All Access Interview Series 2021 Year End Recap

December 28, 2021 All Access Interview Series 2021 Year End Recap

As we mark one year since the introduction of the podcast, we selected a sample of some of the most enlightening and intriguing comments from our interviews. This wasn’t easy, given the outstanding 34 guests who joined us this past year.


We start with three of our brand marketers who each shared great insights in what, why and how sponsorship achieves multiple objectives for their companies and how that role is changing over time.

Ed Pilkington, Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer, Diageo North America: The best brands, especially in our industry, are brands that are built through culture and know how to play and win in culture. It’s not forcing yourself into culture but knowing how to show up in the right area of culture. Whether it is sports, music or entertainment, who is seen drinking and enjoying your brand and where? Game of Thrones did a great job for Johnnie Walker in helping to make it very relevant in terms of culture.

If you take that into sport, us being able to work with the NFL and leverage what is clearly a hugely powerful brand and franchise is extremely important. It’s the reason you partner with them and pay the sponsorship monies to have the NFL logo associated with your brands. We value that enormously. They have done a brilliant job of building that brand over the last 60 or so years and we want to be a part of that. So there is a bit of borrowed equity, plus the culture piece—there is a massive culture around football that we want to be part of.

We look at how we can leverage at multiple levels, from communications—the advertising we want to do in and around games—to the experiences we can do within stadia and around stadia to the work we can do with our retail partners in on-premise (bars and restaurants) and off-premise (liquor stores and, where we can do it, grocery stores).

You put KPIs around all that, including hopefully selling more because of the partnership! In addition to sales, you look at engagement metrics in terms of affinity, the ability to land a message with so many more consumers, which ultimately comes into brand equity. Around each of our partnerships we have very clear metrics, which tend to be about reach, engagement, effectiveness of our programming, and ultimately are we driving sales, are we growing our net sales and our profitability as well. And obviously within all of that we look at what we need to invest and how it fits into our overall P&L.

Sharon Line Clary, Vice President of Strategic Marketing & Communications, AdventHealth: Back in the day we were concerned with the sign on the court or on the field. We still want those things, but we want to go much deeper. We have developed some guiding principles around partnerships that are helpful for us as well as the partner.

The first one is that when we come to the table, we want to find a common goal. We want to solve for something big. The second is we want to utilize each other’s unique abilities and services. That’s a different approach than others’.

The third is we want to forge a deeper relationship. We want to innovate; we want to accelerate change. Ultimately, it leads to inspiring. Inspiring the communities where each of these partnerships live and even beyond that.

Four and five are uniting together to make a difference (as a nonprofit that’s core to who we are and partnerships are a great way to do that) and extending beyond financial support. We don’t believe it always has to be monetary. What can we do to engage the community in different ways?

Manny Rodriguez, Chief Marketing, Experience and Customer Officer, UCHealth: Our brand is built on the back of partnerships. Sponsorship is a differentiator for our brand; we are category exclusive so it differentiates us from other healthcare systems. Every healthcare system can buy radio, digital ads, out-of-home, TV spots, but none of them can partner with and activate around these marks.

The way I like to think about it is all partnership contracts should be just about getting you through the finish line. Once they are done, rip them up, throw them away and foster a relationship with partners that allow for activations based on what’s happening in the marketplace. If you’re following the letter of the law in these agreements, it’s not always going to get you the best results. You have to have flexibility to navigate the changing dynamics of the competitive landscape you are in.

How are rights holders meeting the needs of sponsors like the ones we have just heard from? Next we hear from senior leaders at three sports organizations on the moves they are making to identify, secure and retain partners.

Nick Kelly, President, Charlotte Football Club: Having sat on the brand side, I think we are doing a very good job of listening, which has always been a problem with leagues and teams when they are trying to sell a brand. They come in with assets, like minutes of LED time, that they try to cram into a partnership just because it’s inventory they want to sell.

We’re going into introductory meetings with an explanation of who we are, what we stand for and what we expect out of the franchise. We don’t sell them anything. We ask them what they are looking to do in the marketplace, or what do they need to do in the summer season. Then we bring back a proposal.

