Gary Linke offers 5 more lessons on how to build a sales career in sport

Updated: Apr 19


I have been genuinely surprised by the positive reaction to my first five lessons from the sports business, especially on LinkedIn and Twitter. A few people I didn’t even know and who had achieved a lot in the sports industry contacted me for a chat. The blog also clearly resonated with some brand stakeholders who do admire tenacity but spend their working lives discouraging sales people from reaching out.

Mr Robertshaw at Leeds Grammar School summed me up perfectly as a teenager - E5 in Woodwork - “Linke seems unable to obey simple instructions”. I still find great difficulty in fine motor skills, multi-tasking, spatial perception and using gadgets and appliances.

However, my long term memory is very powerful, I have lots of empathy and see things differently to others, especially in terms of opportunities. I have commercial acumen and analytical skills e.g. I won the 6th form Business Studies Prize and used the gift voucher to buy the Annual Form Guide to Racehorses and went up on the stage with another book I already owned called In Search of Excellence.

I have worked on my weaknesses and built up my self-esteem. That awkward child led to me admiring people to the point whereby I am an “underdog” and I’ve had to work on my personal and business relationships. Even now, I’m still maturing and learning from mistakes.

With no shortage of content and always happy to open up, here is my second blog that also contains a couple of “No deals”. My first blog here listed five lessons from my experience in the sports business. Here are lessons 6-10.

BETTING ON RUGBY LEAGUE

I was selling Rugby League sponsorship for 5 years and had some early success but hit a barren spell and my boss left.

A frustration was a lack of a betting partner and that was not through lack of trying. Logic said to me, we have live TV matches, points, tries, leagues and cups so why can’t we get a decent offer in?

So, I tried a different approach. I knew a bloke called Richard Glynn from school. He went onto run Ladbrokes. I knew him well enough to contact but was not in the same social circles. He knew Rugby League and I invited him to meet Blake Solly, GM of Super League.

I advised Blake that Richard will have a strong opinion on how to grow the game and also have ideas and offer some constructive criticism. The scene was set at the RAC Club. During the positive exchange, I blurted out that Rugby League should have a betting partner and what a great opportunity it was? Richard said “write me a two pager”. I did. Then he emailed back “Come and pitch it to me and my Head of Digital”. We did!

Blake signed off for a new sales deck and the iconic trophy was sent from Leeds to London with the Ladbrokes ribbons attached. A team of 4 rehearsed the pitch. On my way with the family to Disneyland, Blake called me and said Jim Mullen, who became the next Ladbrokes CEO, wanted to buy out the sport for betting for the next 5 years!

Once the Ladbrokes sponsorship team took over, the deal was slightly diluted but included the Challenge Cup naming rights for 3 seasons. The sponsorship was renewed once and then Coral, the sister company of Ladbrokes, took over the reins on the Challenge Cup.

Lesson 6 When traditional methods of selling partnerships are not gaining results, find the CEO who has affinity to the sport, is open to a wider discussion and has the vision to consider the opportunity.

THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE'S FUTURE WASN'T ORANGE

On the flip side, I now turn the clock back to the Football League (EFL) and 2004. On a roll with the Coca-Cola decision to sponsor the EFL, the 3G mobile revolution created a dynamic sector and a land grab for partnerships. The offer from Orange, who had created Orange Wednesdays was far and away the biggest second tier proposal received in my first 6 years. It was three times the offer of another major player in the market.

With a network of websites of over 80 clubs and online user data of sms and newsletters, the League opportunity was innovative. Oliver Slipper from PTV (later to become Perform) and Richard Masters led proceedings as I crafted a list of assets on the off-line side and we met Orange who proudly displayed their new cinema campaign.

I waited outside the Boardroom, ready for the good news. But never underestimate the stakeholders and their agenda.

The deal was rejected as several clubs had been contacted individually by Orange competitors. These Championship clubs were challenging for promotion to the Premier League and were receiving indicative offers.

