Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 13

Marketing and Sponsorship

Like everyone in the sponsorship business, we’re always looking for new money. Having survived and chronicled the flood of marketing dollars in the late 1990s that accompanied the initial internet boom, followed later by E.D. drugs and spirits, we know that the eternal question across the industry is still “What’s next?”

 

Gambling is the easy answer and we don’t want to minimize that opportunity. However, there’s still only a handful of states where it’s legal to bet on sports and it’s regulated: Delaware, Nevada, Mississippi, New Jersey and West Virginia. It’s coming, but until more states are on board, any national deals will be extraordinarily complex, if not impossible. So where does that leave potential league sponsorships and national TV deals in the embryonic legal bookmaking industry?

 

While all that is being sorted out, we want you to keep a close eye on cannabis. Every sports marketing agency we speak with is trying to assess the opportunity there. Nine states have legalized recreational use of the drug; 31 have approved medical use, and weed becomes legal across Canada next month.

 

Accordingly, sponsorship offers have already started north of the border. Industry sources tell us that a multiyear, low-seven-figure-per-year deal for a Canadian Football League sponsorship has been on the table for months. The offer is from Aphria, a Canadian cannabis producer that has a market cap of more than $2.7 billion U.S. How’s that for opportunity?

 

CFL ownership can’t quite come to terms with being the first league to authorize pot sponsorships. Whether that will change after recreational marijuana is legalized in Canada on Oct. 17 is an intriguing question. Someone will adopt what’s perceived as a first-mover advantage. The noise is only getting louder. Formula Drift President Jim Liaw is fervently trying to pitch marketers his conviction that Drift, which involves racing cars, mostly sideways, is the best and only “bridge between action sports and motorsports, with a really elusive audience of 18- to 34-year-olds.”

 

Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images

Drift team sales types have asked him about cannabis sponsorships, but Liaw, who co-founded Drift in 2004, has the same concerns as any other established property. “We’re playing the conservative card, because we just don’t know how our current partners would react,” he said. One of those sponsors is the U.S. Air Force, concerned with an altogether different way of getting high.

 

There’s already been some music sponsorships from the cannabis industry. One big difference: Musicians aren’t required to pass drug tests. It’s a different story for pro athletes.

 

“It’s going to be impossible for leagues to take sponsorship dollars when they have a CBA that bans the substance,” an industry insider said. An interesting side issue: What would a league want during collective bargaining in exchange for eliminating testing for marijuana?

 

Another impediment to growth: The nascent cannabis industry’s inability to form banking relationships (experts differ on the legal issues there) is hindering its ability to scale and thus afford things like sports marketing. There’s also the not-unrelated issue that marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

 

Still, we note that beer brands, long the biggest buyers of sports sponsorship inventory, have made huge cannabis investments, including Corona parent Constellation Brands and Molson Coors.

 

Most industry types we spoke to said we’re three to five years away from cannabis being a viable category, and closer than that in Canada.

 

“Like gambling, until it’s legal everywhere, you won’t see much activity,” said Marc Bluestein, president of Aquarius Sports & Entertainment.

Stay tuned.

 

HOSPITALIZED: Scout Sports & Entertainment has triumphed in an agency shootout, winning the account for New York-Presbyterian Hospital, one of the nation’s largest. It’s the first sports agency for the hospital, which has assets including sponsorships with the New York Giants and Yankees, NYCFC and Lincoln Center. Community and on-site activation programs are being developed.

 

The review was at the behest of Hernando Ruiz-Jimenez, who came on as the hospital’s new CMO around a year ago. New activation programs are hoped for before the end of this year.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

T-Mobile Arena’s ribbon boards will show the sportsbook’s logo during live action.
Photo: Getty Images
T-Mobile Arena’s ribbon boards will show the sportsbook’s logo during live action.
Photo: Getty Images
T-Mobile Arena’s ribbon boards will show the sportsbook’s logo during live action.
Photo: Getty Images

When the CEO of sportsbook William Hill U.S. suggested that the Vegas Golden Knights allow his company to sponsor on-ice line changes as part of the first team deal signed in the promising new category, executives from the franchise immediately were smitten by the idea.

