SBJ/January 10 - 16, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Driving sales

Toyota parked one of its pickup trucks in the “Tundra Zone” suite area at Toyota Center in Houston, providing the automaker with a unique marketing tool.

There are more than 20,000 parking spaces at Reliant Park in Houston, but until 2002, when the Houston Texans brought the NFL back to the largest city in a football-obsessed state, tailgating wasn’t allowed at the 350-acre complex.

The Houston Oilers played 29 seasons at the Astrodome before leaving for Tennessee, but the “Luv Ya Blue” affair between the NFL team and its fans didn’t extend to the expansive lots surrounding the facility, which now includes Reliant Stadium.

The increased costs of managing the tailgating process could

Click image to enlarge
have been the primary reason for the ban on tailgating, and concessionaire Aramark may have balked at pregame food fests cutting into its per caps inside the dome, said Jamey Rootes, senior vice president with the Texans and the team’s chief marketing guru.

The Texans were eager to introduce a tradition in town that was already long established at other NFL stadiums. So the team successfully negotiated the tailgating issue with all of the concerned parties, including Aramark and Harris County, the owner of Reliant Stadium.

“As we started launching the franchise, we looked at a fresh start,” Rootes said. “Tailgating is a football-only phenomenon and we wanted to capitalize on that.”

San Antonio-based supermarket chain H-E-B, meanwhile, wanted to capitalize on the NFL brand and the community’s hunger to rejoin the ranks of pro football. H-E-B was making inroads into other areas of the state, as well as Houston. The grocer jumped on board with the Texans and signed a sponsorship deal that included scoreboard mentions inside Reliant Stadium.

But it was outside the facility where H-E-B struck gold in sponsoring the “Tailgater of the Game” award. The game-day promotion has become wildly popular among the Texans’ die-hards in the team’s first three seasons. The promotion’s success led to H-E-B developing its own private brand of beef brisket, a regional favorite and barbecue staple. H-E-B has created other products catering to the tailgating crowd that are prominently displayed in its stores.

H-E-B and the Texans hit the bull’s-eye on a target that sports marketers are zeroing in on more than ever — the “opportunity to connect with the experience that their customers are having and taking possession of that activity,” Rootes said.

The connection between corporation and consumer is what sponsors are striving for when making deals with sports venues. They’re brainstorming new and innovative ways with sports venues to activate their brands, whether it’s within the confines of the building or outside of the facilities.

More than a sign

Some sponsorship activations are novel in their approach, such as Petco’s “Pet Adoption Sunday” at Petco Park in San Diego. Others are amazingly simple in application, such as letting fans pour their beer at the Bud Deck at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

In some instances, sponsors transcend their deals to become a permanent destination within the facility. The industry can point to other sports venues in Texas to provide prime examples.

Jack Daniel’s, maker of sour mash whiskey, sponsors several Old No. 7 clubs in NBA arenas, including Toyota Center in Houston, which opened a branded bar and lounge for all ticket holders this season, and American Airlines Center in Dallas, where the phrase “Old No. 7” is etched into the concrete above one of the building’s street entrances.

“It’s not only a perfect platform for Jack Daniel’s to move product, but gives them a bar-like environment, and it’s become the single-most popular place to be on game night,” said Bryan Trubey, an architect with HKS in Dallas who designed the club at American Airlines Center. “The objectives were to penetrate a specific age group [singles, age 21-40] and facility integration. It’s not just a finished space in the building. The teams maximize the sponsorship with such a valuable location.”

Premier Partnerships, a sports marketing firm in Los Angeles, brokered a 13-year

Baylor Health Care will have a rehabilitation clinic at the new soccer complex for FC Dallas.
deal for Baylor Health Care to build a 6,000-square-foot injury rehabilitation center as part of Hunt Sports Group’s $65 million Major League Soccer complex for FC Dallas opening this spring in Frisco, Texas. The clinic is a separate building and will be open to the public six days a week, according to Randy Bernstein, president and CEO of Premier Partnerships.

“It’s an icon location and the idea for the consumer is if they can treat the pros, then it’s good enough for us,” Bernstein said.

American Airlines Center is a good example of a sports venue aggressively incorporating its sponsors within the facility. UPS has a customer service center on site and Mavericks fans can enter the arena through the store and get their tickets scanned. Dr Pepper has a bottling plant in a non-alcoholic area for families that details the brand’s origin.