We’ve had a positive reception to that strategy. I can tell you from my time on the other side, I probably only had that happen five times in the six or seven years I was there.

Jarrod Dillon, Chief Marketing & Revenue Officer, Vinik Sports Group: It starts with establishing the KPIs out of the gate that everyone is going to base success on. These are the metrics that we’re going to use to evaluate whether this program is working or not.

And now more than ever, we as the property need to be flexible as a partner’s business changes and we have to commit to that mindset. We have to be more adaptable to changing things out throughout the year and trying things together. Ultimately, if you show that flexibility rather than trying to stay within the guardrails that were agreed to on day one, you have a much better chance at a long-term partnership.

Larry Freedman, Co-President and Chief Business Officer, Los Angeles Football Club: We are always looking at the usual verticals or industries—your beverage partners, your auto partners, your airline partners, financial services and banks—but you also have to be looking at emerging brands.

What’s interesting with a lot of these nontraditional brands is that everyone is measuring everything now. It’s no longer about hanging signs and assuming it drove business, especially with online advertising, social media platforms, curated partner content that we create together and push out on our channels—and they repurpose on their channels—and the ability to put out email blasts to our ticketholder base, or our broader mailing list, and have the ability for the recipients to click through.

What’s resonating with brands is that they want to engage with our fan base.

Social responsibility is playing an increasingly critical role in the business of sports. When it comes to partnerships, just listen to the evolution in objectives that is taking place at two major North American sponsors.

Josh Epstein, Head, Corporate Sponsorships, BMO Financial Group: I believe in long-term partnerships. If you’re trying to exact some level of consumer sentiment or business results, it’s not going to happen overnight in the sponsorship world. It takes years and years to build that equity and comfort level with what we are trying to do as possible.

That said, there is the risk of becoming complacent or falling back on what works. We need to push the envelope; we need to be allowed to make a misstep or two. We may try something and if it doesn’t work, that’s okay, it’s not going to hurt the brand. It was just may be a direction, an activation or an execution strategy that didn’t hit the mark. And if it does work, let’s double down on it and make it better and better.

It’s also important to keep the strategy sharp and fresh. Over the last five years, our strategy has evolved from where it was really centered on making our BMO customer feel special. We called it the BMO Effect. And if you weren’t our customer, how could our sponsorship presence and activation make you say, “Hey, I wish I was a BMO customer.” In the last couple of years, we have shifted to being a purpose-driven organization. BMO’s purpose is to boldly grow the good in business and in life. A business of our size and impact owes it to our customers and our communities to make a difference.

We’re shifting our partnerships to ensure we are making that difference, whether it’s minority-owned businesses in the U.S. or underserved communities in Canada, we are using our partnerships to exact change. We can only do so much as a bank—banking isn’t terrible sexy—but when a bank and a basketball team or a bank and an MLS team get together and build programs, use assets such as players and social media, and put that all together to do some exciting and socially impactful things, that’s where the bullseye is for us these days.

We are not totally departing from some of those revenue-driving, sentiment-driving and opinion-driving activations that we proved out through the BMO Effect. We still care deeply about our customers and want to add to their experiences. We will still have those activation points as the core of what we do.

Rather than a shift, it’s an evolution. We’re taking some of the top-of-the-funnel activations and moving them toward a greater good.

Rahsaan Johnson, Managing Director of Sponsorships & Inclusive Partnerships, United Airlines: United does not look for sponsorships to help build brand awareness. Number one, awareness is already there. Number two, awareness can be achieved through far less costly means, including digital advertising. I would urge a seller who is approaching an airline talking about putting the brand in front of a great fan base, to remember that there are online travel sites and social media networks who can also do that for pennies on the dollar.

So even though it’s absolutely true for a seller to say, “Our fans are likely to become fans of United if you sponsor us,” we need to know what is the next thing that we can do together to actually encourage that fan base to want to do business with my airline versus another one.

