Year-End Highlights from the All Access Interview Series Podcast
As we wrap up our second year of the podcast, and mark the close of 2022, it’s a good time to take a look at some of the highlights from the interviews we conducted this past year.
As always, it was a challenge to choose just a few of the insights that were shared by our many thought-leader guests representing brands, properties and agencies across the sports marketing sector.
Our first set of highlights really set the tone, with fresh perspectives of where we are as an industry from three people who are helping to lead us into the future.
John Brody, Chief Revenue Officer, LEARFIELD: For the early part of my and your careers, sports were an amazing ecosystem that was just to the left or just to the right of center in the marketing mix for brands. The center was primetime TV buys with programs like Seinfeld and Friends.
That paradigm has shifted completely. Sports is now at the very center of the media and entertainment space. It is the programming and content that wins the day. It’s what brands want to affiliate with and it’s what fans are tuning into. That’s a tremendous opportunity and responsibility for all of us who work in this space.
Meka White Morris, Executive Vice President, Chief Revenue Officer, Minnesota Twins: We have to find a way to create immediacy and engage people despite what’s happening on the field of play. The entertainment value of sport has to evolve. What’s happening on the field is no longer enough in some cases.
There has to be a balance between fans who are purists and an entirely new generation who may not have grown up as baseball, football, basketball or hockey fans. Just because you didn’t grow up a fan, doesn’t mean you can’t have an amazing time at a game if we build the game—and the experience around it—to entertain.
We have to think of ourselves more as entertainment companies and less as basketball teams or football teams.
Ed Horne, President, 160over90: The world we lived in was “Create the 30-second spot and they will come.” And while there will always be a role for the 30-second spot as part of an effort, it’s now more about doing things and showing up in places that are relevant to a consumer’s own beliefs, values and passions.
So our job now is to find our consumers and customers where they are as opposed to expecting or waiting for them to come to us. We have to think of consumers as multi-hyphenates. None of us are one thing. If someone is a sports fan, it doesn’t mean sports defines them. They have other interests such as food, music and other things that define them.
The mistake we sometimes make is we try to segment audiences and think about them in a sort of monolithic way, as opposed to thinking on a more horizontal basis and cutting across all of these things that relate to culture. Culture is the new creative in a lot of ways. Culture is what drives their interests, their passions and ultimately their pocketbooks.
The industry sometimes uses the words sponsor and partner interchangeably. I think it’s a distinction that matters. Sponsorship suggests a transactional relationship. Somebody’s going to write a check and somebody’s going to deliver the assets or some value in return versus partners, which is how do you marry businesses together? If I’m writing a check to a property, how will it truly work with me to showcase my business, my brands, my technology, whatever I have to offer, in ways that allow us to show up in a genuine and real way.
The sponsor sometimes shows up and the audience says, “Why are you in my way? You’re creating friction in my experience.” As opposed to a partner, who makes the experience better and creates a reason why the viewer, the audience, the consumer would want them to be there and can understand why they are there.
Properties need to think about it through that lens. If a property helps a partner make its business better, that brand will be a partner for a long time.
Next, four of the leading brand partners who joined the podcast this year share enlightening takes on how they plan, set strategy and evaluate success, as well as what their partners can help them with.
Jim Overbeck, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Fortinet: We place value on branding, but we are not going to spend just for the sake of branding. I knew that we needed something to make the investment in golf an offset. That’s where the security summit came in.
The concept I sold to our executives and ultimately to our board of directors, was if we could get $300 million of pipeline to show up—not net-new pipeline or anything to do with the exposure from branding, TV commercials, social or anything related to the soft math of clicks and impressions—and if we could increase our normal pipeline close rate of 33 percent to 39 percent for this group (a little less than a 20 percent increase), we would generate an extra $18 million in revenue we were not going to generate previously. If we average about our 60 percent profit margin on that revenue, that’s $10.8 million—which pays for the tournament.
So I went in with a business plan that showed what it cost and how we were going to pay for it. The deal essentially was that the summit would pay for the tournament. If I had requested $10 million for a golf tournament sponsorship and stopped there, I would have been laughed out of the room.
