Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 2


Look, up in the sky. It’s an advertising campaign! It’s a marketing plan! It’s a branding program!

You shouldn’t have to be Superman to define what these terms really mean when sports teams are using them to sell their products and services to an increasingly crowded and complicated marketplace.

By using a simple litmus test a team can see if its organization has a unified business communication program. The head of business operations should call a meeting with the directors of marketing, promotion, ticketing, stadium operations, new media, public relations, website, sales, premium seating, community relations and broadcasting. If the team has an ad agency, its representatives should sit in. They should bring every item used to communicate with their fans, sponsors, media partners, league headquarters, staff and ownership.

Lay out the following pieces:

1. Brochures, magazines, programs, brand guides

2. Websites, social media sites, staff email address signatures

3. Stadium information guide, photos of all signage, tickets

4. Sales documents, sponsorship materials

5. Team stationery, merchandise

6. Logos, slogans for all departments and programs of the franchise, community, kids club, alumni, boosters

7. HR documents, booklets

8. All advertising vehicles including print, broadcast, outdoor signage

How unified is the message? In many instances, the team will be surprised and confused at the significant differentiation in messaging, look, tone, logos, fonts, slogans and direction. There was a team in a market that I worked in that had four different ad campaigns created by the team, its TV and radio flagships and its naming rights partner. That’s a recipe for disaster. Every team should have a least one senior executive who owns the team’s look.

A lack of brand unity is a telltale sign that a franchise is “speaking in tongues.” Teams living in the Tower of Babel are going to have a difficult time selling anything. If the organization is disjointed in its messaging, what are consumers going to think? Every team should have a written communication game plan just as the coach has for his players. It’s worthwhile to do focus groups during the season to make sure the messaging is consistently resonating with fans.

It may be worth the time to go back to basics and have all the message makers understand what the team is trying to accomplish by understanding some basic definitions.

Advertising: Calling attention to one’s product, service, or need by paid announcements through all forms of media.

Marketing: All activities involved in the transfer of goods from seller/producer to consumer, including advertising, selling and promotion.

The Steelers’ messaging is consistently about team, city, winning and quality ownership.

Selling: Goods or services offered to another in exchange for money.

Branding: Kind, grade, make, stamp or trademark of your product. For example, “Best basketball team in the world.”

There is great confusion between product marketing and brand marketing. A brand is a story, a narrative, a relationship with fans and sponsors. It isn’t enough for a team to slap a logo and snappy slogan on a campaign and think it is on the right path.

Some sports organizations are afflicted with messaging ADD — Advertising Deficit Disorder. Teams change their advertising and branding messages as often as their uniforms. For example: year one, it’s about the team; year two, it’s about a star player; year three, it’s about trying to win a championship; year four, it’s about the new coach; year five, it’s about legacy or a special anniversary; year six, it’s back to year one. While it is important to take advantage of changing market conditions, don’t just change for effect.

The teams that “get it” have consistent messaging that stands the test of time. The Steelers and the Packers exemplify the best of the NFL in branding. They don’t mess around with cuteness. It’s all about team, city, winning and quality ownership. The Detroit Pistons’ “Going to Work” branding platform a few years ago was an NBA best practice, along with the consistent brand quality shown year after year by the Miami Heat. The Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox have kept their eye on the brand for decades. These teams have built some of the most bullet-proof business platforms in sports franchise history. They have combined their iconic ballparks, legendary players and fanatical fan bases to tell their stories. All you have to do is see their logos and you know what they stand for. When you think about the Detroit Red Wings, you know it’s all about being Hockeytown USA.

Sports TV is now routinely sponsored by brands gaining exposure at the beginning and end of commercial breaks. The battle to maintain exposure in a multiplatform world is causing advertising and media rights to overlap and converge, causing old distinctions to blur. If a team is stuck in the world of multiple messaging, how will it give sponsors the accountability, measurability and transparency of return that they are looking for?

As the keeper of a team’s brand is it is essential to vigilantly protect continuity, coherence and compatibility. It will lead to the holy grail of profitability.

Andy Dolich ( has more than four decades of experience in the professional sports industry, including executive positions in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.

The old adage “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail” is as true as ever. When we are asked by prospective clients to review their ticket sales plan, what we invariably receive is a budget. As you might expect, these budget plans lack ticket marketing or sales DNA that integrates all sports business functions uniting them on driving “butts in seats.” Instead the sport properties’ marketing, ticket sales, corporate sponsor partnerships, development and community relations functions generally operate in silos with limited regard to driving attendance.

The lack of integration extends to our corporate sponsor partners. Their comprehensive marketing and sales activation plans revolve around driving their own sales but exclude any traffic-building efforts for the sports property itself. Marketing partner support in ticket sales has to be an equal priority, given that sponsor ROO and ROI achievement is so dependent on maximizing exposure and creating a better match with the partners’ own consumer demographics.

