CEO, Ponturo Management Group LLC: Tony Ponturo

Tony Ponturo loves a good sports
metaphor. He heard them all while
working for 26 years at Anheuser-
Busch, building Bud Light into the
world’s best-selling beer brand—
with Budweiser second—thanks
largely to the incredibly savvy sports
partnerships he designed. But the one-time president and
CEO of Busch Media Group always lived and worked by
one big sports-related code: It’s important to have a good
tiebreaker. In other words, if you give a little bit now, a lot
may come your way later on, when it counts most.

“Lots of people lose sight of the fact that in some
deals, it can be, OK, I’m not sure I see the full benefit
yet but I know it’s important to you, and at the end of
the day, I know I’ll get my benefit,” Ponturo says. “And
that really does go so far.”

It’s a style born from a commitment to service and
a belief that, in a highly competitive brand-building
world, a greater degree of old-school kindness and respect
will often win the day.

And Ponturo has seen more winning days than just
about anybody in his business. Leading the in-house
team charged with building Bud Light to compete with
Miller Lite beginning in 1982, Ponturo presided over
deals that forever turned A-B into the quintessential
Super Bowl commercial brand, from the creation of
the Bud Bowl (pitting animated teams of Bud and Bud
Light bottles against each other on the gridiron) to the
airing of some of television’s most anticipated annual
ads. With Ponturo quarterbacking the team, A-B also orchestrated
official beer sponsorships with Major League
Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National
Hockey League, Major League Soccer and NASCAR,
as well as a host of international deals. By wisely
managing more than $700 million annually in broadcast
and cable buys, Ponturo frequently turned ground-floor
opportunities into long-term victories.

“Tony Ponturo understood the business of sports marketing
as well as any human I’ve known,” says MLB
Commissioner Bud Selig. “His impact on the business
of sports and marketing is enormous. Should he be in the
B&C Hall of Fame? I’d say that’s an unequivocal yes.”

Ponturo’s determination for such success was established
when he started at A-B after six years in the New
York advertising business. Anheuser-Busch CEO August
Busch III set the tone, and threw down a gauntlet
when he announced to his A-B branding team his desire
to best Miller Lite in the market.

“There was an amazing competitive spirit that started
at the top, and you came to
work every day a little bit with
a bayonet in your mouth,” Ponturo
recalls. “You wanted to
win, you wanted to do well. We
were proud of what we were
accomplishing, and the energy
in the building was never to be
satisfied. And we were fortunate
that we had amazing consistency
with the people in our company,
so you had that team that
worked together and didn’t get
distracted by the new kid on the
block that had a different way of
doing things. We just stayed to
our knitting and the consistency
gave us a step up on the process
and it proved out.”

Ponturo may have been at his best beginning in the
mid-1980s, when the rights to air the Super Bowl were
traded annually between CBS, NBC and ABC. In each
negotiation—continuing in the early 1990s, when Fox
intercepted CBS’ NFL rights—Ponturo came to view
the big game as a linchpin of much grander deals.

“The networks were not gonna sell [the Super Bowl]
at isolation,” he recalls. “And that led to these amazing
multi-year, multi-sport deals. In a 30-day period of time
we would have locked up three or four networks’ Super
Bowls over five years, as well as their NFL football,
their NASCAR, their baseball, their college football,
all-encompassing packages. And because the deals had
such girth, we also had very reasonable inflation points
each year. So we really created in many respects our
own upfront, locking up not only the Super Bowl but
all the major sports properties.”

The deals were often—to use another sports metaphor —red zone-like skirmishes with pride and profit
very much at stake. By keeping both his cool and his
belief that everybody deserves a piece of the win, he and
A-B’s business continued to thrive and grow.

“Tony was a statesman in very difficult situations, and
he had this great style,” recalls Brian France, chairman
and CEO of NASCAR. “He had to buy a lot of sports
rights and media and had to do it in a competitive environment,
and he did it with a great approach.

And for Ponturo, that approach always went back to
laying the groundwork for those sweet tiebreakers. “In the late ’80s, Miller [Brewing] had for years the
Los Angeles Dodgers local baseball sponsorship, and we
wanted it,” he says. “And it was on a local Fox affiliate.
Fox had just started in 1985 and we had taken somewhat
of a risk to be, for a million dollars, one of their five or
ten gold sponsors to support the network when it was
just a Tuesday and a Wednesday primetime schedule.
And when we were competing for this local [Dodgers]
sponsorship, the tiebreaker came when I was brought in
to the station manager, along with Jamie Kellner, who
was CEO of Fox at the time. And [Kellner] said, ‘You
also helped support us at a time when we needed it, so
that’s gonna be the tiebreaker.’ So you never know when
it’s gonna come back and help you, but it usually does.”

After InBev purchased A-B in 2008, Ponturo took the
early retirement package and returned to the New York
area of his youth. It brought back plenty of memories:
Of starting his career as an NBC page—where he met
his wife—and embracing his love of both sports and
entertainment. Founding his own Ponturo Management
Group LLC, he indulged his love of theater and began
exploring a new career: Broadway producer. It’s led
to yet more wins for Ponturo: He earned a Best Musical
Tony award as one of the chief backers of the hit
show Memphis, then snapped up rights to the acclaimed
David Maraniss biography of Vince Lombardi, When
Pride Still Mattered
. The much-anticipated Broadway
adaptation of the book—titled Lombardi—was scheduled
at press time to open this month.

Ironically, it brings Ponturo back to the Super Bowl:
The winning NFL team gets to hoist the Vince Lombardi
trophy, after all. “It’s the passion of my old job, working
with the NFL all those years, and then taking this new
passion of theater from the business side,” he says. “Raising
capital for the show, it really has all the elements of
business and management and marketing. When people
step back and think about it, it’s not that much of a leap in
some respects as some may think. It’s your game to win
or lose, using a sports analogy again. It’s been fun, and
it’s a real challenge to do it.”

Robert Edelstein

Rob has written for Broadcasting+Cable since 2006, starting with his work on the magazine’s award-winning 75th-anniversary issue. He was born a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium … so of course he’s published three books on NASCAR, most notably, Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner. He’s currently the special projects editor at TV Guide Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and his origami art has been in The Wall Street Journal. He lives with his family in New Jersey and is writing a novel about the Wild West.