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  • Will Eidam

Changing Roles in Sponsorship: A Recap of the 2017 National Sports Forum


Last week, the 22nd annual National Sports Forum (“NSF”) took place at the Minneapolis Convention Center, where sports business professionals spent three days networking, and idea sharing. A majority of 600+ attendees came from sports properties in the MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, and NHL, and work in corporate partnerships, marketing, or ticket sales.

While NSF has positioned itself as a premier conference for networking – Budweiser is the longest-tenured sponsor, a partnership which aptly personifies the jovial conference – there’s always a handful of quality panel sessions led by thought leaders in sponsorship, marketing, ticket sales, and senior management.

From the four sponsorship-focused panel sessions, I came up with four big takeaways:

THINK OUTSIDE THE PITCH DECK

After Delta recently committed nearly $2 billion to modernize terminals at LAX, the airline company – no stranger to sports sponsorship -- was looking for something more than standard physical assets when they contemplated a partnership with MLS’s expansion franchise, Los Angeles Football Club. “They were (mostly) concerned with tying themselves to the community,” said Corey Breton (EVP of Sales, LAFC).

That meant it wouldn’t be enough for LAFC to create a traditional pitch deck with simulated images of what Delta’s logo would look like at the Banc of California Stadium. Not only had Delta seen hundreds of decks throughout the years, but also they needed to be sold on LAFC’s emotion, passion, and sense of community. Luckily, Breton was prepared because he had a creative director on staff, a position he recommended as an important investment for any sports franchise.

Hiring film industry veteran Marcus McDougald as LAFC’s creative director in 2015 gave the club an innovative ability to showcase the sense of community and civic pride of LAFC’s supporters when Delta needed to be sold. “His ability to help us tell our story has transformed the way we present our decks,” said Breton.

We didn’t get to see what videos or imagery McDougald used to sell Delta, but if LAFC’s partnership announcement video (below) is any indication, I can see why it was so easy for Delta to say “yes.”

Okay, this is pretty good.

360˚ COLLABORATION FOR ACTIVATIONS

In December 2015, the New York Mets announced Coca-Cola would replace longtime partner Pepsi as their official soft drink provider. Signage around Citi-Field would obviously be swapped out, but both Coca-Cola and the Mets partnership team had more changes in mind. Dori Silverman (Director of Regional Marketing, Coca-Cola), and Kelly Higgins (Senior Manager of Partnership Activation, New York Mets), discussed how buy-in from multiple departments within the Mets organization made a handful of Coca-Cola's sponsorship requests possible.

When Pepsi was their partner, the Mets designated the area behind the right field bleachers as Pepsi Porch, a standing-only section with a handful of generic cocktail tables. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, had a desire for more experiential activations and wanted to add branded lounge sofas and fun games (like "Cornhole"), making “Coca-Cola Corner” a party destination at the ballpark.

Silverman pointed out that some organizations have an account manager be the only point of contact for Coca-Cola. Sometimes that makes changes difficult to implement because the account manager is forced to sell co-workers on their partner's vision. The Mets, on the other hand, "put a face to the brand" by introducing Silverman to the PR, venue services, and ballpark ops teams. “(As a result,) we really had great touch points, and everybody in the organization was really engaged with bringing our partnership to life,” said Silverman.

Explaining her reasoning for introducing Silverman to various departments, Higgins explained, “We wanted to make sure (every employee) understood why this partnership was important to Coca-Cola.”

An unintended benefit also arose from connecting Silverman to various departments: It helped Coca-Cola understand what was important to the Mets. “Not only were we building a plan that was good for our business,” said Silverman, “but also supported objectives that the Mets had.”

So when Coca-Cola would request a hot dog cart be moved (to make room for a lounge area), no one within the Mets organization questioned the decision. They all believed Silverman was making the request with everyone’s best interest in mind. That kind of collaboration and mentality makes for an incredibly fruitful partnership.

PROPERTIES AS IDEA GENERATORS & CONTENT CREATORS

Nick Kelly (Senior Director of Experiential Marketing, Budweiser) explained his company’s partnership philosophy very simply: “We spend $250 million a year, I’ve got four people (in my department), and we’ve got 80 teams…we need our teams to be an extension of our team.”