Adding inclusive partnerships into our sponsorship function was largely about codifying and formalizing an approach that looks at sponsorship beyond simply the traditional brand-property relationship. What can we be doing to impact communities through community development, business development and diversity and inclusion?

There are so many different ways that we as sponsorship professionals bring value to United and bring value to the properties we sponsor. We look at inclusive partnerships as how do we take some of those same elements, learnings and skill sets in the sponsorships team at United and expand how we look at sponsorships and partnerships to achieve many of the same goals. It shows up in how we execute and activate, and who we partner with.

And of course, many of our teams have taken a prominent public stand on issues of social justice, as our next guest discussed.

Nic Barlage, President of Business Operations, Cleveland Cavaliers and Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse: Sport is something that unites all types of people. So let’s use that power to create positive change. And Cleveland is one of the first cities to have a three-team alliance among ourselves, the Browns and the Indians addressing three tent poles: education, police reform and voting. As an organization, we feel it is our time to educate, drive equality and ultimately lift up humanity. If we focus on those things, people can let go of the divisiveness of the narratives that are out there and concentrate on the movement we will see incredible impact and incredible change.

For sports teams, leagues and events, the past year was filled with new projects, assets and developments, all with a singular aim: growth. Our next three guests shared different perspectives on the idea of where growth will come from.

Catherine Carlson, Senior Vice President, Revenue & Strategy for the Philadelphia Eagles: Our traditional assets—signage, TV, radio, digital—all drive tremendous value. But our partners are asking for more; they are seeking true ROI or ROO.

We have been challenged by our partners to jump into many other areas beyond traditional sponsor assets. Everything from sustainability platforms and digital fan engagement through our app, to community and social justice platforms, paid social, and segmentation of fans.

Peter Feigin, President, Milwaukee Bucks: When you’re so close to this business you realize traditional revenue triggers don’t have much growth opportunity. There’s only so much you can raise ticket prices, there’s only so much inventory and leveraging of traditional sponsorship. You’re not going to grow selling tickets and hot dogs, as I’m reminded by our owners.

What is the opportunity? You build infrastructures that are billions of dollars in arenas and stadiums. How do you activate those beyond your core business of an NBA team or an MLB team? How do you build the monetization model around that? You have your centerpiece of the arena or stadium; how do you aggregate all of the other pieces to monetize?

Scott O’Neil, Sports & Entertainment Executive: This is not an industry where we have been elite marketers by today’s standards. We’re extraordinary brand marketers, but we haven’t been growth marketers. I’ve begun to see a shift where we put more resources toward content and data and begin to build our own DTC models and machines. That will shift all kinds of revenue streams.

The other interesting part is the traditional sponsorship bucket and the content sponsorship bucket are somewhat collapsing and being pulled apart because we are selling differently. We are maxing out on the traditional sponsorship elements. And when you talk about creating platforms that drive change, a lot of those are driven by media and social media platforms.

We have a very traditional view and in many ways we are stuck in cement or walking uphill dragging a piano. We in this business have to get out of our own way. We have to understand what the trends are, how people consume media. Why they are interested and why they are not interested. We have to allocate resources so that we can grow the next generations of these businesses, or we will be boxing and horse racing, and I don’t want to be boxing or horse racing. (By the way, I love boxing and horse racing, but that’s a story for another day.)

I do truly believe that live content will hold the keys to whatever kingdom we want to open. But if we think we can show it the same or do it the same, or be the same, or act the same, or sell the same, or present the same, we’ve got another thing coming.

The industry has an opportunity to reimagine and recreate and rediscover what it means to capture that new generation. You see the NHL and the NBA and others getting into esports a little bit, getting heavy on TikTok and some of these other new platforms, so we’ve got a toe in the water.

Stepping back from the big picture, podcast guests this year offered a great deal of practical advice and shared behind-the-scenes looks at how they make decisions and go to market. Here are just two examples of guests who offered tangible, useful information for all of our listeners.