The “William Hill Line Change” offers a clever play on a phrase common to both hockey and sports betting, tying the new sponsor to the sport in an authentic way. It also integrates the sportsbook into the game as a brand play, avoiding any “call to action” message, as mandated by the NHL’s guidelines for the new, and potentially controversial, category.

Even in Las Vegas, where sports betting has been legal since 1931, the Golden Knights wanted to be careful not to connect the action in the game too closely to action on the game.

“I don’t think people are going to leave the arena and say, ‘Boy, all the Golden Knights are doing is talking about sports betting,’” said Jim Frevola, the team’s senior vice president and chief sales officer. “It’s going to come in the natural flow of our game.”

The deal, which was approved by the league last week, calls for William Hill to receive exposure through means common for team sponsors: Logo placement on the dasher boards, scoreboard and ribbon board at T-Mobile Arena; rotating banner ads on the team website; and commercial spots during radio broadcasts. William Hill also will present in-game odds from around the NHL that will be posted on the scoreboard between periods, a practice the league prohibited last season.

But the most intriguing aspect may be the sponsored line change. Once per period, the William Hill logo will appear on the ribbon board when the Golden Knights change lines on the fly. That line change also will be pegged to William Hill on radio broadcasts, and on TV broadcasts if the sportsbook can come to terms with rights holder AT&T SportsNet.

Though fans were able to bet on hockey and other sports using mobile apps at Golden Knights games last season, this will be the first time the team is able to acknowledge that, and benefit from it financially.

“We hope people will be sitting at T-Mobile and betting between periods,” said William Hill U.S. CEO Joe Asher. “Frankly, we know they do that already. We’re hoping to be able to get more people to our site because the brand will be right there in front of them.”

It’s no coincidence that the groundbreaking deal came in the only league with teams in both Nevada and New Jersey. The New Jersey Devils almost certainly will be the next to land a sponsor in the category.

Seven years after graduating from Michigan, where he founded his own business, Daniel Sillman was leading the soccer marketing giant.
Photo: courtesy of relevent
Seven years after graduating from Michigan, where he founded his own business, Daniel Sillman was leading the soccer marketing giant.
Photo: courtesy of relevent
Seven years after graduating from Michigan, where he founded his own business, Daniel Sillman was leading the soccer marketing giant.
Photo: courtesy of relevent

Daniel Sillman will freely admit the obvious — he’s often the youngest person in the room.

 

Take last month’s Real Madrid vs. Roma match at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. It was part of this year’s International Champions Cup, the tournament drawing Europe’s biggest soccer clubs to the U.S. that is run by Relevent, the company of which the 29-year-old Sillman is CEO. The match drew plenty of soccer power brokers, from former players to federation and league officials, to do what they do best — hobnob with one another.

 

Amid the impeccably tailored suits, tanned faces and slew of European accents that filled the suites across the stadium, it was easy to spot Sillman walking confidenty, ducking into suites seemingly one-by-one, and emerging a few minutes later — often with someone still in conversation with him as he headed to the next set of doors. “I enjoy learning from people who are more experienced and smarter than me,” Sillman said.

 

But observe Sillman for more than a few minutes, and it’s not his age that begins to stand out, but the respect that he already garners from those in the soccer industry. Major players such as La Liga, the Brazilian National Team and scores of European clubs are all aligning with Sillman and his vision of building Relevent into something much bigger than just a company that runs a soccer tournament.

 

His non-descript office on Manhattan’s west side has few decorations, among them a football helmet from his alma mater, the University of Michigan. Sillman has too much else to think about, such as how to bring to life his plan of turning the 6-year-old company into a global powerhouse.