We had 330 people who showed up. Those 330 people represented nearly $600 million in pipeline; almost double my projection. So instead of having to close an extra six percentage points, we only had to close an extra three points to get to the $18 million/$10.8 million. So year one was a raging success for the Fortinet Championship. That was an aha moment that this is where we need to be as a company.
I brought a mentality from sales, where everything is very finite: a dollar of revenue is a dollar of revenue, a dollar of pipeline is a dollar of pipeline. In marketing, you have impressions, clicks and view rates, but I have my team focused 100 percent on pipeline. Pipeline is what we can generate in marketing and pipeline will result in sales. We are at the front of the train trying to get as much pipeline on as possible, while at the back end they are trying to turn that into revenue.
Jan Liebchen, Senior Vice President and Head of Strategic Partnerships & Sponsorships, M&T Bank: Contrary to how some brands may follow their sponsorship frameworks, we have not focused our sponsorships on a few themes or sports. That is driven by our community bank model, which takes the decision-making closer to the region and closer to the communities that we serve. For us, the unifying theme is participating in community rituals, whatever they may be. As a result, our portfolio may be a little more diverse than you would traditionally look to generate.
While sponsorships can and should look to impact the entire sales funnel, we find the most powerful impact for us is the top-to-mid section. If you look at in within the marketing mix model, sponsorships afford us a really powerful, impactful experiential marketing campaign and tool.
We see sponsorship as a discussion between the property rights holder and its naturally attracted audience, and we want to join that discussion. We want to join it authentically as a bank, so we would never speak to a play call or a draft choice. Being authentic to our bank, we want to make sure we add value to the conversation, with conversation being interpreted in its broadest sense. For example, the Ravens have the Ravens Flock, with which they engage in multiple ways: digitally, at game day and a variety of other ways. How do we participate in those engagements by adding value and being true to ourselves?
Steven Fuld, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Sony Corporation of America: It’s the fundamentals. It’s what I talked about with respect to how do you make sure you’re running an effective loyalty program: Know your customers and what their expectations are. Make sure there is a basic alignment of audiences and business objectives. Sit down, get in front of the whiteboard and make sure you are super clear about who you are talking about from an audience perspective and exactly what you are trying to achieve.
It’s also important to think about this: As great as a promotional experience can be, we have to think about our eight million members not just in terms of the big event that’s coming up that we’re going to have people go to, but the long term. Promotions have to fit in with a longer-term experience; they shouldn’t be just a one-and-done thing
Promotional partners should think about where are the gaps and shortcomings that we have in our program and the ways they can fill those gaps. Every rewards program wants to share more ways for people to earn, more ways for them to redeem, more ways for them to get status and recognition. If we can do that with a partner where it makes sense for them and makes sense for us, we would do that all day long.
Erin Pryor, Executive Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer, First Horizon Bank: This again goes back to what are we trying to do. Not all spend is created equal and not all spending equates to an ROI, a direct bottom line. For instance, if we want to raise awareness in the market, get more share of voice, we’re going to look at the brand tracker and see if we have had an awareness increase over time. So that’s a longer game.
As you move down the funnel, maybe we have a partnership with an event that’s aimed at driving prospect and client lead generation. That’s where we will look at whether we were able to provide air cover and help fulfill the funnel through the banker and are any of those leads converting.
There are many different levels of measurement within these types of events and partnerships. There is a lot you can do. We did a partnership with an event for one of our commercial groups where we were able to measure who was invited, what happened within the funnel and who converted. We can equate that two of the closed loans more than paid for what we spent for the event.
That’s the model our team is utilizing. As a marketing leader, I find it critical that marketing becomes more about driving to the bottom line—less of a cost and more of a revenue contributor. And it’s not as hard as people think to develop that muscle within your organization. It also helps to gain buy-in from your business leaders for doing some of the events and sponsorships.
Having that measurement piece in place for whatever your objective is for the sponsorship is critical.