We were stunned and Orange withdrew their interest in any counter proposal. For the next six years, whilst the EFL secured some valuable second tier partnerships with EA, E.ON, Texaco, Thomas Cook and Wickes, the Orange bubble had burst that category. It was said at the time “The future is bright, the future is Orange”!

Lesson 7 - Never underestimate the individual stakeholders. Ensure they buy into the vision rather than any deal being presented as a fait accompli. The EFL then adopted a more consultative approach inviting the clubs to “opt in” on second tier opportunities based on an individual club fee and a rights package.

RFL AND TRAINLINE.COM

Of all the deals I have done the next example may never happen again: The RFL was behind sales forecast for the 2016 Four Nations, hosted in England. I had started one of my typical wild goose chases utilising a contact at The Trainline.com. Their Business Development side wanted to demonstrate their vision for helping fans save money on travel, via their website. They were not interested in “sponsorship.”

Whilst arranging a meeting, I attached the Four Nations sales deck and sent it for interest on basis it “would help The Trainline understand the sport”, in my words.

An email came back “I will take Package 2 please”

At 5.15am, the next morning, I was waiting for the tube gates to open to get to Media City for 9am to discuss a potential shortfall in revenue. Instead, on arrival, the team worked on the draft agreement and it was signed by Trainline after a few tweaks. Never before or since have I sent an intro deck and received an offer for a partnership package, from a company who had said no to partnerships and it probably will never happen again!

Lesson 8- it is worth sending a sales deck out of context to any brand for their education. You never know. In this case, The Trainline had taken their media buying “in –house” and they needed eyeballs and had budget. The 2016 Four Nations games were shown live on the BBC.

LOSING SMIRNOFF ICE

As Lesson 8 above demonstrates, sometimes there is no logic and here is another one that went sour.

About 13 years ago, Smirnoff Ice was flying off the shelf, making lots of money and the FAB sector was created. We'd entered the Alcopops era. The brand manager educated us that Smirnoff Ice drinkers were cleverer than beer drinkers - I quite liked Barcadi Breezer Watermelon myself.

An enticing offer came in, via Octagon, to sponsor both the English League Cup and the Scottish League Cup to create the British Cup!

“Money talks” so a “roadmap” was created whereby the football family would explore the opportunity for the “British Cup” but Smirnoff Ice would still sponsor both the English and Scottish League Cup as individual competitions, in any event.

Then at long form agreement stage (version 10) the offer for a 3 year deal was withdrawn! Latest consumer research was blamed by Diageo and the deal collapsed. The incumbent Carling, who had a great relationship with both the EFL and the PL came back to the table to renew the Carling Cup, so all was not lost.

Lesson 9- When a new brand tries to redesign your sport, rather than their own packaging, ensure you maintain a good relationship with more established brands in their category.

WHEN MITRE WANTED ITS BALL BACK

The last one is about loyalty and business ethics. The blow to Mitre to lose the Premier League ball deal to Nike in 2000-01 was significant. The PL was growing up and becoming a leading global property.

Nike were at this stage unproven when it came to making footballs, but as someone quietly suggested to me: “The best ball is the one with the biggest number of zeros after it” In other words, Nike outbid Mitre.

When Mitre also lost the FA ball supplier deal to Umbro, the EFL became their biggest property. As the person leading the renewal, I met with Paul Bell of Mitre hoping to secure a major uplift. However, despite the implications for Mitre to lose the contract, the increase agreed was based on the growth of the EFL, rather than the threat to Mitre’s future to lose the contract. Mitre is still the official ball of the EFL and has since regained the FA’s ball deal.

Lesson 10- Relationships are key in most industries and football is no different. Treat suppliers with respect, use objective reasons to increase fees and remember it is a partnership. Paul Bell is now at Leeds United and appointed me as a commercial partnership consultant, just after I started “The Missing Linke”.

Gary Linke has delivered and/or renewed over 40 properties in his 20 years at the sharp end of the sports business, from naming rights, event and team partnerships and licensing programmes. You can contact him via TheMissingLinke.com

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