What Gary Linke learnt from 20 years of doing deals in the sports biz

Updated: Apr 19


I’m by no means a high flier, more of a late developer. Sometimes I’m seen as a bit of an underdog and not someone who creates a great first impression. Following my recent success with introducing Deliveroo to some football rights owners, I’m often asked how I have done it and how big sponsorship deals get done. So, here are a few of my experiences, lessons learnt and how things have changed?

Once upon a time I saw an ad in Marketing Week, with the title of “Interested in Football”? That was over 20 years ago and I was the brand manager of Country Life Butter. Somehow, Richard Scudamore and Brian Phillpotts saw something in me to recruit me into the Football League (as it was known).

Since then I have been in the room when deals happen and on occasions led my own campaign to entice brands into football and then rugby league, never to return to yellow fats.

My first taste of the action was in 2001, the AutoWindscreen Shield – a competition for League 1 and League 2 clubs that culminated in a Wembley Final. The eventual deal with LDV Vans was pretty bumpy. There was lots of internal affection for AutoWindscreens but the first bit of media evaluation ever done at the FL showed an opportunity for a bigger rights fee. That season’s final between Stoke and Bristol City had an attendance of over 75,000 and was live on Sky. In my opinion, it was being undersold, so I put my head on the block and went out to market.


Lesson 1: When a company is dithering on signing, don’t be afraid to say that if they do not sign by a date, that you will pull the rug. It’s a big call but I have seen it work, more than once. A trip up the M6 with a contract in my hand and a mandate to sign from the CEO led to my first deal.

The next deal was the Coca-Cola acquisition of the Football League in 2004. I put this down to a perfect storm, which was well executed by experienced practitioners on both sides: Steve Cumming, Coca-Cola, Tim Crow, Synergy and Richard Masters and Peter Heard at the FL. As they say, it’s all about timing… Coca-Cola had their football marketing pot invested in ITV’s coverage of The Premiership that had ran its course and had an exciting new product in their portfolio – Dasani Water (look it up). They were thirsty and the FL played a blinder. As the self-appointed expert on sports drinks, I was involved every step of the way.

One morning, I left my girlfriend’s home and did not collect my own toothbrush till the end of the following day. That girlfriend is now my wife and my all-nighter has never been repeated.


Lesson 2: When a brand has been spending in your space and the deal is coming to an end, they are ripe. LDV had just come off the Villa shirt. This might seem obvious but is often overlooked: you must watch the market, like a hawk.

Now we move to npower, possibly my best work and no luck involved. I am known for being tenacious, stubborn even and it was once said, I am like a dog with a bone. This deal, also for the Football League Championships, was all about persistence and playing the long game.

The man in question was Kevin Peake (KP), who ran npower retail. Over 5 years, I kept contact with him, even when the FL struck a 3 year partnership with E.ON. Contact would be a quick note, congratulating him on his latest promotion or a fantastic piece of activation- I never pitched the League.

When Coca-Cola’s offer was rejected for their second renewal, I picked up the phone to KP. An SMS came back “V Interested”. The rest is history. KP appointed Octagon and Stewart Thomson (who sadly passed at such a young age) and I went to pitch and their offer was right on the money.


Lesson 3: When you know it’s right, you know it’s right. KP was a Torquay fan and had the influence and track record to persuade the German owners that the “The power of 72” was the way to go even after the success of their cricket test sponsorship.

Then came Capital One, who were being advised by Synergy. Under a new CCO, Richard Heaselgrave, who’s a dog like me. I learned some new tricks. Being honest, I still use them and they are from a book called “Winning The Customer” by Lou Imbriano, who ran the New England Patriots commercially- well worth a read for rights owners.

Once Capital One’s decision makers accepted the invitation to the Liverpool v Man City second leg semi final at Anfield, I was asked to help ensure everything was perfect and to arrive in Liverpool ahead of the main party.

On arrival at Lime Street, I was able to persuade the manager of JD Sports to pump up two footballs with Carling Cup branding, gained access to their hotel rooms to deliver the balls along with a Liverpool Shirt with Capital One Sleeve badges on and a press release. That day, Stevie Gerrard said he would rather win The Carling Cup than finish 4th. Everything went like clock-work at the ground and back at the hotel.


Lesson 4: For organisations and/or individuals that are new to sports sponsorship, it pays to give them a positive experience especially at one of your events. Some rights owners do it well and some feel that they might be lowering themselves by being too friendly and you should not give “money can’t buy experiences” before they become partners.

Today, I would say that most of the premium rights owners pull out all the stops to win the customer.


Lesson 5: Deals take time and are bloody hard work.


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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