In other words, “Come to us with ideas, because we can't do it all on our own.”

Last year at NSF, Kelly presented the new approach Budweiser would take in sports sponsorship: Less signage, more experiences. Because experiences are unique and can’t be replicated at every stadium like signage can, Budweiser found their sponsorship team stretched thin and didn’t have the bandwidth to come up with activation ideas for every property. This year, Kelly brought reps from the San Diego Padres to show what can happen when a proactive team takes it upon itself be idea generators and content creators for Budweiser.

Between the Padres and Budweiser, only one of them knew that there was an unused 600 sq ft janitor’s closet at Petco Park.

“(Using this room), how do we create one-of-a-kind VIP experiences that other fans can see?” asked Eddie Quinn (Director of Partnership Services, San Diego Padres). What could they do with this space that would make Budweiser happy?

What they came up with was Budweiser Access, the most exclusive party club in all of San Diego.

The Padres redesigned the closet into a fun, party area that only invited VIPs could get into. During a few games last year, the Padres sent cryptic invites to fans at the stadium, selecting invitees by using a mix of Beacon technology, a few Budweiser girls looking for fans drinking the King of Beers, and social media hashtag prompts.

Fans that tweeted #AccessBudSD were entered to win access

Budweiser Access was typically activated on nights that coincided with musical guests (like Snoop Dogg) in attendance. Though Budweiser Access was a small, private party, the Padres in-house production team captured plenty of footage, cut-up clips for social/digital highlights, and generated thousands more impressions by amplifying their event outside of the stadium to the masses.

"You never know what happens when you grab a Bud at the ballpark."

While most fans would see the activation and think, “Wow, what Budweiser did was so cool!” those at Petco and within Budweiser know that the entire production was conceived and implemented by the Padres staff. Without taking initiative to be content creators for Budweiser’s “team,” this activation would have never happened.

SERIOUSLY, PROPERTIES AS IDEA GENERATORS & CONTENT CREATORS!

To hammer this point home, another panel session at NSF highlighted what happens when a property presents a brand with not only assets, but also creative activation ideas.

Jack Link’s Beef Jerky, though relatively a new player in sport sponsorship, is already familiar with traditional sponsorship deals.

They've sponsored teams as well as individual athletes, with the later being placed in sports-centric commercials. Regardless of the promotion, their mascot, Sasquatch, is typically nearby. He was there when the Jack Link's partnered with the Minnesota Timberwolves & Lynx and he can be seen the the aforementioned commercials, "working out” with Clay Matthews and Odell Beckham Jr. (I’m particularly fond of the seeing Sasquatch and OBJ3 practice Salmon Swings.)

Still images of the "Working Out with Sasquatch" have been advertised in various places print/digital locations, so when ESPN the Magazine reached out to Jack Link’s with a partnership idea, Johnna Rossbach (Director of Marketing Integration, Jack Link’s Beef Jerky) probably assumed they were going to discuss buying a full page ad. As it turns out, they were...sort of.

Knowing how Jack Link’s loved quirky ideas and opportunities to get Sasquatch in front of an audience, ESPN offered a "modeling contract" for Sasquatch to appear in ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue,” which is typically reserved for, you know, real people.

Only a handful of companies could possibly be offered this opportunity -- Michelin, Mr. Clean, Pillsbury(?) -- but no mascot made more sense than Sasquatch. Johnna and her team gladly accepted the offer, and it wasn't long before 1972’s Burt Reynolds finally met his slightly-hairer doppleganger:

I feel like I didn't make this photo large enough

According to Johnna, this brilliant activation never would have happened if ESPN didn’t present the idea to her company. Only ESPN knew that they'd be comfortable with including an ad within the Body Issue, so they took it upon themselves to come up with a plan. They did their research, came up with a creative concept that would only have worked with Jack Link’s, and were rewarded with a deal.

As an added bonus, Jack Link's earned additional media impressions from outside publications like Huffington Post reporting on the spread, and a "behind-the-scenes" spoof was created to extend the life of the activation:

Capitalize on a great opportunity and create extra content

So NSF 2017 in a nutshell: If you’re a property, Be creative, be proactive, and be part of a team aside from your own!

(And drink Budweiser. They're a sponsor, after all.)


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