Getting into the Game: The Business of Sports Marketing
by Michael Bradley
Big-time sports involve much more than the action on the field.
It was going to cost a lot of money. Tom Pippet ’73 (B.S.) knew that. And the payoff wasn’t going to come in a direct flow, either. But, in the long run, that’s where the value would be found.
The Philadelphia Phillies were relocating their AAA minor league franchise, the IronPigs, to Allentown, Pa., and their new stadium needed a corporate sponsor to put its name on the park. Pippet, director of marketing and key accounts in the Lehigh Valley and Chester County for Pittsburgh-based Coca-Cola bottler ABARTA, wanted pouring rights in the new spot. But he also wanted the Coke name attached to the Phils and the team. It wouldn’t come inexpensively.
“When we had discussions with the management of the IronPigs [about acquiring naming rights], we knew we would spend a lot of money,” Pippet says. “We weren’t going to get it all back in sales. We needed intangibles that could help us sell the product.”
One of those difficult-to-measure metrics was “pass-through rights” that allowed ABARTA to divert some of its signage space in the stadium to a large, regional supermarket chain that wanted to advertise at newly named Coca-Cola Park. It was a win-win. The grocery retailer received a plum promotional spot in front of 10,000 fans a night, in return for granting favored status to Coke in its stores.
Welcome to the world of sports marketing.
“This field is expanding into a much wider berth of opportunities than some people thought it could,” Pippet, an SJU Hall of Famer for soccer, says. “It was once a niche, but now it gives people so many different options.”
To some advertisers, gaining prime positioning in a store for a product has nothing to do with the world of athletics. But as Pippet’s relationship with the IronPigs shows, it absolutely can. By partnering with the team, Coke was able to improve its bottom line in a way that didn’t involve balls and strikes or wins and losses. The beauty of the sports marketing world is that, thanks to the growing interest in professional and collegiate — and in some places, even high school — competition, just about any business has a chance to enhance its image and influence sales by partnering with teams, leagues and athletes.
“Almost none of [sports marketing] has to do with who won the game,” says John Lord, Ph.D. ’71 (B.S.), SJU sports marketing professor and program director. “It’s important, and it creates fan interest, but everything we talk about in the classroom is separate from what goes on on the field.”
SJU’s sports marketing program debuted in 2011 and was the result of years of dedicated work by Lord, who received the Lifetime Service Award at graduation this year. A food marketing professor and youth baseball coach when he started at Saint Joseph’s in 1975, Lord still, at age 63, plays senior baseball and is the pitching coach for a local American Legion team. He also serves as league commissioner. Lord has always known there were plenty of students interested in learning about the business of sports and the opportunities available within the commercial pursuits surrounding athletics.
He says 80 students were in the major during the first year (2011-12), and he expects, as time goes on and a track record emerges for hiring graduates, that number will grow. By mid-summer, nearly 150 students had signed on for the program for the 2013-14 academic year.
Lord enlisted a Sports Marketing Advisory Board of industry professionals, like Pippet, to help infuse the program with real-world experiences and open doors to internships and potential full-time positions. His goal for the program is to not only teach the business of sports, but also expose students to the realities of a wildly popular industry that requires those interested in gaining entry to demonstrate keen interest and a driving passion.
The program’s board includes administrators and managers from many different sports business areas, including media, event management, arena operations, ticketing, marketing and teams/leagues. Their support and knowledge buttress the efforts of Lord and other full-time faculty members. The big winners are the students, who receive training in theory and practice.
“Unlike our food marketing department, where 50 to 60 companies come in to interview students, there are no campus interviews for sports marketing,” Lord says. The field is so competitive, he explains, employers don’t have to seek out candidates on college campuses. “People ask about placement, and there is no placement,” he says. “You have to go out and find a job, and you do that through internships.”
Sports marketing majors are, in fact, required to take an internship to gain that all-important, hands-on experience and cultivate the ability to develop contacts. The Sports Marketing Club presents additional networking possibilities through events that bring students together with industry veterans.
One of the most important parts of the curriculum — featuring courses in the business of sports, sports law, event marketing, sports media and the administration of collegiate athletics, in addition to the courses required of all Haub School of Business matriculants — is the teaching lineup, which is also culled from industry professionals who can bring theory to life with their firsthand knowledge and experience. Visiting executives provide students further expertise.
“Learning from the book is fine, but the experts and guest speakers are invaluable,” says Ashley Dabb ’08 (B.S.), who, as an undergraduate, took electives in sports marketing before it officially became a major. “The chance to pick their brains is a huge opportunity.”
Eric Lipsman, senior vice president of corporate sales and partnerships for the Trenton Thunder minor league baseball team, spoke to a sports marketing class when Dabb was a student, and she sensed an opportunity. Lipsman talked about the value of internships for those interested in careers in sports and mentioned that the Thunder was looking for program applicants.
Dabb spoke with Lord, who arranged a lunch for them with Lipsman. She landed a spot, interning for the Thunder while working on campus at the Fieldhouse (now Hagan Arena) and taking classes at the same time. She says the experience and contacts she made were priceless and have helped her move forward in her career.
