, the right brand alignment and the right values-based decision.

This platform represents men who have been doing the right thing for a decade by the time they get to the point of being named the Walter Payton Man of the Year. We worked with former winners before we had our name on the award. We also actively support all 32 nominees each season. Each team announces their nominee in the October-November timeframe. We work with them December through Super Bowl to activate the platform, engage the fans and raise additional money and exposure.

Once we select a winner—we are a part of the process with a much bigger committee including the commissioner, the Payton family and media partners—we usually go into a relationship with them during their year as Walter Payton Man of the Year. We will do something with our hospitality guests at Super Bowl. This year, we did some great content with current winner Cam Heyward through Omaha Productions talking about what a special moment it was for him to see the Man of the Year patch on his Pittsburgh Steelers jersey.

We bring the winner each year to Columbus, tied to a big event around the Memorial golf tournament benefitting Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and then use them to kick off the next season’s round of nominees in the fall.

Jim A.: I ask a lot of brands that have relationships with endorsers, spokespeople, brand ambassadors, etc., about their process for selecting who to work with, but in your case as you say, you have the award as a built-in screening process. And speaking of those kinds of relationships, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about Nationwide’s relationship with Peyton Manning.

Jim M.: We learned a lot in NASCAR. We had a strong presence in that sport for a while and worked with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who had been a customer since his dad took him to his Nationwide agent at age 16. We built our connection with him creatively with the fans and saw that recipe for success.

So when we entered the NFL, we went through an exhaustive process to identify the right person to connect with. Knowing where Peyton was in his career and how we were shifting more into financial services and retirement planning, it was a great connection point. His values aligned with ours and he has been a great ambassador for the last 10 years. The creative has been amazing, including his delivery and his creative input into all these campaigns to keep them fresh and relevant every year. We’re excited to keep that train moving.

Jim A.: We are talking just before this year’s NFL Draft and I understand you have some new activation plans for that event, can you share some of the details?

Jim M.: We are excited to continue the creative relationship with Peyton and tap into the Draft in a unique way. It has become such a tentpole event for the NFL. We will have a Draft Day Drills campaign with Peyton that highlights the iconic moments that happen on stage and around the Draft. In the campaign, Peyton is a coach helping draft prospects along the way. We will roll that out the week before the Draft and we have some integrations in and around the Draft’s opening night, including having Cam Heyward on stage for the Steelers’ 20th pick in the first round where he will do a presentation around the Man of the Year Award with the commissioner. We also will have special guests of Nationwide who will be announcing a pick later in the weekend, as well as hospitality guests throughout the event.

It has become a great follow-up to Super Bowl for engaging our customers and producers, as well as to talk to fans about Nationwide’s role within the NFL.

Jim A.: You also are in the first year of a multi-year renewal with the National Women’s Soccer League. With so many new developments there, including a new media deal, new franchises, etc., what will be new this time around for Nationwide?

Jim M.: The explosion in women’s sports has been remarkable, most recently with the Caitlin Clark effect the last couple of weeks. We are proud to have been ahead of that curve, having headed into the National Women’s Soccer League four or five years ago. It’s a relatively young league, but we have seen incredible growth, both from a team standpoint going from 10 to announcing their 15th and 16th teams, as well as their huge new media deal with Scripps ION, Amazon, Paramount and ESPN that will almost double the number of games out there.

Going into it, we knew the fan base was very avid, excited, and socially and digitally active. It allowed us to broaden our reach to a new audience. We’re really excited about what we have seen the first three years and about the next four.

We have built a community-impact platform with the NWSL that will come out in the next couple of months with a rebrand and some exciting elements connected to that. It’s an opportunity for us from a media standpoint to grow our presence and do more with the teams. We have 14 player ambassadors who we work with to tell their stories and that has been fantastic. We refresh that every year.

We have even built an internship program after the season to bring four to six women into Columbus to see what working at a Fortune 100 company looks like.

As a sponsor, we always want to do something more than just hang a banner, put the logo on signage, etc. We want to be integrated into a sport, help it grow and do what we can to enhance the experience for the fans.

