SBJ/20090921/Opinion

Opportunities in sports business begin with communication

In the late 1970s, as a rookie seller in the relatively new sports division of the Katz Radio Group, I was challenged to identify new corporate prospects, track them down and then pitch them sponsorship packages. Working with alacrity, distilled by the blissfulness of inexperience and the fear of failure, I wasted no time reaching out to my first 15 targets.

Unable to immediately get through to any of the 15 advertisers, I left each of them polite and enthusiastic messages. I assumed that the imperative of common courtesy would produce returned calls a day or two later.

Three days went by and no one called back. It was a deflating baptism into sales.

Slowly, the cold-calling process hardened me and built character. I learned to get organized. Vinny Daraio, a veteran seller at the time, showed me that he logged every phone call in a notebook. I did the same and have 30 years of telephone diaries to show for it.

All a seller really wants is to communicate, to be heard. As such, the heap of unreturned calls and the mass of unanswered e-mails punish mercilessly. I often wish that executives would feel this pain; the despair of being abandoned and the agony of being ignored. Passion drives good sellers and salespeople take it hard. Like athletes not bothered by losing, sellers generally fail if the pain doesn’t eat them through and through.

Sadly, there’s little code of consideration among marketers about returning calls. Often, sports executives, too, don’t get back to their industry colleagues.

One might think that the explosion of technology in recent years would make communication easier. Today, there are so many ways and places to connect: landlines, cell phones, e-mails and texting. (And for those impervious to recent trends, the old-fashioned letter is still functional and cogent.)

But for sellers, technology also has its downfall. A simple shield, like caller ID, has become the sword. Marketers, executives and even assistants now choose the calls they answer.

Unreturned calls have gotten so bad that a Dick’s Sporting Goods executive recently told me there’s often a shocking pause of disbelief on the other end of the phone when one of the company’s marketing people returns a seller’s call. So kudos to companies like Dick’s, Enterprise Car Rental, Dell and others that generally get back to salespeople, if not immediately, certainly within a couple days.

Sellers should remember that Nextel’s title sponsorship
with NASCAR began with a cold call.

Why is it so hard to respond, particularly by a brief e-mail? It only takes a few seconds. During this complicated time while we as an industry battle the scourge of the Great Recession and when the sports sponsorship landscape faces an irrepressible economic headwind, communication is something in which we can all engage freely.

Think of sellers as problem-solvers, not nuisances. Salespeople generate helpful marketing ideas every day. Years ago, a client surprised me by insisting on picking up the tab at lunch. He proceeded to tell me that his investment pays dividends because salespeople provide invaluable information of all sorts.

Sellers, too, shouldn’t give up. If it takes five calls to get a target on the phone, many of them quit after four. Persist pleasantly and creatively.

When I was running the sports division at Westwood One, I was in Greensboro, N.C., one morning for a presentation to Jefferson Pilot (now Lincoln Financial). After an unproductive meeting, I drove dejectedly to the airport and noticed a salient marquee atop a downtown building. It read “Wrangler.” I kicked myself. How can I not know that Wrangler is headquartered in Greensboro? Had I known, I would have tried to set up an appointment.

I thought, “What the heck. Let me walk in on Wrangler cold.” But I didn’t have any of the marketing executives’ names and had no idea at all for whom to ask.

When I arrived at Wrangler the receptionist greeted me with a maddening look after I made a beseeching request of her to see the “head of marketing.” Nonetheless, she dutifully tried Mark Clift whose secretary said he wouldn’t see me without an appointment. I pleaded with the receptionist to try again. She grudgingly did and I was told that Clift would be down in a while.

Twenty minutes later, Clift strolled into the lobby and cordially explained that he doesn’t see anyone without an appointment but that he’ll give me 10 minutes on the front terrace of the building while he took a cigarette break. So there I was, on a rainy, bone-chilling day, giving Clift an abbreviated sales pitch on network radio play-by-play. He told me that Wrangler didn’t use radio but that he would review the opportunity with the people in his department and at the agency. Wrangler wound up buying a package and through the years it became one of the bedrock sponsors in the Westwood One stable.

When sellers I manage or train are dejected, I often remind them that two of the greatest naming-rights sales in the history of sports started with cold calls, Barclays’ commitment to the Nets’ new home in Brooklyn and the Nextel Cup with NASCAR.

America is still a land of opportunity but opportunity begins with communication. Let’s not make communication more difficult.

David J. Halberstam (halby@halbygroup.com) is principal of Halby Group Inc., consultants to the marketing, media and sports community, and author of “Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History” (McGraw-Hill, 1999).

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