American Airlines, Budweiser, Ford, Nextel and energy company TXU join UPS in sponsoring six lobbies that contain a history of their brand and an architectural element. American Airlines, for example, the arena’s title sponsor, has a double flying eagle, part of the airline’s logo, above its lobby, and the arena’s seat upholstery and section locators carry the same emblem.

“What sets these sponsors apart is they each have a real estate feature,” said Curtis Partain, American Airlines Center’s vice president of corporate sales. “People just don’t buy a sign anymore, they’re interested in something you can activate, whether it’s branding or moving product, to get a return on investment.”

A sports facility’s lounges, suite levels, atriums and entrances are ripe for title sponsorship, deals known as “sub-naming rights,” said Dick Sherwood, president of Front Row Marketing, a division of facility management firm Global Spectrum.

The deals are usually high six figures depending on the elements in the package, including television, Sherwood said. “The exclusivity is real important to them,” he said.

The Cadillac Club at renovated Soldier Field in Chicago, for example, spans 100,000 square feet and three premium levels, and the luxury automaker is the only advertiser in the private lounge/restaurant, said Dave Greeley, chief marketing officer for the Chicago Bears.

The club features 500 feet of fascia with black and white graphics of vintage Cadillac models intertwined with great moments in the team’s history. The thematic designs fit better with the Bears’ goal of creating “storytelling” themes with their sponsors, instead of going with traditional backlit signs that wouldn’t develop a lasting image and maximize the sponsor’s investment, Greeley said.

Sponsors are always on the lookout for the all-important return on investment, and “business opportunities remain critical to making [these] deals,” Sherwood said. The means of achieving that return may differ according to the sponsor’s needs and motives.

Power company TXU uses a hockey-themed game to teach consumers about energy use.
TXU, a regional Texas power company, has a display in the lobby of American Airlines Center that includes a hockey-themed game with a chart measuring in kilowatts the energy expended when fans take their turns executing a slapshot.

“They didn’t just want an interactive about the sport,” said Brian Donahue, senior project manager at Jack Rouse Associates, the firm that designed and created the TXU area. “They’re selling power, which is a hard thing for people to [understand].”

Pontiac/GMC, on the other hand, wasn’t so concerned with educating the public about its brand at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Donahue said. The automaker “just wanted to do something fun in a creative way,” which resulted in Rouse creating the “Big Hockey” game on the main concourse. It’s a takeoff on the old bubbleboy hockey game and as many as eight people can compete in the group activity. Pontiac/GMC brands are on the ice and dasherboards and on the steel figures’ jerseys.

Making a pitch

Other companies aim to inform consumers that their business extends beyond the products reflected in their company title, such as Lifehouse Pools & Spas in greater Cleveland. During the holidays in November and December, the firm sells Christmas trees and ornaments, said Kerry Bubolz, vice president of corporate sales and broadcasting for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

To promote the seasonal sideline, Lifehouse sponsored a concourse display of 14 holiday trees inside Gund Arena, each one customized after a Cavs player and decorated with trinkets signifying their specific interests, such as their favorite movie or musician. Lifehouse interviewed each player to authenticate the promotion and included autographed items on the trees. The trees were to be auctioned off online, with the proceeds forwarded to a local community college’s scholarship fund.

“The message is that Lifehouse is more than a pool and spa company,” Bubolz said.

The signal is loud and clear for the title sponsor of Philips Arena in Atlanta, where there is arguably no more natural fit for a corporate sponsor in a sports facility environment than Philips Electronics, a company that produces, among other items, scoreboard video screens and other high-tech electronics for live entertainment venues.

The “Philips Experience” at Philips Arena showcases the company’s latest electronics.
The 10,000-square-foot “Philips Experience” on the arena’s second floor drives that fact home with interactive games, product displays, 100 video monitors showing live games elsewhere and a 60-foot totem with five TVs on top of each other that can form one linear image or emit five separate images. Philips invested an undisclosed sum for the attraction above and beyond the $185 million the company paid for naming rights.

“When we went to Philips and heard they were interested in a sponsorship, we knew immediately the entitlement platform was a perfect fit to exploit their brand opportunities in a way a bank could not, because their audio and video products are used in the arena,” said Bob Williams, president of Philips Arena. “We really focused on them.”

All of the interactivities are free to play in the Philips Experience. Sales representatives are on site as well as computers to log on to the company’s Web site to answer questions and print out product information. Twice a year, the arena plays host to “Philips Night,” with additional sales staff on site and more product demonstrations. The displays and interactives are updated as the technology evolves.

