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Steve DeLay's picture


"However, I am interested in hearing what your team has to offer for sponsorships. But I don't trust salespeople. You're just going to tell me what you think I want to hear. Bring your head of sponsorship activation. That's the person I really want to talk to."

A former colleague shared this conversation with me. It happened to him when he used to sell sponsorships for a team in one of the Big Five leagues. He had the conversation with the head of sports marketing of a major consumer brand who spends hundreds of millions of dollars on sponsorships every year.


It's the clear direction sponsorship sales are going. Sponsor's want much, much more than just some signage, ads and tickets. Abe Madkour summarized the National Sports Forum's 2015 Sponsor Survey well with this column. Sponsors stressed greater activation and more ideas from properties. Unless you are winning championships and sponsors just want the association, your sponsorship activation team and their successes are the most valuable sales tool you have.


We all know it. The days of selling fixed signage, some media, a lucky section giveaway and some tickets are long gone. Properties have finally started to wise up. Now, sponsorship salespeople try to dazzle the prospect with all kinds of figures about ratings, eyeballs, impressions and other tracking metrics. That stuff is nice but the sponsorship still boils down to 'How do you help the sponsor accomplish their goals?' And, 9 out of 10 times that goal is 'help me sell more product'

Sponsors need elements that specifically help them accomplish their goals. That's where your Director of Sponsor Activation comes in to the equation. (By the way, I don't believe in this "Partner' activation or 'Partner' sales stuff. Partner connotes 'equals'. A sponsor is paying you in order for you to help them accomplish their goals. They are a client then, not a partner. They will pay you only as long as you're helping them accomplish their goals.)

Your Director of Sponsor Activation, if they are good, can tell plenty of stories and give specific, concrete examples to your prospect about how they've helped other sponsors accomplish their goals. The Director of Sponsor Activation and their staff are right in the thick of the action, working hand in hand, every day knowing your sponsors' business and knowing your team's assets and determining how they can work together most effectively.

If you're using your Activation team to just 'check off the list' to make sure the sponsor contract elements are fulfilled, you're missing the boat. You know what I mean - did they get their suite tickets on time, did the radio spot run, do you have the prizes for their lucky section? Your Activation team should be much more than a 'checklist' person. They should be living and breathing every day to make your sponsor's investment in the team work better than you as the salesperson could ever dream.

The Director of Activation know what works and what doesn't work and why. The Activation team should have the flexibility to step well beyond the original deal to make sure the partner gets what they need to be successful and renew.


I always believed in bringing in the Activation team on the second or third sales meeting but after hearing from my former colleague, I'm thinking the Director of Sponsor Activation needs to be on the first call with every real, legitimate sponsor candidate. They are credibility in a sales world where salespeople have very little of it. They are doing it every day and can relate successes in real terms, not just in eyeballs and impressions.

Now, I can hear every Director of Sponsorship Activation groan about the number of new business calls they'll be dragged on. Sure it involves more work but let me tell you some strategies for making this work.

First, Activation should be paid a hefty commission for helping hit the sponsorship department goals. The salespeople are just making the first call. It should be a team effort to make the sale and the renewal.

Second, if your activation team's schedule is packed with meetings where they aren't getting things done, you have two choices:

Hire more activation staff . When I ran sponsorships at Mandalay Baseball, our teams had a bevy of activation staff. We had one activation person for about every 15 accounts. I know of NBA and NHL teams doing 7 or 8 times the revenue we did at our Mandalay teams but have fewer service people. What's your ratio of activation staff to sponsors? Think about how much each sponsor is worth and whether it's better to spend another $50,000 on an activation person or risk losing some of your six figure sponsors because your Activation staff only had time to 'check off the list' and not really get ingrained in the sponsor's business?

If you're a team that still has your salespeople handling activation, wake up. Salespeople by nature are not detail people. They should be selling, not collecting radio spots and Lucky Section prizes. Most sponsorship salespeople are focused on the sale, not the creative aspects of getting a deal. They will end up being slow and ineffective on creative and successful activation. That means they are spending less time selling. Hire an activation person to take the load off the salesperson. They will spend more time selling which means more revenue for the team.

Teach the sponsorship salespeople all of those success stories . Then, they can do the story-telling themselves on the initial sales call. The best sponsorship salesperson is the one who can do three things:

  • Get appointments with the decision maker. Any sponsorship salesperson can get an appointment with a marketing coordinator. The true stars of the industry know what to say when they pick up the phone to make a call. They know how to handle objections on the phone and get the meeting with the right person.
  • Make an effective sales presentation that's a conversation, not a sales pitch. What I mean by conversation is a relaxed style that feels like you're talking through how you can help the prospect and the prospect doesn't feel like they are being pitched. The salesperson is a consultant for the prospect, not a salesperson pitching something. The prospect genuinely feels like the salesperson is there to help. No Power Points, no flip charts, no snazzy videos. Just a conversation with stories about successes (and failures, if appropriate), ideas, props and tools the prospect can use. This means the salesperson has to not only understand the sponsor's business (relatively easy to do with some internet searching) but also understand how the team has succeeded in helping other sponsors with the same goals. (this may be the hardest part for a salesperson to learn)
  • Smart follow up. This means taking what they learned in the first sales meeting and developing go-back strategies that hit the sponsor's hot buttons. Go-back strategies that move the sales process forward instead of sideways or even backwards. This is usually where the biggest swing and miss comes in. The mediocre salesperson usually does his/her best Sheldon Cooper knocking on Penny's door imitation, "Do you want to buy yet? Do you want to buy yet? Do you want to buy yet?" Instead, have a plan and a purpose for the second meeting. The perfect time to bring in your wingman/woman to explain a new idea if they weren't on the first sales call.


If you've done your homework ahead of time, it is possible to make a sales pitch during your first meeting with the prospect. You never know if you'll be able to get that decision-maker in a room again with their undivided attention so take your best shot when you have it. The key is to be able to have that conversation, learn the prospect's goals and objectives and then take the elements in the proposal you feel is right and show the sponsor how your elements help them accomplish their goals. You may not hit it 100% on that first call but you'll get immediate feedback from the prospect on where you're right and where you're wrong. That feedback gives you the impetus to ask for a second meeting on the spot where you'll come back with more specific ideas to help them accomplish their goals.

If you're a salesperson with these skills and can think on your feet, the sky is the limit. That head of sports marketing will want to talk to you. If you're missing one or two of these talents (and trust me, most are), use your wingman to fill in the blanks for you where you're weakest. You work for a team, make your sponsorship sales a team business by treating your wingman/woman with the respect their talent has earned them.

If you have an opinion on this, send me an email or post a comment. I'd like to know who thinks they have the system down. Next month, in my ticketing column, we'll discuss why social media as we know it will be dead in three years. That should rile some people up.

Steve DeLay is co-author with Jon Spoelstra of "The Ultimate Toolkit to Sell the Last Seat in the House" a complete ticket sales strategy, tactics and training system for teams and colleges. Steve and Jon are working on "The Ultimate Toolkit - Sponsorships" to be rolled out later this year that provides the same tools to teams on how to maximize sponsorship sales. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @SteveDeLay2."

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