Unique Perspective: Ricardo Fort on Measuring Sponsorship Performance, Managing Controversy and Building Better Partnerships
Having negotiated more than one billion dollars in sponsorship contracts after nearly a decade leading the global sponsorship teams of Visa and The Coca-Cola Co., Ricardo launched Sport by Fort Consulting in 2021 to help sponsors, leagues, investors and athletes successfully invest in sports.
Ricard most recently led Coca-Cola’s global portfolio of sports and entertainment sponsorships, partnerships and events, including the IOC, FIFA, UEFA, Special Olympics, McLaren F1 team, athletes, record labels, movie studios, the gaming industry and other worldwide sports and entertainment properties.
Prior to this role, he was senior vice president of global brand, product & sponsorship marketing at Visa, where he was responsible for all global consumer marketing initiatives including branding, advertising, digital, design and sponsorships. Ricardo led the Visa team in end-to-end initiatives related to the IOC, FIFA, the International Paralympic Committee, UEFA, the NFL, dozens of football, baseball and basketball teams in the U.S. and hundreds of Olympic athletes.
Ricardo joined podcast host Jim Andrews to discuss why brands must move away from vanity measures, the ability sponsors have—or don’t have—to influence properties, and which rightsholders are getting it right. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Before we tackle some of the big sports marketing and sponsorship issues that we’re both interested in, can you just tell us briefly about Sport by Fort and what you are working on currently?
Ricardo: Sport by Fort is a firm I founded a year ago when I decided to go solo after 25 years working for corporations like Coca-Cola, Visa and Unilever. I thought it was time to do something different and I decided to do what I love to do, which is working in sports marketing, but helping more brands, sports tech start-ups and other companies that are figuring out how to invest in sports.
Today my life is a combination of all those things: working with traditional sponsors on their investments and helping them negotiate contracts, as well as advising sports tech start-ups and also doing some work investing in sports content firms and some voluntary work in other areas that I’m very passionate about.
Jim: You worked for two companies that are particularly good at evaluating how their sponsorships are performing, but there is plenty of evidence that many companies don’t do such a good job. We see a lot of measurement activity around the top of the purchase funnel, but there is a perception that it is too difficult or too expensive to isolate the impact of sponsorships on sales and other behavior related to purchasing. What is your perspective on that?
Ricardo: This is one of the areas that is most demanded by CEOs and CFOs when they engage in conversations about sponsorships. They are not paying a lot of attention to the awareness that you are building, or the number of tickets that you get. What they care about is why should the company spend all this money here instead of all the other things we can do from an investment standpoint. Some of the sponsorships that large brands are dealing with are as expensive as acquiring a new company, as launching a business in a new country or investing in equipment, so sponsorships are competing with all these other choices that management has in front of them.
Unless you do a very good job of explaining why the sponsorship investment is better than all the alternatives, chances are the investment in sponsorship is going to go down over time. I was lucky enough to work for companies that have an abundance of data. That is a very good starting point for developing measurement models. It’s not a must have, but it certainly makes things easier if you have a lot of data available.
If you have a history of sponsorships, a history of performance in different markets during periods of sponsorship activation versus non-activation, etc., all of that helps brands figure out what the exact impact of the investments.
But even if you don’t have all that information, it’s possible to develop models with a level of certainty that give an indication of the potential impact of sponsorships. What I see today, even with large brands, is that they are very focused, as you said, on the top of the pyramid. When you see reporting after the event, you see brands talking about being the most remembered brand or the most associated with the event, when the reality is those are all vanity measures. They allow sponsorship managers to brag in the sponsorship press, but they are irrelevant.
I encourage people to try to get to attributing business results to the sponsorship. I developed models for Visa and Coke where we got to a point where we could say by country, by volume of sales, by revenue, by profit, these are as a result of a specific sponsorship. That gave a senior management a lot of confidence to make decisions or for me to recommend not doing something.
Jim: I hear people arguing that if you’re Visa or Coke and your spending is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s worth investing in modeling, but for a company that is spending $10 million a year on sponsorship, is it still cost-effective to develop those types of models?
