SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40

Bob Cramer

His industry peers are torn: Is MasterCard's Bob Cramer to be envied? Or pitied?

Bob Cramer
“The key to Bob’s success is that he has never been impressed by the business [of sports]. His singular focus has been the brand. … He is not wowed by meeting an athlete, or by a ticket to a game. He’s never been a jock sniffer. Bob doesn’t care how many tickets you have, or whatever. He’s not impressed. … He has a good sense of having no wasted assets in a sponsorship agreement.”
— Woody Thompson, senior vice president,
consulting division, Octagon

“It’s his sports marketing background, but also his keen intellect. Look at how they’ve lined up these NFL teams. Bob saw an opportunity to build MasterCard’s business and brand through … alignment with these teams in key cities and key banking markets. He acted on it much quicker than his competitor did. … When he comes to the point [of decision], Bob doesn’t sit around.”
— John Tatum, partner/co-founder,
Genesco Sports Enterprises
At 35, Cramer is an inductee — with years to spare — of the SportsBusiness Journal Forty Under 40 Hall of Fame as a three-time honoree. On top of that, Cramer's marketing universe is girded by one of the most recognizable advertising campaigns in sports — MasterCard's "Priceless" by agency partner McCann-Erickson.

That's the good, and also the unsettling, news. Cramer now has to figure out how to keep the encores coming. But he is less worried about personal legacies than the constant drumbeat of demand to generate tangible outcomes through sponsorship. The stakes are considerable. For one, MasterCard's acclaimed 2002 "Memorable Moments" promotion with Major League Baseball was a $75 million investment.

It's enough to make even a thirtysomething perpetually leery.

"I keep harping on the value proposition," said Cramer, whose growing roster of relationships includes MasterCard's long-term deals with FIFA, Major League Baseball, the NHL, the Alamo Bowl and Universal Studios, among others. "We do a lot of great things for the leagues, and we have for quite a while. And I believe we've got to get credit for that. We are always getting more pressure to demonstrate return-on-investment, and so we'll ask the leagues for more, too."

To juggle it all, those who've worked around Cramer say he brings Type-A intensity to the table veiled in a congenial, even-keeled personality.

"He's got the Opie Taylor look," said Sam Kennedy, vice president of sales and corporate partnerships with the Boston Red Sox. "But he definitely knows what he's doing."

Except for occasional attention lapses owed to being a closet Cincinnati Reds fan, the former Ohio State soccer player immerses himself in perpetual analysis. If sponsorship is a metaphoric rubber band, Cramer wants to know how far, and wide, he can stretch it before needing to ratchet up his investment. For example, he intends to talk to people behind some of the properties MasterCard sponsors about holding upfront rights fees steady but adding "bonus" payments on the back end. He believes league or other partners should have incentives to work as hard as he and his colleagues inside the company's Purchase, N.Y., headquarters.

"You are seeing it come to a head in this day and age of property owners [leagues and events] under the gun to drive more revenues, and sponsors more challenged to make sure the same dollar is working hard enough for them," Cramer said.

He pressed for more identity campaigns in 17 major league markets, including Boston, New York, St. Louis and San Diego, and signed star endorsers to give the American game of baseball global reach for his brand. MasterCard signed deals with power hitter Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs to reach the Caribbean/Latin American fan base; and Chin-Feng Chen (Taiwan), a rising talent in the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system, and Byung-Hyun Kim (South Korea) of the Red Sox, to touch baseball's extensive following across Asia.

When he went day-to-day on NHL-specific strategies, Cramer adapted the brand to a "Bring the Cup Home" Stanley Cup promotion coordinated on a rushed time frame last season to target the four playoff semifinalist cities.

"Fortunately, we are in a position to go into a national [sponsorship] and drive it locally," Cramer said. "I see some things changing, and we are forcing some of the change."

In Boston, Cramer challenged the status quo when MasterCard expanded its "preferred card" signage presence, in place since 1998, into the sizzling secondary ticket market through which season-ticket holders can sell back their tickets to selected games throughout the season. "He doesn't close a deal and then go away until it's renewal time," Kennedy said.

MasterCard's NHL deal, renewed for five years in 2002, was re-energized when Cramer pushed to narrow its focus and involve another brand — Sears and its retail power — and the NHL's charity, Hockey Fights Cancer.

"Bob came in and quickly re-inserted himself into the relationship," said Andrew Judelson, NHL group vice president of corporate marketing, who first encountered Cramer during the 1994 FIFA World Cup when both had agency clients sponsoring soccer.

Using "Priceless" as part of a consumer promotion was a departure for MasterCard, Judelson said, but an effective means of driving fans to Sears and its inventory of NHL apparel. Fans paying with the card were entered into a sweepstakes toward a chance to spend part of a day "with the Stanley Cup."

"Our ability to roll this out with Sears was a testament to Bob being involved," Judelson said. "He always took into account the league's needs, Sears' needs and, ultimately, MasterCard probably got more out of it, too."

Cramer finally squeezed in a family vacation this year, perhaps just in time. MasterCard management has asked him to work on the brand's fledgling marketing alliance with Universal Studios, and he is tackling what he calls a "work in progress" to keep signing more NFL teams poised to do MasterCard preferred programs in a "decentralizing" category within pro football. MasterCard has new deals with 10 NFL teams already.

Pushing MLB to find creative ways to nurture younger fans is also a Cramer priority, and he is young enough himself to know that this is a major challenge for baseball.

"If kids aren't growing up watching, playing and consuming baseball, that is a problem," he said. "If fan bases deteriorate, we [sponsors] go away."

Steve Woodward is a writer in Illinois.

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