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Volume 20 No. 42

Events and Attractions

Seeking further credibility in the increasingly competitive VIP ticketing, travel and hospitality business, PrimeSport has hired Tim Brosnan, former MLB executive vice president of business, as its new executive chairman and acting CEO.

Brosnan will be based in New York and head a company that has 200 employees across five U.S. offices. PrimeSport has contracts making it the official ticket and hospitality provider for the Final Four and other NCAA championships, and has similar deals with 20 NFL teams and the Ryder Cup through a deal with the PGA of America.

“This is a growth business where there’s a real opportunity to create a vertical offering of VIP experiences across sports, entertainment and music,” said Brosnan, noting Prime-Sport’s acquisition in 2016 of CID Entertainment, which counts major music festivals Coachella and Lollapalooza among its clients.

“It’s clear that millennials look for experiences over possessions, and with them being such a powerful consumer group, we should be able to tap into budgets that are now going to other forms of marketing.”

The move means that Brosnan and PrimeSport will compete head to head with former NHL COO John Collins, who has been CEO of On Location Experiences since November 2015.

On Location has the backing of the NFL, in the form of a 20 percent equity investment along with the exclusive rights to buy thousands of Super Bowl tickets and official hospitality packages. QuintEvents was the largest seller of those packages until the most recent Super Bowl.

Brosnan, 58, spent around 25 years at MLB, rising from vice president of international business affairs in 1991 to become the league’s top business-side exec before leaving in 2016 after a regime change, which saw Rob Manfred elevated to commissioner and Bob Bowman to president of business and media. Brosnan lost a bid to succeed Bud Selig as commissioner.

This is not the first time PrimeSport has pulled a leader with MLB roots. Former President John Walker served as PrimeSport president from June 2014 until joining the Memphis Grizzlies as executive vice president of business operations a year later.

While we don’t know who will compete in Super Bowl LII next year, we finally know who will be selling its licensed merchandise in Minneapolis, a collection which undoubtedly will include more outerwear than ever.

Multiple sources in Houston said that the long-awaited award of the NFL RFP to sell merchandise at the Super Bowl and all of the NFL’s jewel events has been awarded to … Aramark. However, while those rights originally were supposed to cover a span of five years, they instead will cover the next three Super Bowls and other NFL events, including the draft, combine, Pro Bowl and overseas games.

The RFP process began this past spring and originally was expected to be awarded before the beginning of the 2016-17 season. Sources said that while the award has been made, the contracts have not been finalized. Thus, neither Chris Halpin, NFL senior vice president of licensing and consumer products, nor Aramark Sports & Entertainment President Carl Mittleman would comment.

Competing firms in the RFP included Fanatics and Legends, sources said.

Aramark will handle merchandise sales at the Super Bowl and the NFL’s other jewel events.

Hall of Fame

The cancellation of last year’s Hall of Fame Game because of field conditions led to lawsuits, upset fans and a big financial hit for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But it came with a silver lining.

At a meeting three days later with Johnson Controls, Hall of Fame CEO David Baker began talking about values when the Milwaukee building equipment company’s CEO, Alex Molinaroli, interrupted him. He said, “‘Hey, you don’t have to talk about your values, because you showed us that Sunday night,’” Baker recalled. “To me, that connection is the basis [on] which we started a great relationship.”

Several months later, Johnson Controls signed an 18-year, $100 million-plus deal to name the Hall of Fame Village in Canton, Ohio, which will have hotels, residential and health care facilities. Johnson will use the village as a showplace to take potential clients to demonstrate “smart building technology.”

“Clients want to see technology in action, and this is such a dynamic environment,” said Kim Metcalf-Kupres, Johnson Controls chief marketing officer.

Baker and Metcalf-Kupres made the media rounds at the Super Bowl to tout the sponsorship and $600 million project, scheduled for completion in two years.

Despite the canceled game and a “significant financial hit,” Baker said the Hall of Fame will still turn a profit this year.

Still Flying?

It’s unclear what the devastating end to the Falcons season will do for the team’s business going forward into a new stadium next season, but it was exploding beforehand.

During the three weeks prior to the Super Bowl, sales of PSLs to the team’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium sold at a clip 10 times the average of the preceding six months, said Steve Cannon, CEO of AMB Group, parent company of the Falcons and the MLS Atlanta United FC. That still leaves 25 percent of the 71,000 seats unsold for PSLs.

“We are ahead of where Dallas was,” Cannon said, though the Cowboys’ stadium opened in the teeth of the Great Recession.

Cannon also said more than 90 percent of suites are sold, as are over 80 percent of club seats. Cannon said the team’s hyped cheap-pricing model for food likely won’t turn a profit. “Food and beverage is essentially a loss leader, it is a break even, it is a thank you to our fan base,” he said.

Can can, Act III

Bud Light’s NFL team-logoed cans, aka “Beer With Your Team On It,” are working so well that they will return for the third consecutive NFL season later this year.

The expanded territory rights permitted Anheuser-Busch under its most recent NFL rights deal have been crucial — allowing, for example, Bud distributors in the Pacific Northwest to put Seattle Seahawks cans into neighboring Oregon and Idaho, and Denver Broncos-branded Bud Light cans into Wyoming and Nevada.

Previously, A-B wholesalers in those states could only use the NFL shield to market their beer. For the past month or so, A-B was distributing cans with the Super Bowl LI logo on it across America, including some with a tactile football-like grip on them.

Meanwhile, after years of spending lavishly on activations in the Super Bowl city, including a Bud Light-branded cruise ship and several top-to-bottom makeovers that transformed a local hostelry into the “Bud Light Hotel” or the “House of Whatever” party and concert venue, this year Bud Light’s presence marketing was guided by a “less is more” strategy, emphasizing having beer available around high-traffic areas and schmoozing the brand’s distributors. A-B was entertaining around 600 of them in Houston during Super Bowl week.

