SBJ/Feb. 16-22, 2009/This Week's News

New firm, big picture for Ponturo

He’s been identified many times on these pages as the most powerful man in sports, so to hear Tony Ponturo reminisce on his many years at the helm of Anheuser-Busch’s sports marketing and media budgets is not insignificant. With InBev buying America’s largest corporate patron of sports, a changing of the guard was inevitable. Ponturo is the most evident symbol of that change when it comes to A-B and sports — and how those changes will play out is a rhetorical question being asked across the sports landscape.

For Ponturo, there are other questions. After 26 years with America’s biggest brewery, his name was so intertwined with his employer that August Busch III used to kid him that his actual name was Tonyponturoanheuserbusch. Now, he’s putting his own real name on the door as principal of Ponturo Management Group, a Rockefeller Center firm he loosely describes as offering consulting, management and investing in media, sports and entertainment.

“My golf game isn’t good enough to move to Florida and play full time, and I’m not interesting enough that my wife wants me around the house all day,” joked Ponturo, who has lived in Manhattan since 2007. While plans for the consultancy are still embryonic, Ponturo also has some interest in athlete management, “looking at [the athletes] as brands, and not just as paydays,” along with funding and producing sports content.

Ponturo received $16.8 million for his A-B shares as part of InBev’s $52 billion takeover. Lest you think those InBev millions affected him, the day before we met at an Upper East Side hotel bar he spent driving one of his cars from St. Louis to New York. He said he just felt like driving himself. As the crow flies, it’s about 875 miles, and Ponturo’s claim is that he never turned on the car radio. Considering that his career started as a media buyer when three networks were the standard, it’s easy to understand that Ponturo had a lot to think about.

Media buying has become mechanized and formulaic. Ponturo recalls the days when people mattered as much as gross rating points. Like so many — actually, nearly everybody — that worked with former A-B and later Coke marketer Chuck Fruit, Ponturo was profoundly affected by the former Coke CMO’s extraordinary ability to make any individual feel like the most important person in the room. “Chuck wasn’t always the smartest strategist or toughest negotiator in the room, but he was known for treating people well,” Ponturo said. “It’s all moving so fast now, a lot of the younger people in the business don’t appreciate that it’s not always the amount of dollars you get in any one particular deal, it’s the relationships. This is still a business that spends billions on a handshake. Hopefully, the lawyers and accountants won’t take all that away.”

As Ponturo sets off on a voyage across the media and marketing landscape he helped fashion over the past quarter century, as he makes the complex transition from buyer to seller, he does so after witnessing a run-up in the sports industry that will never be rivaled. The asking price for a 30-second Super Bowl spot has risen from $345,000 in 1982 to $3 million this year. Corporate suites were at headquarters, not sports venues, when Ponturo began plying his trade for A-B; and if you mentioned a PSL, people probably thought you were talking about a startup league. The recession has many people, including Ponturo, wondering how much is too much.

“In the sports economy, there’s just this push for more and more new revenue,” Ponturo said. “It’s ‘We need more, so you need to pay.’ What the consumer doesn’t always see is that without the advertiser, the whole thing crumbles. Hopefully, the whole thing doesn’t break like the banking system, but it seems like sort of the same thing. They’re going to just keep pushing and pushing and pushing and hope the sports economy doesn’t bust.”

Sports properties talk a lot about selling and packaging marketing solutions instead of rights deals, but when someone like Ponturo says that over his career “there were very few presentations ever where people came in and said ‘we did our homework and here’s an idea to match your latest strategy,” you begin to wonder if the sports economy has more than a little in common with some of the subprime lenders now mired in obscurity. Ameriquest Field RIP.

“If I could preach anything,’’ said Ponturo, “it would be that people in this industry should see the big picture.” In as sales-oriented a business as sports, that might be wishful thinking, but as Ponturo explained, for all of its perceived universality, breadth, and glamour, “sports is really a very small community at the end of the day.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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