In the Majors
Ah, the familiar sounds of American sports: the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the swish of the net. And, of course, the ring of the cash register. Today, American sports rake in more than $410 billion annually, making the sports industry more lucrative than the movie and auto industries combined.
To the general public, marketing deals in sports seem relatively straightforward: a company inks an agreement to become the “exclusive dandruff-shampoo supplier to the NFL,” slaps a big-league logo on its product, and the sales flow in. Cue footage of company executives partying with celebrities in the stadium skybox.
Unfortunately, says Simon Drouin, Reebok’s National Hockey League (NHL) sales manager for North America, the path from licensing deal to record-level sales and palling around with Hollywood swells is not so simple. Reebok has a contract for the rights to sell NHL uniform jerseys, as well as other manufactured products with NHL logos, Drouin says. On the ground, this means that his sales team members are fanned out across North America, calling on arena shops and such chain stores as Modell’s Sporting Goods and Champs Sports, vigilantly seeking out creative ways to outperform the other fan-gear licensees competing for limited floor space.
Not All Fun and Games
Drouin notes that sales at Reebok is not some glamour job: “Yes, we have the luxury of attending sporting events, but it’s always work related. We’re walking the concourses, talking to people, and helping to fold t-shirts in the retail store – whatever we need to do to help our customers.”
What makes the NHL relationship work, Drouin says, is that compared to many licensing arrangements – and even some arrangements Reebok has with other sports enterprises – the deal with the NHL has developed into an unusually tight bond. The NHL is invited into all of Reebok’s sales meetings and large retail presentations, he says, and the two organizations always work together closely to ensure that they’re both singing out of the same songbook.
The Grass Is Always Greener
This strategic approach to the sports/business relationship is echoed by Scotts Miracle-Gro’s senior manager for sports marketing, John Price, who emphasizes the “natural fit” between the multibillion-dollar lawn- and garden-care company and Major League Baseball (MLB). Launched in 2009, the Scotts/MLB relationship began as a test partnership that allowed consumers to purchase products containing strains of grass seed used in different major league teams’ parks. The agreement now includes additional licensing and sponsorship deals with Major League Baseball itself, MLB.com, and more individual teams.
“We’re in the business of greener lawns and making the outdoors a better place to live for consumers,” he says. “When you walk into a baseball stadium, the first thing you see is the green grass. These amazing visuals are what we try to tap into in an authentic way.”
Timing also favors this partnership. As Price notes, the baseball season coincides perfectly with the lawn-and-garden season, while the fervent adoration so many Americans feel for the hometown team is a savvy marketer’s dream.
“That’s what’s called benefit transference,” Price says. “We want to attach to a passion point for consumers and connect that passion back to our brand. The relationship is authentic because the field is endemic to the game. We want consumers to understand that Scotts products are used to create those beautiful fields.”
Playing a Strategic Game
To translate these partnerships into action – that is, sales – Scotts fields a team of 400 salespeople who work intimately with such large-scale retailers as Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Ace Hardware, often leveraging the baseball relationship to develop, coordinate, and execute strategic plans. As vice president and general manager of Scotts’s Lowe’s development team, Jason Nichol leads a 20-person, customer-facing team responsible for managing the Lowe’s/Scotts relationship, setting up annual merchandising plans, and developing strategic plans between the two organizations. He says that the MLB tie-in provides a focal point that helps such big customers as Lowe’s stay engaged for the entire lawn-and-garden season.
“Within the stores, the merchants can relate everything they do to baseball,” he says. “They can use it to motivate their stores in how they talk about a specific program with Scotts – ‘Hit a home run with this program,’ ‘It’s a grand slam,’ that sort of thing – to use baseball as a rallying point for the program all season.” In this way, Nichol says, the relationship with baseball gives Scotts a leg up on the competition while also solidifying the bonds between Scotts and key retail business partners.
Swinging for the Fences
For smaller operators lacking a well-known brand, selling to pro sports teams or athletes represents the business equivalent of winning the World Series. And as Mike Gregory, vice president of BWP Bats, explains, breaking into the big leagues as a salesperson can be just as challenging as trying to make it to “the show” as a young athlete.
Gregory’s company is a subsidiary of Brookville Wood Products (BWP), a Pennsylvania-based processor of wood for the flooring and furniture industries. About 10 years ago, the company diversified by moving into baseball-bat manufacturing, Gregory says. Though everyone at BWP was confident about the quality of the wood and bat products, he notes, they had a great deal to learn about sales and marketing.