Peter Arceo, General Manager, San Manuel Casino: I approach a negotiation with a few buckets. There is the must-have bucket of elements that are critically important to us and we want to have included. Then there is the wish list bucket, which I divide in two. There is the list of things we would love to have but know it’s probably a long shot to get done. And there is a list that is somewhat reasonable, where we believe we can integrate some of it into the deal.

I begin the conversation with the partner by finding out what’s on their must-have list. Perhaps it’s category exclusivity, where a partner will say, “Here is what I have to have in order to include exclusivity in your deal.” If you start with that understanding of the must-haves on both sides, the negotiation can only get better.

I also like to have the partner—after hearing my priorities and initiatives—present and pitch concepts around those needs, to see how they translate them into real solutions. That tells me whether they are listening and shows me their approach. That sets the stage for the relationship up front. If they can’t process those needs, it’s going to be a difficult next few years. You start with a deal, but you always need wiggle room to massage it to fit both parties and maximize value.

Rene Ramos, Vice President—Field Marketing/Lifestyle & Experiential Marketing, Constellation Brands: We focus on how an opportunity will deliver on our brand goals, not just from a national perspective, which is important, but from a local one as well. Our business is a local one. What’s going to differentiate our brands from the competition in a given market?

The answer will be different depending on the market. In L.A., Modelo is the number-one beer; from a dollar share perspective it’s bigger than Miller Lite, Bud Light and Coors Light combined. We take Modelo to market in L.A. very differently than we do in New York, where Corona is still king.

We look at where we stand in a market in terms of our brand development index, our velocity, our distribution rates and where the gaps are we need to fill. Will this opportunity help us fill those, whether it’s sampling, building brand awareness, or giving us something we can take to a large-format grocery store, liquor store or on premise?

If the real estate business is all about location, location, location—in our business it’s the fans, the fans, the fans. Next up, three forward-looking C-level team executives discuss the keys to forging stronger connections with—and earning greater value from—fans. (Hint: It has a lot to do with data.)

Chad Johnson, Chief Content Officer and Senior Vice President of Sales and Service Jacksonville Jaguars: In addition to investing in people who can look at these different segments in our databases and understand who they are demographically and understand how they behave differently, we have invested in software to try to create a marketing automation experience in the ticketing world.

Sports is a little bit behind in the buying experience for customers, compared to Netflix and Amazon and other industries. Right now if you and I logged in to to search for tickets, we would have the exact same experience. What we are working on is changing that to something similar to a Netflix model, where the information presented to you is very different than what is fed to me. If we can’t have a seamless and personalized experience for someone who comes to us, we are going to have a lower rate of success at converting them into a buyer.

Jacob Gallagher, Chief Revenue Officer, Charlotte Hornets: Once you understand that fans are the engine that drives the machine, it gives you great perspective on what you need to do. For us, really understanding who our fans were started out when we were looking at how we could improve our renewal numbers. We began some years ago to build out our early retention models based on specific data points such as how often they were coming to games, which games they were attending, who they were forwarding their tickets to, etc. Those data points were very useful in helping us price tickets for the following year and helped us maximize ticket revenue. But over the last few years, we have begun to look at it differently, not solely based on tickets, but on maximizing overall revenue for the organization.

We began looking at what the true value of our fans, our customers and our members is. What do they spend on concessions, or at the fan shop? What additional tickets do they buy outside of their season ticket membership? Are they buying tickets to arena shows, not just Hornets games? When you step back and see things holistically, you look at a two percent ticket price increase and realize that even if people are willing to pay the additional money there, it may have a larger negative impact on the other spending, not to mention long-term brand building and relationships with those fans.

Jim Van Stone, President of Business Operations and Chief Commercial Officer, Monumental Sports & Entertainment: With D.C. having so many international visitors, one of the things we wanted to do when we first formulated our partnership was integrate Alipay into Capital One Arena for ticketing, food and beverage and retail. We were the first U.S. arena to accept Alipay.

