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MBPT Spotlight: Signs Of the Times - Sports & Entertainment Exec Sheds Light On Venue Naming Rights

You may not know the name of sports marketing and media sales organization Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment. Even its president and CEO, Jeff Knapple, admits, “A lot of my colleagues in the industry don’t know who we are.”

Knapple and crew are working hard to change that.

VWSE is a wholly owned subsidiary of Van Wagner Communications. You should know that name, especially if you’ve walked, driven or commuted past outdoor signage for entertainment and consumer brands in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and numerous other major cities. Chances are good that they were placed via Van Wagner Communications. 

This past May VWSE formed a collaborative partnership with CineSport, a leading producer and distributor of digital sports video with more than 11 million unique viewers a month, to provide and monetize original sports video content to 100-plus top local, digital sports destinations.

Knapple, who joined Van Wagner Communications in 2012 and was named president and CEO for VWSE in May, is a 25-year industry veteran in stadium naming rights, corporate consulting and sports business leadership.

Prior to joining Van Wagner, Knapple cofounded Envision with Philip Anschutz, which in 2002 was sold to Wasserman Media Group, Los Angeles. There, he led WMG’s sales and naming rights division for 10 years.

Knapple, who is based in New York, has been the principal on more than 15 major naming rights deals dating back to 1989, including the Target Center (Minneapolis), Staples Center (Los Angeles), The Home Depot Center (now StubHub Center, Los Angeles), Philips Arena (Atlanta), Emirates Stadium (London), Dolby Theatre (Hollywood) and MetLife Stadium (New Jersey - that was from when he was with the Wasserman Media Group).

Among other current projects, Van Wagner is consulting with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings on corporate, marketing and naming rights deals for the team’s new stadium (scheduled to open for the 2016 season), and with MetLife Stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII this February.

Here, Knapple talks about the current landscape of sports business naming rights and corporate opportunities and ways in which VWSE is expanding its presence. 

In the early days of venue naming rights, it seemed, more often than not, a company put its name on a stadium, arena or venue and used it for little more than a giant billboard. How has that transformed into more of a complete business strategy?

A lot of companies did it simply for the awareness. Some have come and gone. There was the dot-com boom and bust. Then we went through a boom, which arguably was from about the mid-1990s to about the time of the conclusion of the new facilities in the New York area [including the Giants-Jets venue MetLife Stadium, the Mets’ Citi Field, the new Yankee Stadium, the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclays Center and Red Bull Stadium]. We went from an area where maybe 20% of the professional sports teams sought naming rights to more than 80% today that want to have naming rights on their stadiums and venues. That is a tremendous growth in a relatively short time.

Is this strategy limited to new stadiums or venues?

I looked at the landscape after having completed the deal for MetLife Stadium with the New York Giants and Jets while I was with Wasserman Media Group. I saw that even though there were not a lot of new stadiums being built in the world, there were a tremendous amount of renovations domestically and internationally, which provided new opportunities.

Is there a company that has made the most of its naming rights opportunity?

The deal that MetLife signed for the Giants and Jets stadium and that AT&T signed for naming rights to the Dallas Cowboys stadium are the business models. You are going to get a tremendous amount of awareness and you’re going to need to think through what’s the best way to exploit the opportunity. Why else would you spend your money there?

Which company has done it well long term?

The first naming rights transaction I worked on was Target Center in Minneapolis in 1989. It was referred to then as putting your name on a building, putting your name up there. Naming rights was not even in the vernacular. Target was my client, and we thought through a lot of disciplines. But that was our job. We spent a lot of time thinking of ways to take advantage of the opportunity. I worked with Tim Leiweke [currently president and CEO for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment and former president and CEO for AEG], who was vice president of sponsorship for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. That deal had a level of activation that, truthfully, was ahead of its time. It was at the level you would see today.

MetLife Stadium as host for Super Bowl XLVIII will get the insurance firm a lot of global awareness. But how do you avoid getting lost among the tremendous amount of brands that will be activating? 