“The first couple of years our approach was, ‘Let’s just go get the biggest players in the game, then when others see these big stars using our bats, others will want them, too,’” he recalls. “And that’s true. Except that it’s extraordinarily difficult to do. Baseball is very strict about limiting access. You can’t just walk up to a player like Alex Rodriguez and hand him a bat.”
Get ’Em While They’re Young
Soon BWP realized that instead of pursuing big-name stars, it would be much better served planting seeds with younger, less-established players who would be more accessible and less likely to have developed brand loyalty for another manufacturer.
But selling to kids in their late teens and early 20s required an adjustment, too. Gregory says that making a lasting impression on these youngsters was more difficult than making one on the older professionals he was used to calling on. He says he soon learned that to be remembered, he had to connect with these younger customers on a personal and relatable level.
“Before I meet with these guys, I research everything I can about them,” he says. “Maybe I met their high school coach at a coaches’ show. Or maybe they played in a town I’ve visited that has something unique about it. Usually there’s something in their background I can find to establish a connection.”
One huge payoff to this approach came with the signing of future American League MVP Justin Morneau. At the time little more than a skinny prospect for the Minnesota Twins playing in Single-A ball, Morneau wound up becoming one of Gregory’s earliest and most lucrative customers.
“One of my few good connections back then was a Twins scout,” Gregory recalls. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to meet this kid. He’s going to win a batting title one day.’ Justin and I hit it off, we made some bats for him, and now ten years later he’s got two batting titles, and I’ve got a Christmas card of his baby daughter holding a BWP bat with her name on it.”
It’s in Their Hands
Gregory says that his selling groundwork – talking to coaches and scouts at sporting-goods shows and high school clinics all over the country, meeting with athletes at every level of amateur and professional ball, and even chatting up the retirees who serve as literal gatekeepers guarding the stadium doors at spring training – is all focused on the moment when he can put a BWP bat in a player’s hands. “It’s so much more important than the salesperson, which is not always the case,” he says. “For minor leaguers, especially, who are just one or two breaks away from possibly fulfilling a dream they’ve had since they were four years old, if they feel like this product is going to help them achieve success, they’re probably going to stick with it.”
The Mouth (Guard) That Roared
Chicago-area dentist and chief technology officer of P3 Mouthwear Inc., John Kelly, would no doubt appreciate Gregory’s persistence in building BWP’s client base of professional athletes. A few years ago, the specialist in complex restorative and cosmetic dentistry noticed that the athletes he outfitted with specialized, custom mouth guards to alleviate jaw pain or address other dental issues reported other benefits, including greater endurance, improved workouts, and better overall performance. Sensing a marketing opportunity, Kelly began targeting the professional-athlete market. He started attending charity events where he knew professional athletes would be present, buttonholing them so he could share the performance improvements his patients had experienced using his customized, jaw-stabilizing Pure Power Mouthguards.
Thanks to good “word of mouth guard” from his first few customers on the Chicago Bears, Kelly got a break in 2009 when he flew to New Orleans to outfit the players on the New Orleans Saints with mouth guards. Later on in the season, commentator Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football credited Kelly’s mouth guards with helping the Saints’ achieve an undefeated record.
Since then, Kelly has expanded his sports-world customer base into the NHL. He recently traveled to Detroit to set up a number of the Red Wings, including stars Chris Osgood and Kris Draper, with custom mouth guards. A lifelong hockey fan, Kelly says he was thrilled at the opportunity but also notes that the experience of waiting much of the day for the Red Wings to show up was an object lesson in selling to professional athletes.
“Even though it’s something you’re very passionate about, you have to be patient, because they simply do not view your time the same way they view their time,” he says. “It can be frustrating, but it’s not disrespectful. Once you meet them, most are very gracious and friendly. They just live in another world where everything revolves around what they’re doing, so you just have to be prepared to accommodate their schedules. “
The other key selling lesson Kelly says he’s picked up through his work with athletes is not to undervalue your product. “When I started doing this, I sometimes gave away the mouth guards for free,” he says. “That was a complete failure. The athletes would take the mouth guard, and I would never hear from them, not even for a testimonial.”
These minor inconveniences aside, Kelly says he still feels incredibly lucky to be able to work with and help these top-flight athletes. “I’ve always been a big sports fan,” he says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that as a dentist I’d be able to spend this much time with professional athletes.”
BWP Bats’s Gregory says that, not surprisingly, others take a much greater interest in what he does for a living today than when he was in flooring sales. “The doctors, lawyers, and other professionals I play pickup basketball with always want to hear about what I’m doing,” he says. “They ask to come with me on sales calls and carry my bag for no compensation. There’s no question that this whole experience has been a whole lot of fun.” •
– Malcolm Fleschner
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