Picking up on the performance measurement conversation, the former head of global sponsorship for Coca-Cola and Visa, offered some sage advice for brands.
Ricardo Fort, Founder, Sport by Fort Consulting: 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.
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.
Looking at the property perspective, we had some of the most successful sponsorship revenue generators join us this year. Here are three who discussed what’s necessary to be a good partner, as well as how to meet the challenges of building a successful sales team today.
Nick Baker, Chief Operating Officer, AEG Global Partnerships: We recently announced an extension with Herbalife, which has been the only jersey chest partner of the LA Galaxy dating back to 2007. It was critical for us not to take that to market because we have had such success activating that partnership, and that longevity means a lot to us.
With many of these partnerships, such as Herbalife, when you look back there are elements like digital marketing that are a lot different than in 2007. A social media strategy was not contemplated! Now, to have a strategy in the digital space that is anything longer than six months is probably archaic.
So having that sense of relationship and partnership with an organization is critical as you create flexibility throughout the duration of partnership so you can pivot to what matters to you or to the client at a particular time. When we look at the Herbalife or any extension, it’s about the people we are doing the business with and making sure we are incorporating a lot of the things we added into the partnership. For example, a lot of the integration of Herbalife product was not contractually committed to. It was something we wanted to have happen; we knew it was good for the brand. But it was also something we believe in. Now it becomes a contractual component.
You catch up to the times a little bit and you also keep some open space for what’s going to develop in the future so we can be creative together.
Meka White Morris, Executive Vice President, Chief Revenue Officer, Minnesota Twins: We have to be more thoughtful and flexible in how we recruit and retain talent. People have recognized the importance of home, family and community in a way they never have before. As someone looking to recruit sales and other executives, I have to think about am I willing to forego the best talent in the world because they are uncomfortable relocating to a new city?
As an industry we have to look past the rigid constraints we have put on the business and picture a world where, for example, you can sell sponsorship for a team and not necessarily live in that market. You need to know about the market; you need to be willing to travel, but we have to think about an alternative approach.
I’m not anticipating a hard swing to where no one lives in the city of the team they work for. The best-case scenario is to have your people in market, but as sports leaders we have to be willing to think outside of the box.
The only way to find out how to present a game experience that attracts a diverse fan base is to have members of that population within your organization. Historically, sports has not done a good job of that. People tend to hire and want to work alongside people they are most comfortable with. And those are people who are like you, who come from where you come from, think like you think, look like you, etc. That served its purpose for a time, but now we have to stretch ourselves.
If you aren’t uncomfortable at some point in your day because you are around or speaking to someone who isn’t like you—and is forcing you to stretch your thinking—you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. We have to be willing to hear some uncomfortable things. We have to be willing to have someone in the room who might wholeheartedly disagree with the approach you are taking because they have a sensibility that’s different from yours.
Doug Dawson, Senior Vice President of Ticket Sales & Service, Dallas Cowboys: I don’t want a bunch of lone wolves on our sales team. I want people who will get just as excited by a sale somebody else made as they would about their own. Our current staff is as good at that as any I have seen. That’s also the service team. They get excited for the sales group and that hasn’t always been the case in places I’ve been.
Don’t get me wrong. You’re going to miss. The important thing is correcting your mistake. You can’t make someone a good person or good teammate. If that’s not within them, it’s not something you can create. It hasn’t happened very often, but when we have had that person who doesn’t fit because they’re not a great teammate or person, we try to act quickly to take that person out of our culture. It’s not that our leadership team gives up early; we’ll do what we can to try to get them to where we need them to be. But if they can’t get there, we’re not afraid to make a change. Some people don’t like to have those uncomfortable conversations or make those changes, but we won’t risk our culture for anything.
Our sales team, because they are good people, pay a lot of attention to the service team. They do things for them. It’s amazing how even little things like texting them on the way into the office and asking if they would like a coffee, can go a long way.
When we do any sales competition, whether it’s a longer one for a full campaign or just a daily or weekly one, we always include the service team. When we do our annual reward trip and take our team somewhere exciting if we hit our goal, the service team automatically qualifies for that trip.