When [Wasserman Media Group] presented MetLife with the naming rights opportunity, it coincided with the stadium being awarded Super Bowl XLVIII. So there has been a three-year period for them to ramp up and take advantage of the situation. Now, Van Wagner’s consulting business works with MetLife to think through the different ways to best activate. You don’t want to get lost. Having said that, MetLife Stadium is arguably one of the most unique facilities in the country, hosting two NFL teams and being in the media capital of the world. If you are in another city it is far more challenging, especially on a long-term basis and not just for the two weeks or so when the Super Bowl comes to town.

With so much time, energy and money being put into enhancing the experience of fans and consumers who can’t or don’t attend games in person, are stadiums and venues spending enough time to enhance the in-stadium experience?

There isn’t a major professional league, and there isn’t a university in the nation, that is not talking about and looking for ways to drive fans into their stadium or venue. We believe that part of the solution is to look at how to create a better fan experience and how to monetize that experience. The teams or the universities can provide the infrastructure to help cover the costs because, obviously, it’s not free. It’s a hand-in-glove scenario. When I first started, naming rights were an afterthought. Now, it’s a key part of the financing plan for every team or stadium and venue being built—as is driving revenue from the fan experience perspective.

What do you see as Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment’s strengths and challenges?

We have a lot of resources from an overall global perspective. My mantra is to brand the Van Wagner sports group as a whole and put us more firmly entrenched in the minds of our clients and those who might become our clients. We are a profitable, well-run company, but we are a dark horse in many ways. We have a group of 70-75 people who have done great things in their careers. But I would argue that a lot of my colleagues in the industry don’t even know who we are. So the challenge is to build a business that expands beyond the original TV-visible signage, which is the anchor of who we are. 

How is Van Wagner supporting that strategy?

In a multitude of ways. We are expanding our corporate consulting division, which, if you go back to my roots with McDonald’s in the 1980s, is where I come from. Helping brands think through from a marketing perspective about how sports and entertainment can help them to build their business. That is an area we believe has significant growth.

We’ve cultivated a roll-up strategy in the Team and Venue Services group, which I started in 2012. There is an expertise in naming rights that Chris Allphin [VWSE VP] and I have, with a track record of 17, 18 naming rights deals across 15, 17 years.

We added a third piece, which is a joint venture with Big Screen Networks, now called Van Wagner Big Screen Networks, which is a production company for in-stadium content and graphics. Whatever happens in the stadium, on scoreboards, LED rings and other activations that we are responsible for is handled by Van Wagner Big Screen Networks. So it is a solution inside the Team and Venue Services business on how to drive revenue. They’ve run the Super Bowl for 29 years, the Pro Bowl for the past 12 years, the Final Four for the past 10 years and the U.S. Tennis Open, which is an assignment we picked up this past year. They’ve also done four Olympic Games and we will be doing the Winter Games in Sochi.

The last piece is that we’ve created a premium-seating ticketing business to sell suites and luxury boxes and, in the cases where it applies, [personal seat licenses] for NFL teams. The Minnesota Vikings are one of our clients with their new stadium being built for the 2016 NFL season and which is one of three stadiums that could host Super Bowl LII. We believe these areas will help to build our business and, frankly, make our clients businesses even better.

How has the business model changed over the years?

The old business model was to come in and broker a deal to generate a naming rights transaction and be paid a commission for doing it. The new business model is much more of a consulting platform. Let me harness the expertise we have, help the client, the venue or the team and think through how to drive revenue from your facility beyond just naming rights. So on our team, we start with naming rights—we brought in Bob Jordan [VWSE senior VP] who is a technology expert and a stadium savant, which I say with a great deal of flattery, who worked with the Jets when they were trying to build a stadium on the west side of Manhattan and was involved with the MetLife naming rights deal. So we have, combined with our naming rights experience, a lot of experience the other companies don’t have.

The transactions in which I have been involved, because of my background and thought process is to fully activate, monetize and extract benefits from the opportunity that comes with a naming rights deal. That is a significant communication for the brand. What they choose to do with it is very different in every case. 

Is outdoor and out-of-home advertising still considered a strong component in corporate marketing?

It is still very effective. There are certain areas of the country where it matters more and makes more of an impact. Van Wagner’s outdoor strategy is to remain primarily focused on 10 big markets and to sell unique positions in the areas in which we do business. The inventory that we have is strong inventory and withstands some of the traditional ebbs and flows of out-of-home.

This interview was reprinted with permission of