Jim A.: Speaking of Columbus, Nationwide has a major presence with your headquarters there and you have a number of partnerships that are locally oriented but also have a national impact, especially Nationwide Arena. Can you talk a little about some of those relationships?

Jim M.: We have always wanted to have a strong presence where we live and work. We have three main headquarters markets: Scottsdale, Ariz.; Des Moines, Iowa; and our largest Columbus. We do a lot in that community broadly, but in the sports and entertainment space you mentioned Nationwide Arena. We are a part owner of the Blue Jackets. We launched a jersey sponsorship with the Columbus Crew in 2020 that has been fantastic. They have won two MLS championships in four years, so some good luck that Nationwide has been along for the ride.

Most recently, we became jersey sponsor for the Columbus Fury, a professional women’s volleyball team. We see great upside potential with that sport. We do minor league baseball, we do the marathon, we have a couple of golf events—including the Memorial tournament, where we were presenting sponsor for a long time. We just try to find the right ways to support what makes Columbus great and the sports and entertainment space is a big part of that.

Jim A.: We discussed your multiple objectives for partnerships. How does Nationwide approach performance measurement in terms of KPIs/metrics and methods of evaluation?

Jim M.: I always say it’s a blend of art and science. There should be as much science and data as you can have, but there is a storytelling element to show how all the pieces work together to ultimately drive value for the organization.

It starts at the top with our CMO having a belief that it does work. We provide the data backing to show that it does. We break it down to show top-of-funnel efforts—how are we doing from a brand health standpoint—through studies against different audiences. We should be doing better against the NFL, golf and soccer fans versus the general market, otherwise we could just put those dollars into advertising.

We have seen over time that we do have a healthy gap in consideration, awareness, and familiarity within those audiences, which is a good start.

We track all of the earned impressions and exposure that we gain from these large brand-focused efforts across social media, PR, where the logo shows up on network TV and ESPN during the Walter Payton Man of the Year nomination window, etc.

Those things are part of the story we craft to show year after year. Hopefully that exposure and value grows each year. We make adjustments to our deals and tweak relationships to make sure all that is maximized.

We also want to make sure we are driving real business and have trackable results we can use to show we are making an impact. That can be something like the significant retirement plan we have with the Kansas City Chiefs. It can mean an employee benefits relationship we have with other sponsors in these sports to offer our pet insurance to their employees.

In many cases, it’s about taking our intermediaries—our financial professionals and our agents who are doing business with us today but hopefully do more business with us after we host them at events where we can better educate them on our products and services, and build their pride and good feeling about Nationwide.

Six, 12 or 18 months down the road we should be seeing a lift in business metrics because of these different opportunities we have. We weave in the community aspect of it as well. Our team raises $6 million a year for Nationwide Children’s Hospital through different events.

In total, it’s about how effective we are in pulling those three levers through these different partnerships. Ultimately, we will renew some, adjust others and not renew others.

Jim A.: I’d love to get your advice, as someone who sees a lot of sponsorship proposals and has sat in lots of pitch meetings and negotiations, for people on the sales side of partnerships. Maybe some things they could do better or something that would help in the process.

Jim M.: Do a bit of research. The ones that frustrate me the most are the blast emails to our CMO and 15 other people within the company. A quick Google search of “Nationwide sports marketing” would get you to the right person.

Do the front-end work of understanding the types of areas we would want to get involved in and get to know the insurance and financial services aspects of what we do so that you can come with ideas that will be relevant. I will give more of an ear to those who have put the work into it and prepped.

The reality is that with our big sponsorships, we were the ones who sought them out. We approached the NFL and said, “We want to split the category with USAA because this is an important place to be. With the National Women’s Soccer League, we had a deal fall through with the U.S. Women’s National Team after which we approached the NWSL. We know our business best. We know where we are trying to go. We know which audience is going to work for us.

With other, ancillary partnerships, look at what we do with a large partner like the NFL and see if there are ways you can help us activate that through the assets you have. It could be a team partnership, a player, a media platform, a podcast, etc. that would help us get our story of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award out in a different way. Taking existing things in our portfolio and integrating that into what you are selling is always going to be more successful.