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Volume 21 No. 2


The Super Bowl is the undisputed single-day champion of annual sports television ratings in North America. With a worldwide TV audience of more than 150 million and network advertising revenue approaching $4 million per 30-second spot, it’s an American event of unparalleled proportions.

But what if we asked you to name North America’s top five? Would you guess the World Series? The NBA All-Star Game? The Indy 500? What about the NFL’s conference championship games?

While it’s not quite a clear-cut answer (based on teams involved, date or year), we’re comfortable framing an argument that one of the right answers is an annual football game staged north of the U.S. border by the Canadian Football League. We know that because in 2011, the CFL’s Grey Cup continued its decade-long rise as a Super Bowl-esque event that comes close to stopping a nation. To wit, this Cup (and not Lord Stanley’s) is widely known for drawing avid fans from across an entire country to a weeklong, citywide celebration.

With the CFL’s TV audience peaking, according to BBM Canada, at 14 million Canadians for the TSN (English) and RDS (French) broadcasts, and sponsorship support growing (reportedly up 16 percent for 2011), including investments from brands like Nissan, Molson Canada and Scotiabank, the Grey Cup’s performance is quite comparable to the NFL’s conference championship games. Even better, the Grey Cup’s total reach via TV was about 42 percent of Canada’s 34 million population, and penetration numbers like that suggest that the Cup in Canada is similar to the Super Bowl’s relevance in the U.S.

The three-day festival before the 2011 Grey Cup had a $118M economic impact on Vancouver.
“It’s not a particularly favorable economy right now, but the Argonauts have done quite well with our partnership revenue numbers,” said Dave Bedford, who is leading the sales and marketing for the Toronto Argonauts’ management of the 2012 Grey Cup Festival, the historic 100th. “As of Oct. 10, we had 41 sponsors, a multistation television and radio partnership, and two major daily newspaper partnerships. We’re ahead of plan in terms of cash, budget-relieving VIK [value-in-kind or contra sponsorship] and non-budget-relieving targets. We’re also significantly ahead of any previous Grey Cup Festivals … which really isn’t a surprise given the significance of the Grey Cup centennial and the fact it’s taking place in Canada’s biggest market.”

Bedford went on to describe the vast cityscape of celebrations happening around Toronto by noting, “What’s really interesting about these Grey Cup activations is that we have four specific zones of activity that are all demographically based or linked to specific target markets such as family, teens, partiers, football fans and others.”

Each zone carries the name of a sponsor — for example Nissan, MBNA, Telus and Scotiabank — and is located in downtown Toronto at familiar locations such as Yonge-Dundas Square, Nathan Phillips Square/City Hall and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. At the MBNA Adrenaline Zone for young adults, the Toronto Sun will even go so far as to present the world’s longest urban zip line.

Strangely, though, most American sports marketers rarely know when or where the Grey Cup is held and may not know if their brand should start thinking about the value of this event in order to leverage Canadian activation opportunities. Perhaps the CFL needs to up its marketing efforts south of the border in places like Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus and Syracuse, where football fans are many and sport marketers are among the most sophisticated in the world.

For starters, the Grey Cup is thought to have created about $118 million of economic impact in Vancouver for 2011’s three-day festival. That $100 million-plus would approach the NBA’s All-Star Game this past February in Orlando, which reportedly brought in about 50,000 out-of-town visitors, booked more than 25,000 room nights and attracted more than 1,000 media members (many of them from foreign countries).

Further, the Grey Cup gives Canadians something the NHL can’t: an eight-team league filled only with Canadian teams (not to mention a league that isn’t locked out). Given that the NHL has canceled all November games, this 100th Cup should attract an even larger audience and raises the question of whether NHL sponsors were looking for the right contingency alternatives a year ago.

So, in case you’re wondering: This year’s Cup will take place at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on Nov. 25, but the festival itself will cover nine days (beginning Saturday and running through game day), and CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon thinks this year could be a breakthrough year. Given the tribal relationship between fans and football, it should be.

“Nothing brings Canadians together quite like the Grey Cup,” Cohon said. “The festival revolves around the game, but the game has evolved into a celebration of our league, our country and the bond between them.”

That sounds like an executive who knows his regional/national brand now acts very much like a global property. What a shame that some American sports marketers don’t realize what’s happening less than 100 miles from their border.
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 University of Ottawa.