 

After checking out El Clásico in Spain in 2016, Charlie Stillitano (third from left) and Stephen Ross (fifth from left) tasked Sillman with running point on the event the next year in Miami.
Photo: courtesy of daniel sillman
After checking out El Clásico in Spain in 2016, Charlie Stillitano (third from left) and Stephen Ross (fifth from left) tasked Sillman with running point on the event the next year in Miami.
Photo: courtesy of daniel sillman
After checking out El Clásico in Spain in 2016, Charlie Stillitano (third from left) and Stephen Ross (fifth from left) tasked Sillman with running point on the event the next year in Miami.
Photo: courtesy of daniel sillman

“My vision, very simply, is that we will be a mix of AEG or Live Nation, and IMG,” he said. “We’ve evolved from a core soccer promotion business building the International Champions Cup to a large media company looking at ICC as one of our franchise properties, while using our credibility in soccer to build into other sports, to build into other entertainment events and to build into representing brands in America and China.”

 

It’s been a relatively quick ascension for Relevent, launched in 2012 as part of the RSE Ventures empire backed by Stephen Ross and Matt Higgins. Its flagship property is the International Champions Cup, the brainchild of Charlie Stillitano and Jon Sheiman, two soccer lifers who have long had a vision of building a platform for European soccer clubs in the U.S.; a vision that Ross skyrocketed when he persuaded Stillitano and Sheiman to leave CAA Sports, acquiring their World Football Challenge soccer tournament as well. 

 

The tournament has swelled in popularity in recent years in large part due to the immense trust in Stillitano from Europe’s biggest soccer names as well as Ross’ financial commitment, which is well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. It may have reached its apex last year, when it was able to draw El Clásico — the famed rivalry match between Barcelona and Real Madrid — outside of Spain for only the second time in more than 100 years. The game was played at Ross’ Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, surrounded by a suite of events ranging from legends matches to youth tournaments to concerts featuring artists like Drake and DJ Khaled.

 

“Our goal has always been to be the No. 1 soccer marketing company in the world, becoming a full-service company for European soccer clubs,” said Stillitano, Relevent’s executive chairman and at 58, exactly twice Sillman’s age. “But we always knew we had to get everything right before we expanded into that, and it just seemed like after El Clásico, this was the moment.”

 

While Stillitano and Ross sowed the seeds for that match, it was Sillman who was tasked with executing the plan. It was a challenge, but one for which he was well-equipped after his meteoric rise. While studying business at Michigan, Sillman, a Detroit native, founded Compass Management Group, essentially a multi-family office for athletes and entertainers. He helped manage the finances of his friend, defensive end Brandon Graham, who was later selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. Before graduating, Sillman cold-emailed Ross, whose name adorns the business school at Michigan, explaining what he had been doing in sports and seeing if it’d be possible to meet in person. What was scheduled for a 20-minute get-together on campus turned into a few hours. The two stayed in touch and roughly a year later Sillman sold his business to FFO and joined RSE Ventures in 2014. 

 

“From very early on, Danny’s talent, passion and aptitude to think outside the box was evident, and in his time as CEO he has already demonstrated a unique ability to consistently execute at a high level,” Ross said in an email. “He is creative, smart and thinks about the business holistically, constantly pushing the limits of what is possible.”

 

My vision, very simply, is that we will be a mix of AEG or LiveNation, and IMG.
Daniel Sillman
CEO, Relevent

Sillman initially was managing RSE Ventures’ M&A opportunities and business development, helping oversee companies in its portfolio, ranging from its investments in NextVR and game film tool company Krossover. But he wanted to get more into the operations, and was tasked with ensuring El Clásico would be a success — which gave him a glimpse of what Relevent could become.

One of the few items in Sillman’s office is a memento from when that inspiration hit him. As Relevent was courting Barcelona and Real Madrid, Ross, Stillitano and Sillman embarked to Barcelona for an El Clásico in December 2016. They brought with them Maverick Carter, Paul Rivera and Future the Prince, Drake’s manager, to pitch bringing the marquee matchup to the states, which would be surrounded by a Super Bowl-level experience. The photo (right) shows the group huddled in a suite at the match.

 

“We’re not in the sports business — we’re in the entertainment business, and we’re here to deliver an entertainment experience,” Sillman said recently. “We now have all of this expertise, and suddenly we now have this incredible opportunity to grow.”

 

It was after the success of that match that Sillman was named CEO in July 2017 with a vision to make Relevent more than just the sum of its parts.