“For this event, our b-to-b efforts are easily as important as our consumer-facing efforts,” said Nick Kelly, A-B senior director of experiential sports. “And in the past, we may have over-invested on the consumer side.”

The sports ticketing and experiential space has become a battlefield for private equity firms.

On Location Experiences is owned by RedBird Capital Partners, Bruin Sports Capital and 32 Equity (the NFL’s venture capital arm) along with Jon Bon Jovi. PrimeSport has been majority owned by The Carlyle Group since late 2014. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross owns a small stake in PrimeSport through his RSE Ventures unit, and former Arizona Diamondbacks co-owner and baseball agent Jeff Moorad also owns part of PrimeSport through his Moorad Sports Partners.

As the business of serving well-heeled individuals and corporate clients has moved from a mom-and-pop industry to one with private equity money behind it, the concept of selling “experiences” instead of just tickets and hotel rooms has become a steadfast mantra.

“You’ve had this explosion in asset value within professional sports, but what has lagged is the professionalization of the business elements around them,” said Gerry Cardinale, managing partner and CEO of Redbird Capital, an owner of On Location, which handled 12,000 Super Bowl LI ticket packages, including some that included access to the Patriots team victory party — access made possible by On Location’s NFL partnership.

Ety Rybak, co-founder of Inside Sports & Entertainment, which CAA bought in 2014 and rebranded as CAA Premium Experience, identified social media as one of the biggest factors driving increased demand for premium live event packages. “The absolute requirement now for instant gratification through social media is amplifying these big-event experiences like never before,” he said. “At the Super Bowl, I was posting for all my friends and they were all saying, ‘How and when do I get to a Super Bowl?’”

CAA Premium Experience, whose rights also include a premium hospitality deal with MLB, hosted around 2,500 people during the Super Bowl, with packages ranging from $2,500 to $10,000.

The biggest question is whether the VIP hospitality market will grow enough to support all of the new money trying to exploit it. Corporate clients with big sports investments usually have the same agencies handling hospitality that handle their other sports investments. Will they feel the need to add another agency, even for something as unique as attending the Super Bowl champion’s victory party?

“There’s really nothing new about high-level client hospitality,” said Andre Schunk, senior vice president at Octagon, which entertained around 200 clients at Super Bowl LI for companies including NFL league sponsors Castrol and Dannon. “Hospitality endures because it meets these basic human needs: We want to see it with our own eyes, feel like a VIP and we need to create a memory. … It’s definitely been getting more sophisticated. It used to be ‘Pick up your tickets and we’ll see you at the suite.’ Like other kinds of marketing, we see that as a way to combine passion points, whether that means adding a celebrity chef or a name DJ.”

Tim Brosnan, new executive chairman and acting CEO of PrimeSport, sees opportunity overseas and within trade and incentive programs. “Look at the banking and credit card space that is shifting almost entirely from points for things to experiential rewards. That space is still expanding,” he said.

Rybak added that creating events within events will, by itself, attract more people. “The opportunity is getting bigger across all live events,” he said. “There were way more people in Houston for the Super Bowl than there were seats in the stadium. That’s a trend that will continue.”

Bruin Sports Capital founder and President George Pyne also maintained that his company is growing the market for premium experiences, noting the total of more than 27,000 attending concerts by The Chainsmokers, Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift at On Location’s Club Nomadic in Houston. “We’re creating unique experiences around things people love,” Pyne said. “I’m assuming not all of those 27,000 went to the Super Bowl.”

QuintEvents CEO Brian Learst sees growth opportunities with celebrity chefs and “out-of-the box” events like the Barrett-Jackson classic auto auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., at which his company sold hospitality packages.

Is there enough incremental business to avoid an industry shakeout? “I don’t think we know that yet,” said Learst, whose company has hospitality deals with the NBA and Kentucky Derby. “Any time you see a rush of private-equity money into an industry, you know there will be winners and losers. … But at 78 million strong, you’ve got this huge group of millennials that want to spend money on experiences. You can’t get by on just selling a great ticket anymore.”

Super Bowl-related cause efforts upped their games in Houston.

More than 750 attended the Giving Back Fund’s lavish annual Big Game Big Give gala, held at the estate of Michael and Lisa Holthouse, which this year added an after-dinner poker tournament and raised more than $1.3 million, according to Giving Back Fund founder and President Marc Pollick.

Tickets for the party were $3,000, while celebrity poker tourney tickets were an additional $2,000. Sponsors included BBVA, AOL, USA Today and Tesla. Michael Phelps’ wife, Nicole, finished fourth in the poker tournament.

The latest edition of the Taste of NFL strolling wine and food benefit was sold out and attended by more than 2,500, paying upward of $750 each to benefit food banks. Founder Wayne Kostroski said proceeds from the event will fund more than 5 million meals. Super Bowl LII will mark the Taste’s return to Minnesota, where it began in 1992 at Super Bowl XXVI.

The total amount raised for the Culinary Institute of America by the third annual Culinary Kickoff ($1,250 a plate) at Brennan’s of Houston, with celebrity chefs Michael Mina and Charlie Palmer, was not available at press time. Sponsor Williams-Sonoma helped activate outside the restaurant floor, with an event Wednesday at its store in local Highland Village that included its chefs, ESPN talent Sage Steele and Pro Football Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.

The program has been growing enough each year that organizer Chrissy Delisle is planning one for the Thursday before this year’s Kentucky Derby, in association with the Muhammad Ali Center, which will be a beneficiary.