Executives in most industries struggle to consistently deliver exceptional customer experiences. Most products lack sufficient inspiration or differentiation to warrant presenting them as even remotely exceptional, and sophisticated customers have grown wary of companies trying to repackage and recast their goods as something more desirable.

But sports teams have unique relationships with their customers — their fans. Fans, by definition, are wildly devoted to a unique product on the playing field — their team. For many fans, an unobstructed view of the game meets their expectations for a fan experience. And some fans enjoy exceptional experiences: She catches a foul ball; he gets an autograph; they meet a celebrity sitting nearby. Such exceptional fan moments, which could potentially happen every game, typically happen randomly and unpredictably and become unforgettable moments for the few fans who experience them.

But what if a team could intentionally deliver exceptional, unforgettable fan experiences to everyone who came to watch every game? Wouldn’t the team create more fans? Greater buzz? Better attendance?

Think of it as creating a culture. Fans are devoted, passionate disciples of their teams, the objects of their obsession. Is it possible to enhance the total fan experience so that they leave more passionate than before they arrived?

If you are a team executive, consider the following:

Gather your own research.

Before, during and after the next game, gather first-hand data. Walk around the arena and observe what’s happening. How are fans greeted and engaged throughout their experience? Introduce yourself as a team executive and ask random fans to share their experiences with you; most will love the attention. Ask for specifics about what they hate, like and love, and what would make their day. Who engaged them and how? Ask what they don’t experience presently that would make their experience exceptional if they did. Then think: If you were a fan, what would make your fan experience exceptional?

Define exceptional fan experiences.

Carefully review your research. Brainstorm and narrow a list of items that would define an exceptional fan experience in your arena.

Imagine again that you’re a fan: Would these items, no matter how small, if delivered, serve up an exceptional fan experience for you? Determine what you need with respect to people, processes and physical plant modifications to ensure those items are met. Strategize to meet them.

Develop your fan experience mantra.

You need a mantra that will serve as a standard of exceptional fan care. For example:

“We are happy only when every fan is elated.”

“Nothing is more important than exceeding our fans’ expectations.”

“Have I created a fan today?”

You’ll know the mantra has power when every one of your fan-facing employees can recite it at the drop of a hat.

Get passionate fans in fan-facing roles and train and empower them.

All fan-facing employees of a team should be tasked with creating more passionate fans.
Consider your fan-facing people: ushers, ticket-takers, security, concession workers, suite hosts. Have they been tasked with creating more passionate fans? Who better to inspire fanaticism among your fan base than actual fans who actually work for your team? Fans relate to and help create fans. Imagine a fair-weather fan, ticket in hand, looking for his seat. An usher approaches and has some options. He could:

Point the fan in the direction of his seat and send him on his way (“Your seat is two sections over.”); or,

Politely greet the fan and escort him to the seat (“Here you are. Let me know if I can assist you.”); or,

Engage and educate the fan with team details that most average fans would not be privy to (“Here you are. To help you enjoy the game, let me familiarize you with our concessions. Are you a Yankees’ fan? Who’s your favorite? Yes, I love CC too. That guy is so friendly. When he walks in the park, he takes pictures with anyone. But don’t ask him on days he’s pitching!”)

To ensure a consistent level of fan care, your people need to be trained and empowered to anticipate fan needs and to deliver exceptional experiences. At a minimum, fan-facing employees should be trained in situational awareness, verbal and nonverbal interpersonal communication, and fan-centric behavior, so they think like fans and tailor experiences to thrill them.

Measure effectiveness.

Examine before and after fan-satisfaction data. Periodically observe and interact with fans to see what needs tweaking … and then tweak it. Keep your fan experience mantra in mind: Is every fan enjoying an exceptional experience when they come to a game? If not, why not?

Recognize those who deliver exceptional fan experiences.

If you’ve effectively defined an exceptional fan experience, hired and trained passionate fans for fan-facing roles, and empowered them to deliver exceptional fan experiences, prepare to witness eye-popping results. Be ready to recognize employees who exhibit exceptional behavior. Share emails you receive from fans. Give gift cards or hand-written notes to deserving employees. Celebrate the wins. There will be many.