Ricardo: If your investing $100 million, $10 million or $1 million, they are all important. You can adapt your own way of measuring to your reality. The level of investment is not an excuse to do it one way or the other. There are a few things that prevent sponsorship people from spending the time and energy to do this. First, it is very difficult. It’s not a natural, comfortable area for most people that come up working in sponsorships. Activation, promotion and event management is more fun; it’s easier and more natural to do than sitting down with data science and measurement companies, but it’s as necessary if not more necessary than ever to do it.
Don’t get distracted by your investment level, because even an okay model is better than no model at all. If you want to leave a legacy, measurement is probably one of the most important things you can do.
Jim: You mention in our earlier conversation that even though there is an expense associated with measurement, it’s not going to be as expensive as a sponsorship that’s not performing.
Ricardo: Yes, one bad sponsorship cost more than 100 models!
Jim: There has been a great deal of discussion this year around the pressure put on sponsors of events that are being held in controversial places or are connected to people and governments who are considered “bad actors” regarding human rights, corruption, etc. In your previous roles you had to deal with those situations and I would love to hear about the internal process for deciding how to respond when activists and consumers raise these issues?
Ricardo: I had discussions in my previous jobs with people in the company who dealt with human rights issues and labor issues and who interacted with the NGO community that is dedicated to combating human rights abuse in different countries. When there is a sponsored event coming up in one of those countries, they will come to you and say, “We should not do anything with the sponsorship. We should be quiet and not promote it.” My feedback to these people was always, “Our company chose to do business in all these countries. Our company does business in China, in Russia, in Saudi Arabia. If we have a problem with these countries, we should not do business there. But if we choose to do business there, we shouldn’t have a problem promoting an event that is happening there.”
I always shut down that approach because it is hypocritical and inconsistent with the behavior of the company. Assuming you going to move forward and promote these events, there are things you can do to prepare yourself and reduce the risk that is inherent.
You will always be surprised by things that are difficult to predict, so you have to have a team in place dedicated to crisis management with a focus on that specific event. Before every event there is a standing group of specialists from the sports marketing team, government relations, public affairs, the country managers in the host country, etc., that meets regularly to review the challenges and potential issues that the event is going to bring to the company. This group tries to mitigate problems, engages proactively with NGOs and tries to navigate the storm that usually hits all the sponsors.
With a little bit of care, you can take the maximum benefit from the event without putting the company in a position that can be harmful to its reputation. It’s very rare that you stop the activation because it’s too risky.
Jim: As a follow-up to that, the assumption is that sponsors can use their influence with governing bodies to affect change. How much weight do sponsors carry?
Ricardo: Limited on a good day; none most of the time. The sponsors are probably the most visible constituent of every event because they are there promoting, investing in media and bringing people to the event. It’s normal that most people would believe that they play a disproportionate role in terms of influence. But the reality is that they don’t.
To go one step further, even the commercial teams of the rights holders have very little involvement with decisions about hosting or how to handle hosts. The selection of host countries is a political process more than a business process that follows any logic. Sponsors are so detached from that that they can only live with the results.
What sponsors hope for over time is that you are going to have a group of hosts that are beneficial for business. And in long relationships, that is the case. If you think about the longevity of some of those sponsorships—Visa, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Omega, for example—they have been associated long enough with the Olympics to live through great hosts and bad hosts. As long as the average is positive, that’s okay. We shouldn’t get attached to one specific host and say, “The Winter Olympics in China was a horrible decision.” It was a bad decision, but you have to take into account that Beijing competed with Almaty, which would have been an even worse decision.
When you look toward the future, you see there are going to be fantastic hosts—Paris, Milano/Cortina, L.A., Brisbane—which makes every sponsor very happy. But sponsors have zero influence in these decisions and just have to deal with the cards they are dealt.
Jim: As a follow up to that, you see this upcoming cycle of hosts in Western Europe, North America, Australia, as a real opportunity for sponsors. How so?
Ricardo: It’s going to be a fantastic decade for Olympic sponsors—for TOP sponsors and domestic sponsors. Every brand that has the opportunity to be associated with the Olympic movement in the next 10 years is going to benefit from not only the absence of meeting any big challenges like we had in China or Russia, but because of the commercial opportunity that these Games will offer.
The next two games are in the hear of Western Europe, which is going to be fantastic not only for France and Italy, but for every country in Europe with the proximity, no time zone changes, easy mobility to attend the Games. There is also the attractiveness of a European Games to the American and Latin American audiences, even to the Asian audience—it’s enormous.
