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Volume 21 No. 2
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Young sponsorship sellers learn new ways to ‘yes’ at 5 Star

Some people insist that great salesmen are born, not made. On a sultry June day at Citi Field in Queens, about 50 young sales types from companies ranging from ESPN and the New York Yankees to USA Swimming and the Western Unlimited bull-riding circuit have gathered because they believe the opposite. 

They, or their organizations, have paid $1,600 for them to attend the two-day 5 Star Sponsorship Academy. So they’re an engaged audience when a leader on the buy side of sponsorship is showing them how they can improve their skills.

Steve Pamon, who heads sports and entertainment at JPMorgan Chase, tells the young sellers that while the sponsorship proposals piling up in his office always include details on rights and pricing, “what I normally don’t see is a rationale of why I would buy it — what it would do to advance the cause of the bank, and talking points I could use to sell it internally. … Unfortunately, I’m looking for ways not to do your deal, because from an activation perspective, we don’t have enough scale to do the right things by all of our [current] partners.”

Bill Sutton, Scott O’Neil and Chris Heck, partners in 5 Star Sponsorship Academy
All photos by: TERRY LFTON / STAFF

Perhaps to the exclusion of all others, selling is a business of maxims. Everyone knows ABC (“Always Be Closing”) from “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Scott O’Neil, who launched the academy last year between jobs with MSG and his current job as Philadelphia 76ers/New Jersey Devils CEO, makes sure a litany of other sales mottos are indelibly stamped on the audience during the two-day forum. They come from partners Bill Sutton, who heads a consultancy and founded the University of South Florida’s graduate program in sports and entertainment business management, and the 76ers’ chief revenue officer, Chris Heck.

Among those maxims: 

Be a storyteller.

Don’t rush to answer; rush to listen.

Big ideas win.

The objective of your first [sales] meeting is getting a second meeting.

Differentiate yourself and your product.

Be able to talk to anyone — from the janitor to the CEO.

Don’t accept “no” from someone who can’t say “yes.”

Even those selling Girl Scout Cookies know salesmanship is about overcoming objections, so there’s role playing and solutions developed for countering the most routine ways clients say no. 

“Too expensive? Can I tell you about another company, which made the same objection, and how we increased its sales 10 percent?”

Sutton: “Without an analytics department, you will be totally lost.”

“The budget cycle’s over or in the distant future? Are there other budgets still available?”

“Somebody else needs to approve this? Let me help you sell this inside.”

“You’ve never spent that much money in sports? Let’s start small and grow.” 

That advice from Heck comes from testimonials that are drawn from clients that grew their businesses using that approach. 

It’s a process of “isolating,” or seeking the reason for the “no.” O’Neil counsels that the more you learn about why they say “no,” the closer you’ll be to a deal. 

“You’ve got to fish for objections, hunt for them,” he says.

The lessons seem to be having an impact. O’Neil later plays the role of a Yankees sponsor and rabid fan of the team being pitched by Preetam Sen, premium partnerships senior manager at the Barclays Center. 

“Derek Jeter handed my kid a signed bat,” O’Neil gushes. 

“The Yankees are a great brand with a great demo for 81 games,” answers Sen, “but we’ve got 200 events a year in a developing market [Brooklyn] that are going on when the Yankees aren’t in season. We just want you to come down and see the arena.”

(Think back to those mottos: The objective of your first meeting is getting a second meeting.)

Sen’s peers applaud the counter. Later, he calls the exchange with O’Neil “the best part of the whole experience.”

Heck offered counters to routine ways that clients say no.

Based on the stories they’ll tell later, it’s clear that other young sellers have taken their lessons home with them. They’re already figuring out how to make what they learned work in their own individual ways.

“We work in an industry that can provide unique and memorable experiences, and these ideas can all be easily implemented,” says Sean Moore, manager of business development for the Chicago Bulls, talking a few weeks after the academy. “A great example where we’ve seen success already is making presentations in the locker room.”

Stressing the value of team selling, Heck counsels the students to tag along on calls with their team’s best sellers — or at least to listen to their phone pitches. O’Neil recalls that MSG’s $500 million sponsorship deal with JPMorgan Chase included no fewer than 35 people.

Of course, there were plenty of less-successful pitches (both made and received) before that Chase/MSG deal. 

Among the war stories O’Neil relates is one about an early meeting in which he read a Sony sales executive vice president his entire 40-page pitch. The idea of presenting, rather than reading, is a concept that wasn’t impressed upon him until later (unfortunately for that Sony executive).

On another sales call, instead of going to EDS, a colleague drove to Ed’s Auto Body. And there they pitched Ed — as he was installing a new windshield.

Noting that the best sales leads come from their own industry networks, Sutton and the others encourage the group to share and socialize in between sessions, so the connections will endure in a business where there is usually no more than one degree of separation.

Sales leads can originate anywhere. During a panel discussion on prospecting, Premier Partnerships’ Uzma Rawn reveals that the initial lead that resulted in her selling a $40 million naming-rights deal for the Portland Trail Blazers arena came from a Portland Business Journal story about ODS Health rebranding to Moda Health. Subsequent research revealed that in its annual report, ODS used the word “trailblazer” five times. 

The sale was a 90-day slam-dunk.

Danielle Maged, Steve Pamon and Shawn Morrissey described whom to look for as buyers and what buyers look for in proposals.

Danielle Maged, StubHub’s former global head of business development and partnerships, tells the group to look for new money from “business disrupters,” like Uber and Airbnb. Rawn, and later Matt Soloff of the New York Mets, advise the audience to call top execs — even when pitching blind. 

“The C-level has to respond quickly, so even if you get knocked down, start at the top,” says Soloff, the Mets’ executive director of corporate sales and partnerships. 

In a demonstration of conflicting realities, Pamon later advises the sellers to work through his agency, CAA Sports.

As the two-day event nears its conclusion, having shifted to the Prudential Center in Newark, participants ask where the business is headed. Sutton answers quickly. “Without an analytics department, you will be totally lost,” he says.

Heck sees fundamental changes coming. 

“Everything is going to be database marketing,” he tells the group. “The collection of data [we have on our fans] is what we’re going to be selling in five or 10 years. It’s not going to be about TV eyeballs as much as who those eyeballs belong to, how much money they make and where they live. That’s where the business is going, and we have to prepare.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at