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Volume 20 No. 41


When David Beckham announced his retirement, I looked at my watch. It wasn’t to record the time of sports marketing’s latest JFK moment; I was just trying to squeeze in lunch before someone rang to ask me the Brand Beckham Question (BBQ).

You’ll be familiar with the BBQ. It comes in many guises, but in essence is the same the world over. Whenever “something happens,” from Mo Farah winning double gold to Tiger Woods hitting a fire hydrant, the BBQ and its many variants are never far behind.

In essence, when boiled down, the BBQ is very simple: What’s he worth?

That’s pretty much it. Can you put a dollar figure on a star’s reputation?

There are three basic rules to follow when responding.

1. The number must be divisible by 10. As in “Rory McIlroy is going to be worth $40 million next year.” If your answer is $37.4 million, you better have some facts to back it up.

2. There is no right or wrong answer. Newspapers (and the websites that copy them) report business in the same way they report sports: The BBQ is just a way of keeping score.

3. The number must reflect the direction of travel. For example:

• Tiger + Fire Hydrant = -$80 million.

• Rory + U.S. Open = +$20 million

In this vein, my answer to the BBQ is $56.46 million*. This puts him in the spread that ran in the days following his retirement, when the brand value of football’s greatest-ever pitchman fell between $40 million to $100 million, depending on your choice of media outlet.

Who knows? Who cares?

But there’s something else lurking in the BBQ that is worth pursuing.

A list of the most successful brand ambassadors of the past 10 years might include Tiger Woods, Beckham and Kate Moss. Each has a global reach, and each is at his or her best when seen and not heard.

The best description of this process of projection came from Rob Walker, who wrote the “Consumed” column in The New York Times. Walker cites the success of the Hello Kitty dolls, a global sales phenomenon, to illustrate what makes the perfect brand ambassador.

Hello Kitty’s face has no mouth and so has no expression. She comes with no story of her own, only that projected on to her by her fans. She stands for nothing, and when you stand for nothing, you can stand for anything.

Brands love Beckham because he has a seemingly unlimited capacity to carry brand messages, be they from Adidas, MLS, Pepsi or the Chinese Football Association, for whom he became an ambassador earlier this year. He is the archetype “vanilla” athlete, to use former NBA player John Amaechi’s phrase, and has come to define the relationship between fame and sport.

David Beckham is a popular spokesman for sports and entertainment brands.
It makes business sense, Amaechi told me: “If you have strong convictions about child poverty, the question of where your shoes are made instantly becomes a factor.”

I should make it clear, I don’t have a problem with David Beckham the person. He seems a genuinely decent bloke who does a great deal of charity work and is committed to building his foundation. It’s his legacy that concerns me. He has become the MBA case study of sports celebrity, pored over by wannabe PR reps and agents. The received wisdom from the Beckham era is that the corporate money goes to the bland ambassador, the spokesman who dares not speak.

This is such a waste of fame.

In the same week that Beckham retired, Angelina Jolie showed how powerful celebrity can be. She wasn’t hawking product or flogging endorsements. Jolie wrote a deeply personal essay in The New York Times on the reasons for choosing to undergo
a voluntary double mastectomy.

“I chose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer,” she wrote. “It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know they have strong options.”

If you have any doubt about how big a risk it is for a famous actress to draw attention to her breasts, go rewind this year’s Oscar ceremony to the bit when host Seth MacFarlane sang “We Saw Your Boobs,” thus reducing some of the greatest acting talent in Hollywood to a body part.

Jolie has refused to play the game. This is what celebrity can do: It can change the way we see the world.
By comparison, sports’ famous people — with some notable exceptions — stand for consumerism. They use their fame to flog us with stuff.

The Los Angeles Times carried a poignant reminder of what happens to even the greatest athlete brands. “By the time Joe DiMaggio had become a stooped, gray-haired man, more people knew him as Mr. Coffee, spokesman for a home coffeemaker, than as the Yankee Clipper, one of the most graceful center fielders in baseball history.”

That might be one of saddest sentences I’ve ever read.
*I don’t know the answer to the BBQ.

Richard Gillis writes for The Wall Street Journal in London and his Unofficial Partner blog. Follow him on Twitter @RichardGillis1.

The past six months was a whirlwind for me. The best thing about this time was what I learned and observed from the people with whom I interacted. I offer these thoughts for your development and, with hope, your application.