“We hope the fans remember that they had such a pleasurable time at Philips Arena, that when they step into a Best Buy or Home Depot, they’ll make the decision to buy our products,” said Jim McFalls, vice president of the Philips Arena partnership for Philips Consumer Electronics Co.

The mission has been accomplished in the five years since Philips Arena opened its doors, he said.

“What we have found in the market is that the sell-through — the products that go out the door — is greater for us in Atlanta than any other market,” McFalls said. “The other thing we do here is leverage our sponsorship with a local retailer, Brands Mart USA, a consumer electronics chain that carries different brands. We have the best-selling flat-TV line in their stores.”

Oh, what exposure

Pontiac/GMC isn’t the only automaker to get creative in publicizing its brands within a sports facility setting. The “Tundra Zone” at Toyota Center in Houston, home of the Rockets, is part of the suite level in the arena’s upper bowl. A space spanning the size of two skyboxes contains Toyota’s high-end truck model and serves as a versatile marketing tool.

Various lighting techniques shine the Toyota logo throughout the building and the Tundra’s horns beep and headlights flash when the Rockets complete a spectacular play on the floor.

“It not only works from a visual and branding perspective, but we use it as a focal point for our game presentation,” said Tad Brown, the Rockets’ vice president of corporate development.

“It’s also used as a hospitality vehicle with Gulf States

Fans visiting Delta’s suite in Philips Arena can try out the airline’s first-class seating.
Toyota dealerships to entertain loyal customers and contest winners,” Brown said. “It provides a terrific platform when you combine the in-bowl exposure with the east concourse, which is an entire showroom for Toyota. There’s a consistent brand message.”

Volvo displays its vehicles inside Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, where the Devil Rays play. However, the Swedish automobile manufacturer went one step further last October by organizing a test drive in the parking lots outside the dome. The team’s season-ticket holders were among the people invited to the exclusive opportunity, and the Skip Barber Racing School had representatives driving a special course to demonstrate the attributes of a Volvo car.

“Volvo launched several new vehicles this year and wanted people to touch it, drive it, feel it,” said John Browne, the Rays’ vice president of marketing. “They felt this was a less threatening environment than going to a car dealership.”

Mercedes-Benz is well-known for its attributes and also for the prices paid to own a high-performance automobile. But in recent years, the German-based luxury car company has made its products more affordable and wants to inform the public about the market adjustment, said Bubolz, the Cleveland Cavaliers executive.

Mercedes-Benz is organizing a “mini auto show” with 15 to 20 cars and trucks displayed on the playing floor at Gund Arena during the NBA offseason in September, Bubolz said. It’s part of a festival-type atmosphere that will feature family activities. The Cavaliers’ season-ticket holders will be invited to attend.

“One of their biggest challenges is the perception that most people can’t afford their products,” Bubolz said. “In reality, they have a significant number of products that fit into more of the middle-upper income bracket, with vehicles that aren’t $50,000 to $60,000, but in the high 20s and low 30s. The bottom line is they challenged us with ‘How do we get that word out?’”

Part of the experience

Spreading the word about H-E-B was as simple as requiring every tailgating competitor at Reliant Stadium

Travel company Abercrombie & Kent sponsors a courtside club (bottom) at America West Arena, while the arena’s “Bud Light Paseo” provides indoor and outdoor gathering areas for fans.
to post a homemade sign with the supermarket’s name somewhere in their cooking space. A crew of judges walks the parking lots prior to home games and grades the contestants before selecting the winners. They receive H-E-B gift certificates and their names are announced during the game and posted on the stadium’s video board.

The nine finalists squared off Jan. 2 for the year-end championship near the Budweiser Plaza outside the stadium gates for the opportunity to win a deluxe grill set from Academy Sports and Outdoors, a local sporting goods store and the Texans’ official apparel supplier.

“By getting our customers involved with this activity, it was an easy deal for us,” said Paul Sabbattus, H-E-B’s director of marketing and advertising. “The tailgating part is a food-intense experience. It’s a lot more than throwing brats on a grill.”

Rootes concurred. “It’s amazing the creativity,” he said. “They get on the Internet for a tailgate chat and share the best recipes. It’s all about getting the fan to participate; they’re no longer just a spectator. Each year it gets better.”

Sabbattus said H-E-B is already at work on something new for next season.

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