Darren Rovell with ESPN gives the keynote address at the Corporate Ticketing Impact Conference, New York.

REPORTING FROM NEW YORK — Sponsors are increasingly expecting more from sports teams than luxury boxes and celebrity meet-and-greets. Deals that once packaged signage and high-end experiences are evolving into complex business development tools, where data is as equally important as dollars. Attendees at this year’s Corporate Ticketing Impact Conference held at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens said they are increasingly relying on teams to justify the ROI on the millions of dollars they annually collect from sponsors, and want teams more directly involved helping to woo clients.

“We need to stop selling signs and start selling solutions – if you’re not selling solutions you’re going to get passed over,” said Chris Heck, the newly-appointed Chief Revenue Officer for the Philadelphia 76ers. For some teams, that can mean creating unique experiences for high-end clients that impress major customers. For other teams, that means utilizing customer data to better identify key demographics. The topics were an extension of the Association of Luxury Suite Directors' annual confab, homing in on the $12-billion corporate ticketing market with a mix of about 200 team executives, group sales associates and major ticket buyers from Fortune 500 companies sitting through panels like “Access to Unique Experiences” and “Corporate Gifting and the Amenity Market.”

Keynote speaker Darren Rovell with ESPN said scoreboard signs are no longer the best buy in sports sponsorships — he said companies would rather have their logo on the wax paper used to hold giant 18-inch hot dogs at Chase Field in Phoenix than have their logo displayed on the overhead scoreboard. Sponsors want unique positioning, they want to be part of the experience and they want to stand out.

“Teams shouldn’t be giving sponsors a list of available inventory,” Rovell explained. “They should be telling sponsors what inventory they absolutely can’t have,” and then open everything else to negiotations.

Venues and teams are also increasingly expected to demonstrate a larger knowledge of the locality— that means not only have an encyclopedic knowledge of what’s available at a venue, but a comparison with what everyone else in town is selling.

“I’ve sat through pitches where the team has showed me data that proves their package is one of the best values in the market,” said Gary Grose, managing director of Marsh Marketing. “That shows me that the team has done the financial analysis for me,” information that can be taken back to the executive team to close the deal during the decision-making process.

As the market for corporate sponsorship grows, so do the demands of the country’s largest ticket buyers and sponsors, and firms are more careful to examine brand identity before committing to doing business.

“We want to know what your fans think of your brand. We want to brand ourselves with the same value that your consumers put on those brands,” said Bill Hueffner, Director of Sponsorship for JELD WEN, the world’s largest window manufacturer.

Of course it’s easy to sell tickets when you’re a team like the Detroit Tigers, or San Antonio Spurs, or the San Francisco 49ers, that regularly go deep in the playoffs. But what about teams that are in rebuilding phases, or worse, constantly lose.

“If you’re not winning, you have to have a realistic approach to what you’re selling, and why,” said Tony Knopp, CEO of Spotlight TMS, a software program that helps suiteholders manage inventory.

“Everyone wants to buy into something that’s hot, but are they going to get a deal that keeps them around in five years when it’s not the hot new thing anymore?” Knopp asked.

Heck said he treats ticket sales like a poor performing stock — sure it’s cheap now, but that’s just an opportunity to get a good deal and buy into something that potentially has long-term value.

“It’s about going out there and saying we’re going somewhere, but we know where we are right now,” he said. While the 76ers finished in last place this season, the team is slated to pick up some top draft positions and has a realistic shot at grabbing the number one draft pick.

“We’re not trying to sell fans something we can’t deliver, but we are giving people the opportunity to grab onto the stock while its still rising,” he said.

Just don’t let success go to one’s head, explained Hueffner, whose company dropped its naming rights deal with the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer earlier this year.

“I believe in loyalty and long-term relationships. When you have a long-term relationship with a sports entity, you shouldn’t take that for granted. Especially if the team starts doing well — if we think we’re not being treated well, we won’t renew.”

One way to make most sponsors happy — create activities for their kids. A number of panelists said their top events are those geared toward children, whether it's a chance to serve as a ball boy at a game or even a quick high-five from an MVP player

“If you make a sponsor look like a hero to their kids, you've won a customer for life,” said Scott O'Connell, director of suite and premium services with the Minnesota Twins. “But keep in mind that if you give something to one person, the other is going to want it. We do our best to keep the suite people apart from each other, because once they start talking to each other, it's a nightmare for you.” 

Interviewed for this article: Chris Heck, (215) 336-3600; Gary Grouse, (415) 453-7045; Bill Hueffner, (800) 535-3936; Tony Knopp, (877) 423-4868; Scott O'Connell, (612) 659-3400