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Guest Blog: Sports Media Rights Sales Grow One Call at a Time

PricewatherhouseCoopers is projecting sports media rights and sponsorship revenue to reach $34 billion by 2018, a whopping 30% increase over 2014. Much of the growth will be generated through revenue from new sponsors. 

Sports media and sponsorship salespeople are projected to collectively raise billions of fresh revenue. They'll cultivate fresh dollars from advertisers not very visible today. They'll have to hit the ground running, work the landscape and leaving no stone unturned.

It's a daunting mission! Yet, while working on my book, The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts, I’ve found that given the history of sports media, corporate partnerships and sponsorships, it's attainable. History dictates that new sponsors and advertisers should emerge. Think of it. The sports sponsorship business has grown exponentially since the 1970s, supported by companies that initially struggled to make payroll.

Of today's biggest sponsors on sports television, GEICO was a sleepy little insurer in the 1970s, Subway was limited to 16 'submarine shops' in Connecticut in 1974, Home Depot wasn't founded until 1978 and it didn't dominate home improvement for 20 years. FedEx and Southwest Airlines were fledging embryos in the 1970s. It wasn't until the 1980s that Anheuser Busch grew its market share fiercely after committing big dollars to national and local television.

From a seller's perspective, fighting for new sports media business isn't always glamorous. Cold callers, or euphemistically, "new business developers," have to claw hard, morning and night and dig in the trenches to ferret the next big spenders. The unreturned email and phone calls are painful enough to drive sellers to drink.  It's a real emotional challenge. There are lots of lonely days and nights.

Interestingly, for many years, the heads of the sports divisions at television networks weren’t reared in sales. They generally traced their experience to production, programming or law. The iconic Roone Arledge at ABC, who brought the NFL to primetime television on Monday nights, Dick Ebersol at NBC, Sean McManus at CBS and Tony Petitti, also at CBS and later MLB Network, were never street sellers.

Times might be changing. When Mark Lazarus succeeded Ebersol at NBC, he became the first ever over-the-air network sports head to trace his roots through sales. On the cable side, David Levy at Turner has years of advertising sales experience. John Skipper brought advertising sales experience with him to Bristol’s top position when he was appointed president of ESPN in 2012.

DirecTV, a number of years ago, hired a special group of new business pursuers to hit up small businesses, those that could benefit from its addressable advertising business.

New business chasers need to be prepared in order to be successful. Here’s an example of how a little knowledge led to a big sale.

Mike Jaquet reminisced about the time that CSTV (now CBS Sports Network) wasn’t sufficiently distributed in cable homes to qualify for transactional buys. “We ran lengthy pregame shows as lead-ins to the games that were carried on the traditional CBS over-the-air network," said Jaquet. "Because of the lack of ratings, it was a challenging sale.”

So, among other things, Jaquet urged his staff to research a prospect’s likes, dislikes and profiles. “One day, we got in to see Steve Robinson at Chick-fil-A. The Richards Group, the company’s ad agency, refused to buy the package. We needed Robinson’s blessing,” he said. 

Jaquet and company established the fact that Robinson is an alumnus of Auburn. The CBS Network then customized a video to demonstrate the power of the SEC, which it planned to present to Chick-fil-A. “In it, we had ‘War Eagle’ interviewed by his handler," he said. "We had fans emote. We had the fight song. We had a video of the chant. It was stirring!”

After brief introductions at the meeting, Jaquet and his seller dimmed the lights for the video presentation. Robinson had no idea what to expect. “He watched the video intensely," said Jaquet. "When it ended, we brought the lights up and Robinson had a tear in his eye.”

Robinson turned to Jaquet and his seller and said, “That’s a great video. I feel we’ll do business because you understand the culture of the SEC.”

Jaquet said that the Chick-fil-A deal at the time was the biggest for the fledgling network. “It was wildly successful; we did shows from the parking lots. It was lots of fun,” Jaquet said proudly.

Having been around the sports media game for 35 years and having run sales staffs locally and nationally, I believe that cold callers, young and old, rookies and veterans, are required to have:

1.              A hungry stomach - It's innate. It can't be taught.

2.              Organization - It's critical. It can be learned and perfected by discipline.

3.              Intuition to find prospects - Some of it is a natural nose of where to hunt and some is the vapor of experience. It sharpens over time.

David Halberstam is the author of The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.