SBD/Issue 43/Sports Industrialists

Catching Up With Bears Sales & Marketing Exec Chris Hibbs

Hibbs Has Worked For Teams
In NBA, NHL And NFL
Bears Senior Dir of Sales & Marketing CHRIS HIBBS has seen the sports industry from several different vantage points in his career. After launching his career in sales with the Pistons, he moved to the Sunshine State in '99 where he held multiple positions with Palace Sports & Entertainment's NHL property, the Lightning. Hibbs later moved farther south, joining the Panthers and BankAtlantic Center as Senior VP/Corporate Partnerships & Building Operations, before switching leagues again in June '06 to return to his hometown of Chicago and join the Bears. Hibbs recently took time to chat with Staff Writer Erik Swanson about his winding career path and Chicago's reaction to the trade for QB JAY CUTLER.

Daily Must-Visit Web Sites
: It's a long list. SportsBusinessDaily.com, ChicagoTribune.com, ChicagoBears.com, ESPN1000.com, 670TheScore.com
Favorite Vacation Spot: Cabo -- it's so different from Chicago, not really that hard to get to, relaxed, great restaurants and warm weather. Also, Seattle is a great summer city.
Favorite Thing About Chicago: The people. The whole Midwestern values thing is kind of cliché, but it's accurate.
Cubs or White Sox: Cubbies big time. I grew up a Cubbies fan, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for the front office of the White Sox. They're some of the smartest people in our business.
Best Steakhouse in Chicago: I have to split it in two. For a high-style, trendy steak dinner, I'd go to Primehouse. But if you want a great piece of meat on a plate with nothing else, it's Gene & Georgetti.

Q: What is something our readers would be surprised to know about your typical day?

Hibbs: Well, I'm an early morning guy, but I'm not sure if that's really surprising. I try to get in by 6:00 every day. To me that's the time when you can actually get work done. In a busy environment, when you get to a certain hour of the morning, your phone starts ringing, you've got your co-workers around and you're in meetings and sometimes the day is over before you know it. So if you don't have some time to actually work and think and catch up and be proactive then you can't really move things forward, so I use the morning time for that, when it's quiet.

Q: You've worked for teams in the NBA, NHL and NFL. Have you noticed any differences in the way teams in each league operate on the sales and marketing level?

Hibbs: There are a whole bunch of differences. You know, as much as I enjoyed my experiences in basketball and hockey, I think it rings true that the NFL is where it's at, for a whole bunch of reasons. I think it's the most successful of the major sports in our country -- most metrics I think say that -- and I think part of that is simply the number of games. The big event nature of our sport is what drives it. Every single Sunday is a big deal. It draws the attention of everybody in your market -- waking up on a Sunday morning in Chicago, you can sense that there's something big going on.

As far as the nitty gritty of how you sell a market, I apply the exact same principles selling football in Chicago as I did selling hockey in Florida or basketball in Detroit. There are very different sports and very different markets in all three of those situations, but I certainly apply the same principles. Fan engagement has to be first, and if that's number 1, revenue growth has got to be 1A.

Q: Any possibility of completing the career grand slam with a future move to MLB?

Hibbs: There are some great things about Major League Baseball, obviously, and for me nothing beats sitting in the bleachers or in a good seat at Wrigley on a sunny July afternoon. They've got some marketing advantages in some ways, there are some things about what baseball means to this country in the summer time that I don't think other sports can compete with. But you know, I don't think so. I love the NFL, I love everything about it. I love how the fans feel about it, I love the things I said earlier about the big event feeling that goes along with it and, quite frankly, from a business standpoint, it's the most sound. I think it would have to be a really special opportunity to ever think about baseball.

Cutler Jersey Among League
Leaders In Sales
Q: The trade for Jay Cutler has clearly resonated with Bears fans, as he has been among the league leaders in jersey sales since you acquired him in the offseason. How did the trade impact your sales efforts? 

Hibbs: In a ton of ways. Certainly you can measure the jersey piece of it, and that's something that was huge for us and for everybody that's selling NFL jerseys, that was a big deal. It's hard to measure some of the other impact but we know it exists, just the buzz that existed. You had people on not just sports radio, but all mediums, sports and non-sports, were just abuzz with the fact that the NFL's charter franchise really for the first time ever -- or the first time since the SID LUCKMAN era if you want to go back that far -- had that kind of quarterback. It was amazing to have a city so engaged. We had lots of people tell us that there was more buzz than there was a few years prior, when we were going to Miami for the Super Bowl, which is hard to imagine. ... As I look at our corporate sponsorship business, it probably helped us open more doors, or really, from an economy standpoint, close more deals than usual at that time of year. Did anybody say, "Hey, I'm gonna do a big sponsorship with the Bears because you have Jay Cutler?" Not necessarily, but it certainly was easier to get things done and negotiate deals.

Q: Given the economy, is there anything you're doing for your sponsors today that you didn't last year in an effort to be more service-oriented or friendly?

Hibbs: We've really ramped up everything we do from a service standpoint. The number of staff we have, the different ways in which we communicate with them -- we've got customized sponsor newsletters -- we've opened up the communication channels. We've put more time and resources into entertainment, into things like trips, we're really spending as much time or more time on the service side of the business than on the sales side of the business. The reality is there was a time when sales was always the focus and then you went back and serviced it the best you could, and we've really shifted that. The philosophy of our sponsor business is built on a smaller number of business partners that are more heavily invested and receive a lion's share of the value and the assets that we have.

We also have a sponsor summit that we started three years ago that has become a core off-season event for us. It's an all-day event that we really developed because we just felt like we needed to be doing something to show these business partners how they can best activate. … That's probably the most tangible thing that we do now that wasn't done just a few years ago.

Q: Chicago's bid to host the '16 Olympics wasn't exactly universally supported in the city. In your view, what are the best and worst parts of Chicago losing the race to host the Games?

Hibbs: I'm not sure there is a best part. We were big fans of it, big supporters of it. I had a ton of reporters and people ask me, "Is this going to impact your ability to sell sponsorship, sell premium seating because of the money that's going to get sucked out of the market?" And my answer was always, "I don't think so." I never felt that. The 2016 group generated a ton of money already, and not one time did I have a company say, "We can't consider something with the Bears because we're so invested in 2016." We felt like that investment by a company was not a sports marketing investment, that was something far bigger, that was a stake in the community. So we never ran up against that.

Q: What sports business issues are you currently following?

Hibbs: Labor issues. I think that's something that I think every league is facing somewhere in their timeline. Everybody has their eye at least somewhat on what's going on between the league, or the owners, and the players' union. So that's something we're always focused on. I think maybe the bigger piece of that, as I think about our fans, is as the player costs escalate in pro sports around the world, what's the breaking point with the fans? When the player costs rise, at some point in time ... it's got to be passed on to the customer, at least part of it. So what's the breaking point? At what point can your diehard Bears fan not afford to come with his buddies or can a family not afford to come? That's a concerning thing for every sports marketer.

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