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Thursday, 16 July 2015 09:52

Local sports teams reinvent themselves in pursuit of corporate sponsors

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In its inaugural season, the Grand Rapids Drive secured Chemical Bank as its founding corporate sponsor. Among the sponsorship benefits to the company, the bank’s logo appeared on the basketball court. In its inaugural season, the Grand Rapids Drive secured Chemical Bank as its founding corporate sponsor. Among the sponsorship benefits to the company, the bank’s logo appeared on the basketball court. COURTESY PHOTO

While athletes for West Michigan’s semi-professional sports teams compete for dominance on the court, field or ice, each organization’s front office is doing the same in the sales game, chasing sponsorship dollars that account for a crucial piece of their annual budgets.

By many accounts, sports sponsorships are a truly unique avenue for marketing, one used by businesses in seemingly every industry imaginable — from chiropractors and eye doctors to banks and plumbers.

However, each has a different goal and a different strategy to reach those marketing goals.

“The thing about sports is you’re really selling intangible things,” said Tom Sullivan, president of LEAD Marketing who formerly worked for the Grand Rapids Griffins hockey team and the now-defunct Grand Rapids Rampage arena football organization.

“Brand association is a key term. A business wants to associate with a brand. What’s the feeling that you had when you were at the game with your dad when you were 10 years old? That’s what you’re selling. That’s what you want your brand to associate with.

“You can’t get that on a TV buy or a billboard or on the radio,” added Sullivan, who also teaches a sports marketing class at Davenport University. “That’s the unique thing that sports has — that brand association.”

When it comes to leveraging a brand, businesses often look first to the established sports  teams. West Michigan has a “stick your toe in the water” corporate environment, meaning that companies like to see a track record and proof that a brand is established and has a strong reputation, Sullivan said.

This is certainly a bargaining chip for the West Michigan Whitecaps and Grand Rapids Griffins, which both have 20 seasons behind them. But the same is not true for the fledgling Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA Development League, a team that completed its first season in April.

Drive President Steve Jbara said that despite a whirlwind schedule of preparations leading up to the inaugural season, the organization found significant success on the sponsorship front.

With a roughly $1.1 million operating budget to cover, the Drive generated north of $500,000 in sponsorship sales and an additional $300,000 in trade. Those trades included deals for important operational items like housing with York Creek Apartments LLC, a practice facility at Calvin College and upgrades to the DeltaPlex Arena’s VIP areas thanks to Aaron’s Inc.

“It was a tough year one because we were selling more of a story and not an actual something,” said Jbara, whose team averaged 3,100 fans per game in its first season. “Not a lot of people have heard of the D-League. But (VP of sales) Wes (Weir) and I would go to see people and talk about this great brand of basketball and we did have a lot of success.”


The NBA was a major asset in the Drive’s corner. The league provides solid support for its D-League teams, including profit sharing and resources and coaching for its sales team, Jbara said.

Midland-based Chemical Bank was one of the first major corporate partners to sign on with the team. On Sept. 24, the Drive announced the bank would be the team’s founding sponsor. The deal, according to Jbara, promised exclusivity in that the Drive will not sign any other banks as sponsors.

The Drive’s connection to the NBA and the league’s newly inked deal with ESPN provide the potential for significant national exposure, which is a key selling point for the team.

But the benefit of that exposure didn’t necessarily register with Chemical, a community bank that serves the Michigan market.

“Our focus is on the residents and business owners of Michigan,” said David Quade, the community president in Grand Rapids for Chemical. “The additional national coverage is not essential in building our brand locally. So the deal between the NBA and ESPN played no part in our decision. If anything, though, it just speaks to the quality and potential of the D-League and this Grand Rapids team.”

Chemical is also no stranger to marketing via sports teams. The bank is a current partner with the Great Lakes Loons of Midland, a Midwest League baseball team.

“We’ve been able to make great connections with the Midland community through our partnership with the Loons, and we hope to have that same relationship with the Grand Rapids community through the Drive,” Quade said. “These teams offer good, affordable, family-friendly entertainment and that is the kind of experience we want associated with Chemical Bank.”

Offering industry exclusivity with sponsorships was a crucial bargaining chip for Jbara and his staff, who extended similar agreements to Metro Health and Meijer Inc.

Still, executives for the Griffins, Whitecaps and Kalamazoo Wings — West Michigan’s three most established semi-pro sports teams — said their teams could not simply rest on their laurels and expect sponsorships to materialize.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it is an easy sell,” said Jim Jarecki, vice president of the West Michigan Whitecaps. “Being 20 years in, we do have a strong and loyal core of sponsors that have been with us from day one (i.e. Bissell, Gordon Food Service, MC Sports, etc.). But every year, you want to go out and find new business.

“Business models change, people change, companies change. You’re really trying to get yourself out there and reinvent yourself in different ways.”


Not only are teams looking for ways to reinvent themselves, but the whole concept of sports sponsorships has shifted, in part because of the explosion of social media in the last decade, said LEAD Marketing’s Sullivan.

“I give money to the team and it helps run the team so I can slap my logo on the wall — that was the mentality 10-20 years ago,” said Sullivan, whose firm is the advertising agency of record for the Grand Rapids Griffins.

“Sports brands have huge influence on their followers and not just confined to the outfield wall in the game,” he said. “More sophisticated sports marketers are taking advantage of sports as a culture.”

This can mean anything from getting a product directly in front of fans on game day or developing a social media promotion.

Sullivan recalled a sponsorship he helped develop between and the Griffins. Unlike with traditional sponsorships, the organization that promotes ethanol fuels didn’t even have signage in the arena.

Instead, the Griffins would release videos via Facebook of their mascot using a yellow hose to fill up his car on FlexFuel at a gas station. Fans could guess which station it was for a chance to win a prize.

Sullivan said this is one of the many ways that businesses can leverage sports brands 365 days a year instead of exclusively on game day.

Jarecki agreed and acknowledged the increased pressure on a team’s salesforce for developing campaigns that will achieve the intended results.

“It used to be where you pick up the phone and say, ‘We’ll put you up on the fence sign and that’s it.’ It’s decades later and now ‘return on investment’ is a key word,” Jarecki said.

“They need to see results. We need to say, ‘What are we going to produce for you guys to show that what you’re doing here is working and getting in front of the crowds that come out?’ … It’s definitely a thing where you have to work harder and smarter at the same time.”

Read 5306 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 July 2015 10:05
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

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