“There are times when you’re running on fumes, and you have to keep going,” she says. “This is an exciting business, and no two days are the same.”
The enthusiasm Dabb mustered for her daily work with the Thunder — despite the other requirements of her busy student’s life — helped her when she became the first-ever employee of the Philadelphia Union, the city’s major league soccer expansion team. Dabb graduated in 2008 with a pair of job offers in the financial sector, neither of which enticed her. She heard the Union had an opening and forwarded a resumé, never expecting a response. Two hours later, she received a call from a team representative. Two days later, she was interviewing. Two weeks later, she had a job.
“I was an administrative assistant, which is not what I went to college for or what I wanted to do, but I had my foot in the door,” Dabb says. “It was basically a catch-all position, and it was a good start.” Promoted several times since then, Dabb is now the Union’s director of marketing and special events. Her experience is not unlike that of most people breaking into the sports marketing business and its related fields. Lord reiterates that fact as students move through the program. Students learn about sponsorships, the media, events and other areas of the industry, but Lord and other professors are sure to share stories of how even the most successful people in the sports world started at the bottom. If NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had to begin his career as a post-graduate intern, it’s likely that even the most successful SJU students must work their way through several levels to reach their goals.
“We try not to oversell the students,” Lord says. “In fact, we give them tough love about how challenging it’s going to be to get a job — unless they show outstanding initiative.”
That’s what happened with Mike Bantom ’73 (B.S.) when his basketball career came to an end. The former Hawk hoops star and 1972 Olympian played for nine years in the NBA and seven in Italy, but afterward, the 6-foot-9-inch power forward/center had to decide what his post-basketball life would look like. When he surveyed his options, he came back to one thing: his love of the game. Bantom went to work for the NBA and has served the league in a variety of capacities, including international licensing manager, international director of marketing programs and senior vice president of player development. He is currently executive vice president of referee operations, based in New York.
“When I started my second career, I had to ask myself what I was passionate enough about to make me work as hard as I did as a player,” Bantom says. “When I broke it down and looked at the intrinsic value of sports, I was able to see what sports did for me. They educated me, introduced me to new areas of the world and helped build my character.
“Because of that realization, it was easy for me to make a transition from being a player.”
On the administrative side of the NBA, Bantom has seen the span of opportunities in the sports industry. When he was developing coaching clinics and other grassroots marketing efforts for the NBA in Europe, Gatorade and Sprite had virtually no presence on the continent. They teamed with the NBA as part of the overseas initiative and were able to establish footholds. “Now, they are entrenched,” Bantom says.
Such is the power of sports in the business world. When Pippet looks at Coke’s relationship with the IronPigs, he can’t help but see other entities that have connected with the team. The IronPigs partner with financial, insurance and food companies, and each business needs people, like him, who are fervent about their work, to help build the associations necessary to benefit both parties.
The connections between sports organizations and the businesses with which they partner aren’t always obvious. Former SJU track star Fred Maglione ’71 (B.S.), president and CEO of New Era Tickets in Exton, Pa., and a Sports Marketing Advisory Board member, says he attends many meetings that, at least on the surface, appear to have little to do with his company, which provides ticketing and marketing services to teams and arenas. Dig a little deeper, though, and New Era’s role becomes clearer.
“We have to know what teams and arenas are doing,” says Maglione, who started New Era 11 years ago and was previously a founding partner and president of Globe Information Systems, the company that created the Select-a-Seat Ticketing System used by more than 400 organizations worldwide. “We don’t have any involvement in player personnel decisions, but when they happen, we are notified. If a team makes a big trade or signs a player, we have to know, so that we can staff up to handle ticket demand.”
While New Era handles ticketing for several teams and arenas — 12 million tickets worth $550,000,000 — including Philadelphia’s Flyers, 76ers, Soul, Union and Wings as well as the Oakland Raiders, Portland Trail Blazers and, soon to open, Singapore National Stadium. The company has expanded its reach into the creation of digital marketing platforms that allow clients to increase their ROI. Through concepts like dynamic pricing and the booming re-sale market, New Era uses high-tech channels to help companies get their messages to customers and prospects.
“How you reach, touch and communicate with consumers is constantly changing,” says Maglione.
At SJU, sports marketing students are learning about these concepts and channels, and that, for every game played by a collegiate or professional team, there’s a company working toward the same goal — brand recognition through sports. Fans focus on the action, but businesses affiliated with teams care about much, much more.
Take the data and statistics involved in business analytics, for example.
“We’re concerned with how analytics drive season ticket sales, attendance and sponsorship revenues more than we are the on-field stuff,” Lord says. “You can’t afford those multi-million dollar salaries with just ticket revenues.”
Just as you won’t necessarily boost soda sales exclusively with naming rights to a stadium. You have to go further. You have to form creative partnerships, push unusual ideas and generate additional revenue. You have to want it more.
This is the world of sports marketing.