SBJ/June 18-24, 2012/Franchises

Sponsors get piece of MLS rivalry

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Mike Golub, a former chief marketing officer with the New York Rangers and longtime NBA executive, has been witness to some of the most intense rivalries in pro sports. Now COO of the Portland Timbers, Golub believes the rivalry between his MLS club and the Seattle Sounders matches the best for its business and civic impact on the region.

“The passion is authentic,” Golub said recently. “The effect these two teams have on the area is immeasurable. When we play each other, the communities come alive and tickets are almost impossible to get.”

Portland’s passion for the Timbers is played out in spades when the team plays its Northwest rival the Seattle Sounders.
Photo by: STEEL BROOKS / PORTLAND TIMBERS
Such will be the case Sunday, when the Timbers host the Sounders in the clubs’ first meeting of the year. The Timbers, in their second MLS season, have sold out all of their home games and have a waiting list for season tickets after capping full-season sales at 14,750. The 22,000 seats at Jeld-Wen Field for the matches against Seattle are by far the season’s most in-demand. When the team hosted an on-sale event for its remaining tickets, a line of more than 5,000 fans wrapped around the stadium, with most of the interest for the Timbers’ pair of home matches with Seattle. (They also meet at Jeld-Wen Field on Sept. 15.)

Tickets for Sunday’s game, ranging in face value from $25 to $85, were fetching more than $200 last week on StubHub.
The hysteria demonstrates the importance of local rivalries. Sponsors have benefited, too. When Seattle-based Alaska Airlines last year announced its jersey sponsorship of the Timbers, the reaction was powerful.

“We actually got some hate mail,” said Joe Sprague, Alaska Airlines vice president of marketing. “People in Seattle couldn’t believe we were sponsoring a Portland team. But we knew it was one of the best decisions we’ve made. You sponsor a sports team to engage with the community. Xbox already had a deal for the Sounders’ jerseys that everyone was happy with. By being on the Timbers’ jerseys, we’re a part of this amazing rivalry.”

Alaska Airlines’ partnership, which is in the second season of a multiyear deal, is its biggest with a sports team. The brand is also the official airline of the Seattle Mariners and a Seattle Seahawks sponsor. With the Timbers, the airline has spots on regional television broadcasts plus in-stadium signage and field-level digital signage.

In a tale of well-executed activation, that field-level signage helped the airline earn approval for service from Seattle to Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport.

“When you apply for service to a particular city, the Department of Transportation takes community support under serious consideration,” Sprague said. “Using our digital signage [and a designated URL], we asked Timbers fans to appeal to the DOT for service from Seattle to Reagan. We were able to track the response and found that a few thousand Timbers’ fans wrote to DOT on behalf of Alaska Airlines.”

The airline was approved for flights from Seattle to D.C.

“[Timbers owner] Merritt Paulson and the team have really delivered on their promises of activation,” Sprague said.

Alaska Airlines will not be alone in its activation on Sunday. Portland General Electric is the presenting sponsor of the game. Other plans unique to Sunday include Vitaminwater distributing samples of its product as fans exit the stadium, and Papa Murphy’s Pizza launching its Timbers-inspired Lumberjack pizza at area locations on Sunday, with promotion in-stadium and on the game’s radio broadcast.

The rivalry games bring other positive effects. During the week of Portland’s home game last season with Seattle, the Timbers’ website reported an increase in traffic of more than 50 percent. All three games between the clubs this season are being broadcast on national television: The games on Sunday and Oct. 7 are on ESPN, while the Sept. 15 match is on NBC.

“The Portland-Seattle rivalry is one that I’d measure against any rivalry and sporting event in the country,” said Brad Pursel, MLS vice president of club services. “Jeld-Wen Field is going to be electric with the Timbers Army in full splendor and a large number of fans traveling from Seattle. It is a really special environment there.”

Soon after Portland was awarded an MLS franchise in March 2009, executives from the Timbers, Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps — who also began MLS play in 2011 — began meeting regularly to discuss how the Pacific Northwest rivals could work together to grow their businesses. The league’s 75-mile marketing radius circle for clubs, with exceptions for New York-Philadelphia and the two Los Angeles teams, is not a hindrance, as Portland and Seattle are about 150 miles apart.

The teams estimate they have a dozen mutual sponsors.

“It’s a very positive environment,” Golub said. “We may be rivals on the pitch, but we discuss everything within reason. Only good has come from it.”

The rivalry is just as vital for Seattle. The Sounders leverage the Oct. 7 home match with Portland in their most popular ticketing plan with a friendly against Chelsea FC and MLS matches with the Los Angeles Galaxy and Vancouver. Amtrak, a team sponsor for three years, held a sweepstakes around Sunday’s game and received 2,711 entries, up slightly from last year’s contest. One winner received tickets, hotel accommodations and round trips on Amtrak Cascades, which runs from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver.

“Amtrak Cascades is a state-sponsored service, so the excitement this rivalry brings is important to us,” said Laura Kingman, marketing and communications manager of the Washington State Department of Transportation. “Our research shows that their fans are our customers.”

Said Sounders owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer, “It’s been great to watch our fans take ownership of the rivalry.”

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