The Marketing Planning Process

One key to providing a sound foundation to the ticket marketing and sales plan is for the most-senior executive to establish a rigorous annual marketing planning process involving extensive market intelligence based on input from all core stakeholders. Sports’ major stakeholders are: the fans (ticket, merchandise, and other service buyers and users); corporate marketing partners/sponsors; broadcast rights holders; TV watchers and radio broadcast listeners/website and blog site surfers; the media covering the property; and the relevant community organizations and leaders. Additional input from the properties’ own staff involved in selling, developing and executing all marketing/sales/partner and community programs is also essential to success.

Georgia Tech’s Fan Relationship Management Center talks to almost 100,000 people each year.
At Georgia Tech, our Fan Relationship Management Center staff talks to almost 100,000 Yellow Jacket fans, alumni and friends each year. The data collected on who buys and why, and who does not buy and why not, has massive value in crafting the plan.

A Ticket Marketing and Sales Plan

A six-point core marketing and sales plan is recommended that binds together all business functions and sponsor partner efforts in the same focus of filling all seats. What follows is an intelligent e-marketing/personal touch strategy that can be easily communicated, adopted and internalized by all functions.

Even when we are given a marketing and sales plan, the predominant focus is invariably on new-customer acquisition. Historical sales data clearly reveals that revenue growth in mature sports organizations is driven much more from incremental spending by existing fans/sponsors or partners rather than new sales. Consequently, the marketing plan needs to include three major strategies, listed below in order of priority, that are based on the “reach and frequency escalator philosophy.”

RETAIN (Keep ’em on): Keeping existing avid and highly involved stakeholders at the top of the frequency escalator as renewed season-ticket holders or premier or founding sponsors/partners is the primary job of all marketing and sales staff.

GROW (Move ’em up): Focusing on existing customers who are at the middle or lower end of the escalator, and adding extra tickets or inventory and/or up-selling them to a larger spend with the property, is the next most important marketing and sales activity.

ACQUIRE (Get ’em on): Acquiring new customers and getting them to sample and try the sports product is the third most important activity. The recommended approach to new customer acquisition is to use highly segmented and targeted direct marketing programs aimed at those prospects who are most likely to buy. Examples might be a program driving media fans (couch potatoes) to a website to buy tickets, or targeting youth participants in that same sport using social media-based promotions that resonate with them and their families, rather than relying predominantly on mass-media advertising campaigns.

The tactical execution needed for each of these three strategies must be equally simple yet rely on a sophisticated and seamless integration of technology, followed by a personal touch. Our approach is the 24-48-48 Intelligent Marketing Strategy, a five-day, rapid-response marketing discipline embracing the best of modern technology to obtain contact data, followed by data-mining, then a customized e-marketing message, and finally a relationship-building phone call.

24 — CAPTURE: Within 24 hours of a customer, guest or prospect touching the sports property (ticket buyer or user; TV viewer; website surfer; merchandise buyer; or premium seating product guest, etc.), sophisticated technology is used to capture fan and prospect contact data. The essential data is collected in a single CRM system where it is then cleaned and checked for duplication and run against privacy rules and do-not-contact lists.

48 — CONNECT: Within 48 hours of hitting the database, the new contact data is run through a series of mining filters and assigned an “interest/potential score” based on the well-established marketing model of RFM (recency, frequency and monetary value). The customer or prospect then receives a targeted and customized e-marketing message that is matched to their score and delivered via their preferred method (email/mobile/tweet/social media site/snail-mail, etc.)

48 — CLOSE: Within two days of delivery, regardless of whether the prospect responds to the message, the Fan Relationship Management Center staff initiates a sales or service call to build the relationship and attempts to close the sale, or produce an up-sell.

Any ticket marketing and sales plan that does not contain all six strategies and tactics, incorporating stakeholder and staff intelligence gathered during the marketing planning process, is almost certain to fail. This is true particularly in today’s frequently spammed-out world of millennials and aging boomers, who increasingly prefer to watch games on TV, particularly given the overcrowded sports and entertainment marketplace.

Bernie Mullin ( is chairman/CEO of the Aspire Group. He was formerly CEO of the Atlanta Hawks, Thrashers and Philips Arena, and before that was senior vice president of the NBA’s team marketing and business operations department.

In conjunction with the Formula One Race in Montreal in early July, we were invited to speak at the seventh annual Canadian Sponsorship Forum. The forum is, by most accounts, Canada’s top annual sponsorship conference, with three days of presentations, workshops, tremendous hospitality and a link to a spectacular major event. (In 2012, it will return to Montreal linked to the Just For Laughs comedy festival).

An annual staple of the forum is the Canadian Sponsorship Landscape Study, which surveys sponsors; properties of all types (professional, amateur and grassroots sports, causes, events, festivals and entertainment); and agencies for their views, spending patterns and opinions on sponsorship trends over the past year and their forecasting of said trends for future years. Although the data is specific to the Canadian market and designed for Canadian marketers, there are some important findings that are relevant to readers in the U.S. and around the world. In some markets, there are comparable studies (e.g., IEG Sponsorship Report in the U.S.).