When it comes to L.A., we saw what happened when it hosted in 1984: It transformed the Games, basically creating the idea of global sponsorship. We have high expectations of LA 2028. They already have great domestic partners. All the TOP sponsors are excited to be part of it.
It will be great for all the brands associated with these upcoming Games because of the business that North America or Europe can generate for any global operation.
Jim: For someone who has had such a long career in sponsorship on the brand side, I’d love to hear your perspective on whether or not there is a gap between what properties are delivering, or how they are communicating with sponsors in the sales process versus what sponsors want. And also in the execution process, is there anything that rights holders could be doing to become even better partners for their sponsors?
Ricardo: There are always things that can be improved from both sides. It’s impossible to give you an answer in generic terms because every rights holder is different, but there are things that every rights holder can learn from the others. I’ll give you a few examples.
In the U.S., the NFL is the most commercially flexible rights holder there is. They are very smart and connected with the needs of the partners. They make decisions and are flexible to benefit their partners. For example, if you came to them and said you have 100 clients that you need to bring to the field half an hour before the Super Bowl, they would figure out a way to make it happen.
Compare that to global soccer and if you tried to do the same thing at a Champions League final or the World Cup, it’s probably not impossible, but it will be very difficult because the culture of the NFL is let’s figure out a way to make things happen. So in the category of being commercially savvy, the NFL is outstanding.
When it comes to social issues and helping sponsors talk about social issues, the NBA is always ahead of the curve, always connected to the community, to the movements in culture. They are always open to having these conversations and partner with brands to drive the cause that they think is important for the brands and for them.
When it comes to communication with the partners, for me the benchmark is the work that McLaren does in Formula 1. McLaren is exceptional in engaging with the 40 or so partners they have. They are constantly talking to the partners, sending video messages—you are never unaware or surprised by anything that is happening with McLaren because they didn’t tell you in advance. You feel you can speak about McLaren credibly within your organization because you are so informed.
The IOC does a very good job in connecting the partners. They bring partners together often and foster communication so that the TOP community knows each other and helps each other when possible.
Jim: You have had a career in sponsorship that is the envy of many people. But in general we often hear that specializing in sports marketing and sponsorship is not a great path to obtaining senior leadership positions in corporations. How do you see that and what advice would you offer to people in the earlier stages of their careers?
Ricardo: There is some truth to that. This is not exclusive to sponsorship, because whenever you choose a career as a specialist you are going to limit your growth potential within an organization. Organizations are designed to promote generalists. The CMO of the company will be someone who has worked in operations, sales, marketing, technical product development, etc.—a career that is more diverse than a specialist.
Most companies that are not in the business of sports have other needs. They use sports reach whatever business objectives they have. So if you are a specialist in taxes, in sponsorships, in formulation of products, you have a value for the company. But it’s unlikely you’re going to be the CEO of the company.
So if your ambition is to become the CEO, find a career path that is more diverse; work in marketing, finance, operations, you name it. For other people—and I fit this profile—you can opt for doing something you like, something you are good at and you have fun doing.
It is definitely a choice you have to make at some point in your career between going very far by doing some things you are not very passionate about or anchoring the things you care about and like to do and going only to a certain point—which can be great, very rewarding too, both financially and in terms of the experience.
The option is very personal. At some point in my career I thought working in general marketing would lead me to become a CMO or CEO, but I realized after some time doing this that the only part of my job that I liked was the sports. So I was wasting my time. It was very easy for me because I had a conviction that I like to do this, I’m good at it and I can live with the consequences of having a career as a specialist.
My advice to you professionals that are starting their career is learn other things. You cannot claim to be a sports marketer if you don’t understand marketing. Sports marketing is a subset of marketing, so you have to understand how to position a product, how to develop promotions for a product, how to use the communications tools that are available today and then eventually you migrate into sports if that’s what you want to do.
When you make that choice, then you have another 10 different things you can do: You can work for an agency, you can be a rights holder, you can be an athlete manager. There are so many things you can do and in the first 10 years of your career, try to do as many as you can because eventually you will find something that checks all the boxes for you and this may become a career.
Careers are long. You are going to work 20, 25, 30 years of your life; it’s not a big deal if you get it wrong for the first 10. Eventually things will work out for you if you have the conviction of what you want to do. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make decisions at 23 about what you are going to do for the rest of your life because that makes no sense.