From top down, this organization believes it is important to engage everybody on the team, even down to our ticket ops group. That group is so important to our mission but a lot of time, unfortunately, they are forgotten about. We just did a trip with our suite holders and took our whole ticket office to Kansas City for the weekend for our game there. They got treated to going on a charter plane and a pre-game tailgate, things they may not otherwise have the opportunity to do. We do that every year with that group.
Because everyone sees how important it is to hit the goals and gets to share in the rewards, you will see the sales and service teams helping each other. The service team will call a sales rep up and tell them about a customer who needed two extra seats for a couple of games and refer them to talk about adding those seats for the season. They are helping to bring leads and deals to the table.
This year saw plenty of difficulties thrown at rights holders and brand partners, from challenging global event locations to controversies involving both properties and marketers. Two of our guests weighed in on the best way for marketers to respond.
Ed Horne, President, 160over90: Brands for so long were able to sit on the sidelines, identify which way the wind was blowing and tepidly maybe take a position on societal or cultural issues.
Brands no longer have that luxury. One of the biggest challenges that all types of brands have is aligning their values in ways that are consistent and appropriate for the consumers they are trying to reach.
All of our research shows that consumers are voting with their wallet, especially Millennials and Gen Z. They are looking to ensure that the brands with which they interact and spend money on are aligned with their views, their personal preferences and how they feel about particular issues.
Brands today have to be purposeful in how they are stepping out into the world. They have to be genuine, authentic and real in how they are doing that.
Elizabeth Lindsey, President, Brands and Properties, Wasserman: There are two pieces of advice that I always give my clients. First, when you come to the table to negotiate a partnership, be the most prepared person sitting at that table. Know exactly what you are up against, exactly what’s going to happen and understand every angle. No matter how crazy this industry can get, nothing beats good preparation.
The second piece of advice I ripped straight from my 16-year-old son, which is that at the end of the day, you do you. The brands that get in trouble are not the brands that own who they are authentically. If you authentically invested in something and you do you really well, with a laser focus, everything else falls in line. When brands run afoul of that is when they step outside the lines. If I’m not a particularly political brand and I take a stance politically, that’s going to bite me. If I’m a brand that does not have a strong history of supporting women and I decide to launch something on International Women’s Day with nothing behind it, that’s going to bite me.
As we look ahead to the new year, there is no doubt that technology and data will continue to play an even bigger role in taking sports partnerships to new heights, as our final highlight clip deftly summarizes what marketers can and should do to ensure success.
Meka White Morris, Executive Vice President, Chief Revenue Officer, Minnesota Twins: The most important thing we can do as an industry is understand our consumer. That doesn’t mean you know Meka Morris has four season tickets to the Minnesota Twins. It means you know I am a Black woman, you know how old I am, you know where I live, you know I am married, you know I have kids, you know I give away half of my tickets to my neighbor and you know who she is and how she comes to games, you know I love chardonnay and I love popcorn, you know I always buy a hot dog in the first inning and a hamburger in the second.
That data is vital, not only to attracting more people to the ballpark and getting them to come more often, but also getting them to spend more while they are there. How can you encourage fans with special offers if you don’t know anything about their consumer behavior? If I drink chardonnay and you send me an offer for beer, that’s not going to encourage me.
The smarter we can get about our fan base, the more revenue we can drive. And that’s not aggregated data through surveys. It’s real-time data captured live in the moment that you can use to deliver customized consumer experiences while people are in the ballpark.
Those properties going touchless and cashless and forcing the use of mobile wallets are getting real-time data about your customers, but how you use that for the benefit of the property is where the gap is. The organizations doing it well are few and far between. Most have data and think they have checked the proverbial box, but they haven’t aggregated and maximized that data to drive incremental value to their business.
We have historically over-indexed on partner satisfaction and if we can crack the code on the ability to share that data with partners it will only increase that positive feeling that sponsors have about us today. We are well underway to creating a plan and a strategy to help do some of that.