As we continued conversations with them, we talked about our data warehouse. We capture every interaction we have with a client, so we have an incredible number of data points. We wanted them to build out a segmentation opportunity that would allow us to better communicate with our customers to ensure that we are delivering a message that is 100 percent focused on what their interests are.

What we’ve seen in the first year of using the platform is higher customer conversion rates. We’re in year two and we plan some enhancements, but we think it’s a game changer from a business intelligence standpoint.

Finally, a perennial topic for brands and properties is how to determine what’s working and what’s not. A few of our guests this year had some eye-opening things to say about measuring sponsorship’s impact and gave us a positive note to end on, as they shared some of the great returns they are earning.

Al Guido, President, San Francisco 49ers & Chairman and CEO, Elevate Sports Ventures

Every brand is different. Some are coming into sports for the first time and maybe they need a lot of ideation about how they want to bring their brand to life. Others are more sophisticated—perhaps they have agencies behind them—and have a thought as to how they want to activate. Measurement is the hot topic. There is a lot of inventory a brand can buy. They can buy at the national level, the local level, the local media level, etc.

Measurement continues to evolve. There was linear measurement, such as Nielsen’s measurement of broadcast television. Then there were the social and digital measurements, which are also changing and evolving over time. In the past you would be able to have a recap that said, “Here is the money that was spent, here are the assets, here is the rate card. Did the team deliver on the assets? Were the impressions we thought we were going to get actually there?”

That continues on, but how much further we go outside of eyeballs and impressions is really important.

Natalie Bowman, Managing Director of Marketing & Advertising, Alaska Airlines: People who manage sponsorship have always bucketed sponsorships as long-term brand investments, and that there is no way to see real-time feedback or get real-time results. The idea being that you need to be in it for three to five years before you’re going to see an impact.

That creates some air cover for sponsorships and gives them some space, so people who have led them have benefitted from that belief. I don’t have that belief. I believe brand marketing can drive performance and that performance marketing can build brands. Holding sponsorships accountable for both is important.

Sponsorships now, especially with social, are active and trackable. There is a lot more accountability we can put on them. The Russell Wilson promotion shows that a sponsorship can drive meaningful business impact.

We are going to start holding each of our partners accountable for revenue. We are going to give them a target of revenue we want to see driven directly from initiatives with that partner. We will start having conversations with them regularly so that they can see whether or not they are having true impact on our business. A third party telling us how many impressions we’re getting from a sign is not helping our business.

Most of our partners have embraced this new accountability and they are excited to help us.

Manny Rodriguez, Chief Marketing, Experience and Customer Officer, UCHealth: We look at our assets, engagement, activations and we look at the value we get from them. We assign a dollar amount to them by looking at lead generation and making some assumptions in terms of conversion of those leads to an actual patient. And then we look at the lifetime value of a patient and assign a value. It’s not perfect, but it’s very directional and allows us to have a more intelligent approach to the things we do and allows us to get better. One of the beauties of this is it’s allowed us to see that we actually outperform our partners’ other sponsorship activations conducted by the huge brands with huge budgets. We’re very proud of that.

So if all of that is worth $100,000 and we are spending $150,000 on a relationship, it is under-delivering. That allows us to re-negotiate some of the assets that we have or rethink how we’d like to activate.

I typically like to see a two-to-one or three-to-one return on investment. That isn’t always possible and when those situations happen, we sit down with our partners to tweak things to get more value for the money we spent.

Andy Bosman, Principal and Chief Marketing Officer, RSM: When I joined the firm, we were just finishing our first number of years as title sponsor of the RSM Classic and had to decide if we were going to continue in that role. So we had to look at why we were doing it. Was it a brand exposure play? If so, it’s an expensive way to get your brand out there, particularly when you look at the reach of the PGA Tour and the small portion of that audience who would be buyers of what we do.

But when we looked at it as a client engagement event, it changes the perspective. When we evaluated the revenue growth from every client who attended the event, we found the CAGR on revenue was 2X for those clients. That doesn’t mean that just because they came to the tournament we generated that revenue, but it showed we were getting the right people there, creating the right experiences and deepening our relationships.