Team players

Inside the thinking of companies spending their money on sports marketing in Middle Tennessee

The Nashville Predators’ 2010-’11 season is widely regarded as the best in the franchise’s history. On the ice, there was a first-ever playoff series win. In the stands, sellouts were the highest since the team’s second season. And at the bank, revenue increased steadily.

But the organization took another step forward, too.

After years of corporate sponsorships with companies few people had heard of — at least one of which has drawn unwanted federal attention — the city’s NHL team announced partnership deals with big brands and industry leaders Bridgestone and AT&T.

The tire company, which has a significant history of sports sponsorship and is the name sponsor of the NHL’s TV ratings blockbuster Winter Classic outdoor game, lent its name to the arena. After years of having no wireless sponsor, the Predators signed on with AT&T. The partnerships sparked warm fuzzies among the team and its fans. That respected, big-name companies were hooking up with the team spoke to the franchise’s improving stability.

But outside of those positive vibes, what draws teams and corporations together? And what does it actually mean to both sides’ fortunes?

The Predators tellingly use the term “partners” rather than sponsors when speaking of the deals. It’s a fairly standard quid pro quo model: In teaming with AT&T, Bridgestone Arena has the privilege of being of the few sports venues in the country be wired with a distributed-antennae system that improves wireless service. In exchange, AT&T gets exposure at the arena, on broadcasts and brand association with a sports-fan demographic that prides itself on loyalty.

The concept of demographic capture works both ways.

One of the more interesting local team-company deals this year was Fifth Third’s sponsorship of the Nashville Metros, the city’s not-quite professional soccer team. Fifth Third also became the Predators’ banking sponsor this year — a more obvious move, as Fifth Third’s ATMs are the only option inside the arena.

The soccer deal is far more subtle. The three-year, $20,000 per annum agreement will help the Metros make upgrades at Ezell Park, improvements needed to qualify for higher levels on the American soccer pyramid.

“Our goal within one or two years is to go to USL Pro and you have to meet certain requirements,” Metros General Manager Brad Branson said.

Eventually, the Metros’ owners want to make a play to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to the city, and Branson said the deal with the bank is a step in that direction.

“Some people say that’s not realistic and it’s a dream. But I don’t like to stay in the same place. I like to have goals,” he said. “We’re glad to have [Fifth Third] — every little bit helps — as we grow and we build and get better.”

In exchange, Fifth Third becomes the team’s official bank, yes, but also gets a presence at Metros events. As the bank put it, that helps “further introduce Fifth Third Bank to Nashville’s diverse communities.” By spending a relatively small amount of money, Fifth Third taps into the fast-growing, soccer-mad and relatively unbanked Hispanic population that makes up the bulk of Metros spectators.

Taking as a whole, sponsorship money is essentially free cash: Once the deal is struck, the signage erected and the ad copy written, the work to be done is all in keeping both sides happy. That doesn’t require the same boots-on-the-ground approach as other revenue generators such as selling tickets. And all revenue is good revenue.

“It provides a revenue influx that allows us to invest back into the team,” Predators CEO Jeff Cogen said.

And it opens the door for the crucial cross-pollination that brings new potential customers to the club. Bridgestone organized a contest to win tickets to the Winter Classic, Cogen said, that drew more than 7,500 people.

“There was one winner and 7,499 losers and I know who they are and their phone numbers,” he said.

It also works within each of the sponsoring companies. On occasion, teams will have a “Bridgestone Night” at the arena, with ticket discounts sent to the company’s employees via email.

“Now you extrapolate that through 150 partners,” Cogen said.

Looking beyond the obvious

Companies signing big checks for big-league sponsorship and marketing deals often base their decision on the national, perhaps even global, reach of their investment. But in some cases, the money being put to work is spent with an eye on small details.

Take Lebanon-based Lochinvar, a longtime sponsor of the Predators. The company, which was recently bought by A.O. Smith for more than $400 million, specializes in energy-efficient industrial boilers and water heaters. Nashville, being in the South, isn’t exactly a target market for those goods, but the Preds play regularly in cooler climes such as Chicago, Columbus and Detroit — all home to divisional rivals and potential Lochinvar customer. Lochinvar also does big deals in hockey-mad Canada.

To that end, the bulk of Lochinvar’s presence at Bridgestone Arena is along the boards, guaranteed to maximize TV exposure.

On the other hand, Lochinvar’s presence at Titans games is less pronounced. And why? The Titans play in the AFC South, with more frequent tilts against teams from Jacksonville and Houston.

The inverse of that approach comes from teams’ hyper-local partners. Gary Force Acura is the name sponsor of the upper deck at Bridgestone Arena. High above the ice, the dealership’s signage is far less likely to be seen on television. But it is in the faces of the folks in the seats, who are overwhelmingly from Middle Tennessee.

The challenge, according to Predators marketing VP Chris Parker, is correctly balancing the dollars an outside corporate giant can bring with the engagement of local firms.

“Any time you can do a deal with a company with a recognized local presence, you’re far better off than dealing remotely,” he said. “We are after the revenue, but you want the activity.”

Fortunately, corporate relocations in Nashville — and the area’s longer-term overall growth — have made achieving that balance a little bit easier.