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Volume 21 No. 13
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How Pac-12 scored Alibaba for China game

When the Pac-12 Networks set out to sell a presenting sponsorship to the first-ever college basketball game in China, the sales team assembled a long list of targets.

They included companies based in China, as well as U.S.-based companies that wanted to do more business in China.

Near the top of the hit list was Alibaba, the Chinese technology and e-commerce giant. But the staff struggled to make the right connections so they could make a sales pitch.

“We don’t speak the language, we don’t have the contacts, it’s like, ‘Where do you start?’” said Neil Davis, the Pac-12 Networks’ executive vice president of sales. “We just couldn’t connect.”

The technology and e-commerce giant sponsored the game between Texas and Washington.
Photo by: Pac-12
Then last fall, Davis was on a flight home and read a story in USA Today about Alibaba’s initial public offering, which at the time was the largest IPO in U.S. history. An Alibaba executive, Jim Wilkinson, was quoted in the story.

“That was our guy,” said Davis, a longtime Madison Square Garden sales executive who joined Pac-12 Networks two years ago and oversees sales for the TV networks, the conference championships and digital platforms.

Not only was Wilkinson, Alibaba’s senior vice president over international corporate affairs, based in the U.S., his office was in San Francisco, just blocks away from the Pac-12 Networks’ headquarters. Davis’ team eventually made contact with Wilkinson and closed the deal for a multiyear presenting sponsorship in May.

The game — a 77-71 Washington win over Texas — was played this month in Shanghai, drawing 7,188 fans to Mercedes-Benz Arena. Perhaps more significantly, it provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the athletes, who spent a day at the Alibaba campus in Hangzhou, about three hours from Shanghai.

At headquarters, Alibaba has a full-court basketball court, where the teams practiced. Afterward, the players and coaches toured the campus and visited with Alibaba executives, including executive chairman Jack Ma.

Alibaba’s multiyear deal is valued in the six figures annually. JPMorgan and Pepsi also bought sponsorships for the game that came with hospitality and promotional assets. Alibaba also picked up advertising time on ESPN, which broadcast the game.

Harvard and Stanford will square off in the Pac-12’s China game next November. “It’s something we definitely think we can take to the next level,” Davis said.

Davis said the China game capped off an eventful fall, with Pac-12 Networks selling new sponsorships to Adidas, Audi, 76, Vizio and Tire Pros. MillerCoors and TransAmerica both made significant media buys as well, Davis said.

Year-over-year percentage growth for sponsorship and media sales has reached into double digits, the conference said.

His sales team of 11 people sell both sponsorships and media for the conference’s national network and six regional networks. One sales executive covers Arizona, another is in Oregon, three operate from Los Angeles and six are based in the San Francisco headquarters.

Fox’s Home Team Sports also has the ability to sell Pac-12 inventory.

“The goal is to talk to everybody,” Davis said. “Some sponsors want coverage in just one or two markets, some want national coverage. Our conference spans from Canada to Mexico, so we can offer something for everybody.”

Even though Pac-12 Networks is in its fourth year, Davis said the education process hasn’t stopped.

“When I go to New York, people still call us the Pac-10,” he said. “The agencies and clients know us, but they don’t know all of the media assets we have. So there is still plenty of opportunity out there.”