MKTG Insights: The Leading Edge of Sponsorship - How Property Executives Shape Strategy
There has been a lot of change amongst Leadership at major Canadian sports properties in the past 12 months, including the planned transitions of Tim Leiweke (CEO, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment) and Mark Cohon (Commissioner, CFL), as well as past exit of Bob Nicholson (President, Hockey Canada), and the high-profile hiring of executives like Brendan Shanahan, Trevor Linden, and Tom Renney. While market forces and industry trends have a major bearing on the success of any organization, leaders set the vision, define the culture, and chart the strategic path, and the changing of the guard at major Canadian properties will likely have implications for sponsorship professionals.
This MKTG Insights piece will be the first installment of a series of pieces that look at the influence that business leaders have on the role of sponsorship in their organization. This first piece will focus our analysis on property-side leaders.
The Role of Leaders:
Every new leader seeks to put their mark on their new organization. While this does not always manifest in an immediate shift in business and growth strategies, where they do typically have an immediate presence is in the culture of the organization and the execution of that strategy. Whether a Fortune 500 company, or a small owner-operated business, leadership is fundamental to success. In the case of sports properties, there can be a tendency to view them through the lens of "teams not businesses." But the growing business of sports franchises / organizations has created a need for leaders with business discipline. Brand, community impact, financial success, and people development and recruitment are all part of the mandate of the modern sports executive. Sports teams are unique in that they are one of the few organizations where the masses will not judge an executive on the business performance of the company, but rather judge them on one metric in isolation: winning. The role of senior executives, particularly at the Presidential level, at major sports properties has evolved to include:
Chart high-level strategy and organizational vision: The fundamental direction of the company, including the marketing mix, is often dictated by the past experience of a designated leader. Leader history can either inflate or deflate the emphasis of sponsorships in the growth initiatives of the organization.
Role-model desired attributes: Leaders contribute as much to the style of a property as they do the substance. Leaders can set the tone for how property employees view themselves in their role and this can range from "I work for a sports team", to "I work for a business with profound community impact."
Assembling a leadership group: Executives lead by committee. Effective executives develop strong bench strength in their management team to ensure smooth succession periods.
Inspire confidence in stakeholders: The very hiring of an executive can become a selling feature for a property. Particularly bold executives like Tim Leiweke can change a culture and turn company stakeholders (fans, season ticket holders, corporate partners, and employees) into believers.
Ways that Property Executives Can Influence Sponsorship: Beyond the more generic impact that leaders have on property organizations, there are direct ramifications for current and prospective corporate sponsors of that property. A business-orientation held by certain executives (the self-perception of being a traditional business CEO) will facilitate an environment of service to corporate partners, while a team-orientation (the self-perception of being a sports executive) will colour the experience of partnering brands. While brands are investing in a marketing opportunity with a property brand and not a personal services agreement with a CEO, leaders are a symbol to the marketplace of the property's values. Sponsors can expect the following impact from property leadership:
Overall Philosophy Towards Sponsor Access: The sponsor-oriented executive will be open to can't buy experiences for fans and partners (ie: charter plane rides, locker room access) and view community involvement and sponsor hosting to be the responsibility of all those employed by the property, while the team-focused executive may not jeopardize team performance by distracting players with non-sport activities.
Active Role in Sponsor Programming: Some executives view themselves as a corporate citizen and are active in helping partners grow their own brand (ie: President's Breakfast, Meet and Greets). Just as crucial is their skill in doing so. The same characteristics that athletes are judged on, executives should be judged on as well before leveraging them in activation (alignment to brand values, engaging personality, maturity and morality, etc.)
Approach to Sponsorship Sales Strategy: Executives help define the strategic approach towards sponsor management. Some will adopt for a "fewer.bigger better" approach, while others will show a bias towards revenue through splicing categories. In additional to the quantity of partners, some property executives will show a bias towards Tier-classification of brands (ie: category leaders / challengers)
Sponsor-Oriented Executives: MKTG has worked alongside all major Canadian sports executives in a variety of capacities, whether it be in negotiations, activation ideation, or strategic planning on behalf of our client roster. Based on our experiences, we highlight executives that were - and still are - particularly sponsor-oriented in their approach to leadership and assess the impact they had on their given property. Further, we will discuss the impact of notable U.S. property leaders on sponsors.
Brian Burke: While Burke served as Team President of the Toronto Maple Leafs and not Corporate-wide President of MLSE, he brought a consistent sponsor-oriented approach to the job. Burke is notorious for taking pride in the fiscal success of the team he manages and ensuring that players and executives give back to the community and sponsors. Players on Burke's teams know that it is not only encouraged, but expected, that they are positive role models in their community.
Bob Nicholson: Took Hockey Canada from a National Sports Organization to one the most powerful hockey brands in the world. The media partnership with TSN grew the World Juniors into landmark property for sponsors. In building this jewel event, Nicholson and Hockey Canada were able to offer sponsors a powerful tentpole that could serve as a centrepiece to build their engagement strategies around.
Mark Cohon: Brought a professionalism and credibility to the boardroom, and was active in stewarding a "fewer, bigger, better" approach to sponsorship and decreasing brand clutter. In many ways Cohon became the literal face of the league. His ability to appeal equally to both blue collar Canadians in rural markets and business executives on Bay Street was a secret weapon for the CFL front office.
Adam Silver: Acted swiftly in the Donald Sterling scandal to reinforce brand values to sponsors with wavering confidence. While this was in reaction to an event that was outside his control, it signalled a new era of the NBA that can only be seen as positive by the corporate community.
Roger Goodell: Brought an innovative approach to brand placement with the first-ever sideline integration of a major sponsor (Microsoft Surface Tablets), an innovative approach to integrating a brand without upsetting the traditional look & feel of an NFL game.