 

That includes the International Champions Cup, which Relevent has no plans to move away from. Sillman said the event saw revenue increases of 25 percent last year, even with slightly tepid interest coming on the heels of the World Cup, which caused many of soccer’s biggest players to sit out the U.S. matches. Relevent launched youth and women’s versions of the tournament this year, two areas it is heavily investing in, and built out more entertainment at every match akin to that El Clásico match.

 

“You can see the ambition of what Relevent wants to do when you look at the International Champions Cup,” said Rudolf Vidal, Bayern Munich’s president of the Americas. “We have worked very closely with them in the last number of years; they have a great marketing team that is willing to get connected with the clubs at all levels and help develop our brands.”

 

Sillman pressed the flesh with Carmelo Anthony, one of the celebrities at Barcelona vs. Real Madrid in Miami.
Photo: courtesy of daniel sillman
Sillman pressed the flesh with Carmelo Anthony, one of the celebrities at Barcelona vs. Real Madrid in Miami.
Photo: courtesy of daniel sillman
Sillman pressed the flesh with Carmelo Anthony, one of the celebrities at Barcelona vs. Real Madrid in Miami.
Photo: courtesy of daniel sillman

Relevent also manages the U.S. activities of the Brazilian and Argentina National Teams, arguably two of the biggest draws in global sports, as well as assisting an increasing number of European clubs.

 

It also has four years left on a relationship with MLS to provide an opponent for the league’s all-star game, and Sillman said Relevent is keen on working closely with U.S. Soccer and MLS to grow the sport in the run-up to the 2026 World Cup, which will be held in North America. He also didn’t rule out Relevent getting involved in different aspects of that tournament, from helping national teams activate to representing brands interested in soccer’s growing popularity.

 

Relevent’s non-soccer portfolio is building out as well. Through its sister company, Ascendent, it has a burgeoning consulting group that represents companies ranging from Right Guard’s sports marketing portfolio to Hertz to Hawaii Tourism. Its event group is also picking up clients, most notably Ross’ Hudson Yards event space, part of arguably the biggest real estate project in the history of New York City.

 

Relevent also is involved with player representation. Its two clients to date are Golden State Warriors All-Star Draymond Green, with whom Sillman has a long-standing relationship dating back to Compass Management, and Brazilian soccer superstar Neymar, about whom they are currently working on a documentary.

 

“[Sillman] has been the best thing that has happened to this company since we started it,” Stillitano said. “He doesn’t have anything in him that tells him to stop or slow down. When you say you want to be a media company, you have to do it. He’s brought the energy and that terrier-like desire to make it happen.”

 

But perhaps the biggest affirmation of Sillman’s vision for Relevent is its recent 15-year joint venture with La Liga, a relationship that not only will see Relevent managing the Spanish league’s activation and fan development in the U.S., but also its next U.S. media rights deal as well as annual regular-season matches in the country. Relevent beat out Endeavor and Wasserman in the deal, according to industry sources.

 

“We’ve had an opportunity to see how Relevent was building the ICC and how they treated El Clásico,” said Oscar Mayo Pardo, head of international development for La Liga. “It was very American, and totally amazing. But the thing that struck us most about Danny and Relevent was that they wanted to find a solution for every problem that came up. He has a spirit to make things work.”

 

Sillman said the entire organization, which has grown to more than 80 from 20 less than a year ago, is being tasked with growing La Liga in lockstep with the league itself. “We’ve had experience building our own properties, but this is our opportunity to show our capabilities across all of its lines of business,” he said, outlining plans to help orchestrate everything from fan events and live matches, to help arrange youth tournaments with Spanish academy teams with local clubs across the U.S.

 

If successful, it will put Relevent among those titans of sports marketing that Sillman believes the company should be mentioned alongside. It also will catapult his own profile. 

 

Sillman knows his age will still be a source of wonder for a few years to come, but he’s already matured in some important ways.

 

“When I launched my company [Compass Management], I never had an image of myself on the site, and I didn’t have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any social media — I had no forms of promotion for myself because I was trying to hide my age,” he said. “I still don’t have any social media presence, but I’m not hiding my age — I just have a lot of other things to keep me busy.”