Teams might wonder how to quantify the benefit of consistently creating exceptional fan experiences. Passionate fans routinely talk with friends and post on Twitter and Facebook about their teams. Fans experiencing exceptional fan moments will do the same, but their talk and social media posts will include raves about their exceptional fan experiences. New fans will come to hear what the buzz is about, and soon the experience of attending the game will become an indispensable part of being a fan of the team itself.

Create fans of the experience. Listen to them talk about It. Watch your fan base grow and intensify.

Sean O’Neil ( is CEO of One to One Leadership (, and author of “Bare Knuckle People Management.” Maureen Kelly ( is an international customer experience expert and consultant to the automotive industry.

As Lance Armstrong spent the past few years dodging accusations of doping, Livestrong, the foundation he started 15 years ago and chaired for the last five years, stood firm, kept raising money and continued about its business of helping cancer survivors. Even at Armstrong’s lowest moment — when he was ultimately stripped of his Tour de France titles — Livestrong saw donations surge.

Was it passion for Lance that inspired donors to open their wallets? I would argue that, for most people, it was passion for the cause. So many Livestrong supporters feel a deep commitment to its cancer-fighting mission and reputation for doing good work that they have jumped to the organization’s aid despite, or even because of, Armstrong’s woes.

Regardless of one’s opinions of Lance Armstrong, the man or the athlete, what’s clear is that he established a successful and meaningful foundation. Although he has stepped down as chairman, Livestrong still has plenty going for it: supporters and partners like Nike (which cut ties with Armstrong the athlete); a strong brand (with those ubiquitous yellow bracelets); countless success stories; and leadership strength, depth and continuity. Former board vice chairman Jeffery Garvey has become the chairman, while Doug Ulman will remain as president and CEO.

Mission and management

Livestrong is sustainable if its mission — to help cancer survivors — remains bigger than the individual who founded it.
There are lessons that other foundations and charities can take away from this example. Most important: The mission matters above all else, much more than any one individual. When the mission becomes bigger than the individual, the organization becomes sustainable.

This is particularly important in the fickle world of sports. When an athlete or team shines, donors for their cause line up at the door. But when the team stops winning, glory has faded or a reputation has been tarnished, what will inspire people to contribute? Why will they care?

I’m not suggesting that sports foundations downplay their affiliations with marquee athletes. A star’s name and a good cause are a potent mix, and sometimes doing good work can put an athlete on a better path. “Once you’re passionate about something,” says Reggie Smith, president of the NFL Players Association’s Former Players Chapter in Chicago, “you will protect it.”

Rather, foundations need to achieve equilibrium between their missions and high-profile missionaries. How to achieve such balance? It starts with good leadership. A common failure among sports foundations is to look first to family and friends to run the organization. This isn’t always a bad thing. Derek Jeter’s thriving Turn 2 Foundation to help kids has his sister as president and parents as two key board members. The Boomer Esiason Foundation employs his wife as co-chair and son, Gunnar, as a key spokesperson in the fight against cystic fibrosis. But these foundations also list proven, experienced professionals on their staffs and boards of directors. If they are to survive, other foundations will need to recruit a “deep bench” as well.

What do today’s sports foundation leaders look like? Among the essential areas of expertise are business and finance, change management, development/fundraising, governance, vision-setting, and even social media. These qualities can’t always be found in any one individual, whether a friend, family member or not, so today’s foundations and sports nonprofits need to find executives and board members who complement each other and provide the right leadership chemistry.

Lessons learned

When these elements are in place, the foundation can sustain itself and weather most storms. If, for example, the founder or figurehead abruptly steps down or faces a wave of negative publicity, the executives and board will be prepared. They can reassure employees, donors and the media that they are in charge, the organization is stable, the mission has not changed, and the cause is still worthwhile. For-profit organizations usually have done leadership succession planning that includes emergency plans for just such occurrences. Foundations should be no different.

As we see with Livestrong, the athlete doesn’t guarantee sustainability. To keep Livestrong thriving, Garvey and Ulman’s team will need to focus less on “Lance’s story” and more on success stories from thousands of others who have beaten cancer with the help of the foundation. Most importantly, they will need to stay focused on the mission and people’s faith in it. By doing so, Livestrong will live on. n

Gregory R. Santore ( is vice president of the sports leadership practice at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. A former corporate CEO, Santore works with foundations, universities and professional sports organizations to identify and recruit leaders.