SBD/Issue 238/NFL Season Preview

Catching Up With Qwest's Rich Karlis

Qwest Communications'
Rich Karlis
You may remember Qwest Communications Dir of Corporate Sponsorships & Events Rich Karlis as the last full-time barefoot kicker in the NFL, or as the man who kicked the game-winning field goal in the '87 AFC Championship Game. But after nine years in the NFL, seven with the Broncos, Karlis hung up his cleats--or cleat--for a career in sports marketing. He held positions with SheerSports and the minor league soccer Colorado Foxes before joining Qwest as Community Relations Dir in ’02. Karlis has served at his present position since ’03 and has helped build a sponsorship portfolio that stretches across Qwest's 14-state residential service footprint and ranges from naming rights to the Seahawks’ home stadium to official sponsorship of the National Western Stock Show. He took a few moments to discuss his past and present career with Staff Writer Preston Bounds.

Q: What is the toughest stadium in the NFL to kick in?

Karlis: I would have to go with Giants Stadium. Buffalo is tough, but I always had success there despite how bad it was. I swear that [Giants Stadium] crew opens those doors up at one end, depending on who’s kicking.

Q: You’re famed as the last full-time barefoot kicker in the NFL. Will we ever see the return of barefoot kicking, or is it gone forever?

Karlis: I think there’s always a chance it might come back. I saw [Rams K Jeff Wilkins] at a game here, and he said, “I’m doing a tribute to you today.” Then he said, “Well, not quite,” because he had some kind of wrap on his foot. A guy named Paul McFadden worked with Wilkins at Youngstown State. Wilkins tinkered with it a little bit, but he never really stuck with it.

Q: So he was doing it as an homage, like Doug Flutie with the drop-kick a couple years back?

Karlis: No, I think he was probably struggling with his kicking at the time and got desperate.

Q: You have your own instructional video, “The Kicking Game.” What was the most enjoyable aspect of that project?

Karlis: How did you know about that? That was probably the most expensive kicking video ever produced, and the ROI on it has been grossly negative. I think a buddy of mine talked me into doing it in ’85. It was really the right idea, there just wasn’t a distribution channel for it. My boss is dying to get her hands on that. Other than the fashion being outdated on it, [the most fun part] was the people I did it with. I had a buddy of mine do the writing, who I’d done some radio with here in Denver, and he was just a crack-up. The hardest part was how many kicks I actually kicked on a very hot day at the University of Colorado. As far as the fundamentals, though, it was pretty well done.

Q: Your first title at Qwest was Community Relations Dir. Around the industry, what do you want to see more of when it comes to corporate involvement in community service?

Karlis: The thing I like about Qwest is we have a real passion about being involved in our community, whether it’s sitting on a non-profit board, if it’s volunteering, if it’s our matching time program, which recognizes an employee if they donate 60 hours of time over six months [by writing] a check for $500 to that non-profit. There’s a real incentive to be involved, and there’s a culture here of being active in our communities. I guess I would like to see more companies model that.

Q: In November, Qwest walked away from its sponsorship deal with the Broncos. What was that like for you, having played for the team?

Karlis: I think I’m pretty good at removing myself as a fan or as a former player. I think it’s somewhat of an advantage because I understand the business in a different way. The Broncos brand is by far the strongest brand in this region, and it’s certainly one that we would like to have been able to have in our sponsorship portfolio. But we’ve developed the last four years a pretty disciplined approach to how we evaluate sponsorship. If all the pieces align, we do the deal. If they don’t, we shake hands and we’ll try it again next time.

Q: Qwest has sponsorships with the NLL Colorado Mammoth and Portland LumberJax. A lot of people say lacrosse is the next big thing. Are you one of those people?

Karlis: It’s very intriguing. The Mammoth have had incredible success here [at the Pepsi Center], if not selling it out, close to sell-outs since they’ve gotten here. Watching the development on the youth side of it here definitely created interest in us checking out the team in Portland, which is another hotbed for youth lacrosse. We’re always looking to make those connections. Portland was a little bit tough because there’s not a tremendous amount of teams out there, so when we were looking at different opportunities, the LumberJax seemed like a good place to invest.

Q: What are you looking at as the next hot property?

Karlis: We don’t really look nationally at things. We look at them more as a localized opportunity. In February, we announced our deal with USA Hockey, which we’re really excited about. It provides us with the opportunity to message specific to our 14-state region. They have a very current database, and hockey in the west is really starting to grow. So we have a real grassroots opportunity with USA Hockey, and also as the title sponsor of the women’s national team. Great athletes and great women. They get their degrees. They really love the game. They’re definitely not playing for the money. So they have a real passion for the game, and we think it maps really well to our 14-state region. And it allows us to show our support for women’s athletics. Men’s pro sports deliver the highest attendance, but we’re always looking for how to diversify our portfolio in a smart way.

Q: Wrap around question from New Era VP/Brand Communication John DeWaal: What makes a true sports hero?

Karlis: Someone that is humble, focused on the team success, and is always willing to put himself second; allows others to shine the light on him instead of shining the light on him or herself.

Q: Your wrap around question: What makes the ideal fan experience?

Karlis: What makes the ideal fan experience?


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