Indeed, with more than 400 companies responding on more than 50 variables in 2011, the data produced for the fifth annual version of the study provide an important and relevant perspective for Canadian Sponsorship Forum attendees. There are four specific points we believe are worth sharing with a broader North American audience.

First, in the last five years, the study has shown a 40 percent growth in sponsorship spending. Importantly, this includes the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, when respondents of the third annual study (completed in early 2009) had expressed an expected 25 percent decline in spending. Although 2008 was a lower growth year than others (which have trended around 10 percent normally), sponsorship still grew modestly, despite marketing budgets overall decreasing. Said another way, the ability and effectiveness of sponsorship in cluttered environments was and continues to be clearly demonstrated in a period of constrained spending.

Canadian sports sponsorship has grown quickly; so has the need for activation and evaluation.
Second, although it is clear that sponsors and property organizations are more committed than ever when it comes to articulating evaluation and proof of sponsorship effectiveness, they are not putting their money where their mouth is. Less than 5 percent of sponsorships are evaluated, and only a fraction of those are structured evaluations with benchmarks for measurement set pre-sponsorship. The conundrum is that across all three stakeholder groups, sponsorship practitioners express an overwhelming desire for better evaluation, improved ROI assessments and proof. In the advertising world, that metric has always been as simple as stating CPM or a ratings guarantee. To wit, an ad either delivered against a targeted demographic or the programming reached the minimum number of households set by the broadcaster. In sponsorship, the formula is more complex. In either case, there has rarely been a conclusive or open discussion on whether the creative worked or whether customers changed their buying habits. Sponsorship requires a more custom approach. According to respondents, we have that ability but now must follow through and allocate budget to implement.

Third, there continues to be a problem with many companies not providing enough activation to support their initial sponsorship investment. This was perhaps the most controversial point in the study results because the sponsorship-to-activation spending ratio of 1 to 1, 2 to 1 or, on the low side, 0.5 to 1 was brought up. It was suggested that Canadian sponsors activate less than their American, Australian or British counterparts, but this was debated in some corners on the accuracy of the numbers used in creating these ratios (i.e., what is included in a rights fee differs from study to study, from respondent to respondent). That said, across large samples of data, one can assume these errors all cancel out, so we’re comfortable to say that Canadians are underactivating. Regardless, and most important as a take away, is the point that sponsors (and properties to some extent) need to activate more in Canada. As George Orwell might have suggested in his seminal work “Animal Farm,” it appears all sponsors are created equally, but some are more equal than others when it comes to activation.

Fourth, property servicing remains far below sponsor expectations on a variety of metrics. This is perhaps less surprising on second review but is clearly tied to the price-value challenge every sponsor faces. Also, putting data behind this point was very illustrative and had conference attendees’ eyes popping. In reality, property organizations are facing increases across the board in costs and are asking for ever-increasing dollars. Sponsors are paying those dollars and extracting their ounce (or gallon/liter) of blood from the property but still protesting that they are not serviced the way they expect. To that end, property organizations are slowly learning to assign more account representatives at a time when boards and CEOs are calling for layoffs and using the always handy expression that “We’ll just need to do more with less.” The reality is that sponsors have the right to push properties to provide more for less. Sponsors have the money, and there are always other properties in which to invest.

“The issue of maximizing and measuring sponsorship ROI is often too narrowly considered,” said Mark Harrison, president of sports marketing agency TrojanOne and founder of the Canadian Sponsorship Forum. “But it needs to be evaluated across all related marketing activities, including activation touch points pre-, during and post-event. The real issue, though, is not only having the data the study provides, but getting stakeholders to use it to their advantage to validate their proposals, servicing and/or activation plans. If they don’t, they’re going to fall behind the curve of an industry that’s only getting smarter.”

The final report of the Canadian Sponsorship Landscape Study was set to be released last Friday. It endeavors to dig deeper and provide guidelines for sponsors, properties and agencies per Harrison’s important recommendation.

Rick Burton ( is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly ( is an associate professor of sport business at the University of Ottawa and lead researcher on the Canadian Sponsorship Landscape Study.

Will it be one of the most significant deals of the year or will it fail to become a game changer?

For the UFC, last week’s deal with Fox represented perhaps its biggest step toward mainstream acceptance. For Fox, the deal delivers a young, rabid demo, live events and key programming for its cable channels.

Many dismissed the UFC for years, but one must credit the Fertittas and Dana White, who are now getting a rights fee other properties would envy. The social following of the sport also shouldn’t be overlooked: Watch the UFC trend on Facebook and Twitter, and pity the cable operator that doesn’t carry marquee UFC events.

The sport still has plenty of skeptics. Some are convinced it’s too violent to attract enough support from corporate America. Others feel the UFC has peaked. The Fox deal will likely be the clearest barometer. One would imagine that viewership will increase initially, given such a wider audience. But is it sustainable? Do people watch after the early curiosity? David Hill and company are betting yes.

Although Fox had in the past dismissed carrying MMA, for them, it’s not a bad gamble. The UFC’s best corporate fit was with Fox, but can any network take a property into the sport mainstream that has such high negatives? That will determine whether this deal is a game changer.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at