Focus groups

Never underestimate the passion people have for your brand and their interest in everything you do on and off the field. I recently completed some work for the Pittsburgh Pirates and was amazed at the power of the brand and love for that brand despite 20 consecutive losing seasons.

It was a beautiful thing to see how the power of being asked for your opinion affected fans and the sense of responsibility they accepted to speak on issues that ultimately affect all fans. Each of the six sessions I conducted exceeded the typical 12-person group, yet the process worked smoothly and was characterized by a high degree of respect for the thoughts and opinions of other participants.

I have also been conducting focus groups for the Tampa Bay Lightning and came away very impressed with the gratitude that the fans showed with regard to being asked their opinions. The groups in both markets showed great willingness to come back for follow-up discussions to help us refine our thoughts prior to a final decision and implementation. I have always been a huge believer in the value of qualitative research as a complement to quantitative research, and I enjoy the lessons from the focus groups as well as the numerous ideas and suggestions I usually receive by email shortly thereafter.

Owner perception

I continue to be shocked by the number of owners who fail to realize that how the community perceives them has a direct correlation to the support they receive from that community. I have been fortunate to work with some exceptional owners in my consulting practice and my academic life, but perhaps none having more impact on their community than Jeff Vinik of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Vinik’s approach and that of the Lightning far exceeds the typical community relations role — it is a community investment role.

Jeff Vinik’s involvement in the Tampa community has touched many Lightning fans.

Vinik and his senior leadership team identify community heroes in the Tampa area, and each hero is honored at a Lightning home game and given a $50,000 grant that the hero can designate to be given to one or more nonprofit agencies and organizations to assist them in their mission.

What impressed me about this was twofold: Vinik did it for every scheduled game during the 2012-13 season, even those lost to the NHL lockout; and the citizens of the Tampa area were aware of this generosity, appreciated it and supported Vinik and his Lightning team by selling out 21 of 24 games played by a team that did not make the playoffs. I was most moved when, at the conclusion of a focus group I was conducting, one of the participants asked if he could make a statement on camera.

The gentleman went to the camera and thanked Vinik for his support of the community and pledged his support of the Lightning and whatever else Vinik might choose to do in the future. I was further moved when several other participants having observed this, did the same thing. Community investment and owner presence pays dividends.

Sales keys

I had the great fortune of co-creating the 5 Star Sponsorship Academy with my friends and former colleagues from the NBA, Scott O’Neil and Chris Heck. The reception the concept received was overwhelming, but our panels consisting of million-dollar sellers and million-dollar buyers reaffirmed several lessons that sometimes get lost in the day-to-day attempts to make the big deal.

First, how well do we communicate with our partners after the deal has been consummated? Are we making sure that activation platforms are working? Do we provide value added? Do we ask if there are any special needs or visitors that need to be accommodated? Do we ask about their business and if there are ways we can support their initiatives that might not be taking place in our venue?

If the answer is no, then you should be thinking about another partner in that particular category as you are probably not as effective as other sports organizations dealing with that same corporate partner.

Another great learning point made by one of our corporate partner panelists was how to interpret silence. She provided her philosophy that if you don’t hear from me it doesn’t mean everything is fine, in fact, it may be the opposite. Meaning, I have decided that this is not only not working for me but I have decided that further interaction is not worth my time. If a number of my readers don’t drop this column immediately and reach for the phone to call a corporate partner, I am surprised and disappointed.

The million-dollar sellers reinforced a point that O’Neil made numerous times — the best salespeople are able to isolate the objection and identify the true impediment to making the sale. It is essential that once the seller hears the objection he/she is able to isolate that objection, probe, offer a solution to that objection, then attempt to close. If the real objection has been isolated and addressed, the close should take place. But if the real issue has not been addressed, it should surface at this point.

Emerging managers

I am thrilled to see the under-40 managerial talent in our industry. They are a new breed and share the following traits that are well-received by the people they manage and the people that manage them.

• Great communicators, up and down.

• Excellent recruiters. Can relate to the needs and concerns of young people entering the workforce.

• Intellectually curious. Information seekers who often have libraries and book discussions with their staff.

• Analytics-savvy. Very comfortable with data, using it for decision-making, and as a teaching tool for their sales team.

• Empathetic. Able to understand the importance of work-life balance and giving back.

One last observation: I am always gratified to meet people who enjoy reading this column. So, until we meet, thank you.

Bill Sutton ( is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.