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How a Local Partnership with Seattle Mariners Drives Big Results for T-Mobile

The Sponsorship Mastery Summit conversation between Tamika Hillman, Senior Sponsorship Manager for T-Mobile, and Charles Johnson, Vice President of Corporate Partnerships for the Seattle Mariners, yielded a treasure trove of information for anyone involved in the buying and selling of sponsorship.

Chief among the “aha” moments delivered by this dynamic duo was their exploration of the importance of local and regional partnerships to multibillion-dollar corporations like T-Mobile. 

It’s certainly normal for anyone seeking sponsorship for local events, teams and organizations to look at these big brands—and their portfolios of marquee partnerships with professional sports leagues and megawatt entertainers—and think, “How could my opportunity possibly compete at that scale?”

But as Tamika and Charles explained, those big deals serve an entirely different purpose. Local versus national sponsorships are apples and oranges.

Tamika described T-Mobile’s partnerships with Major League Baseball, Live Nation, and esports as “large-scale, mass-reach vehicles to help connect with consumers through broadcast integrations. Those are important to us. They drive the scalability we need to get our message out there.”

However, in remarks that are sure to warm the hearts of local sponsorship sellers everywhere, she went on to explain that the company’s regional and local partnerships drive business.

“We need to get people to go into their local T-Mobile stores—what we call ‘door swings’—to put them in the (purchase) funnel and push them down the funnel to convert them from non-customers to customers. 

“How do we connect with those consumers and be relevant to them? That’s where the power of local partnerships comes in. Local properties resonate with consumers and we need to partner with those local properties to connect with them where they live, where they work and where they play.”

Of course, securing sponsorship with a brand like T-Mobile takes more than just being a respected event or organization in your market. Charles and Tamika offered the following sage advice on what sellers need to bring to the table in order to make the cut.

1. Brands Have Questions; Properties Must Have the Answers

T-Mobile and other marketers begin the sponsor selection process by determining which properties align with their geographic priorities, target audiences and business goals. Those are the three primary filters T-Mobile uses to screen sponsorship opportunities before engaging in further conversations.

“The more data properties can provide in terms of market reach, who their audiences are, and what they do, helps us internally with how we would leverage that property to meet our business objectives,” Tamika said.

From the seller’s perspective, Charles agreed that data was critical to “making sure we’re supporting current partners and potential partners. We are now structured so that we have our business development team, our brand activation team, and sitting in the middle is research and insights.”

2. Provide Context and Help Tell the Story

While raw data provides the essential information prospective sponsors need initially, brands also need sellers to demonstrate their relevance in their communities. This is especially important when pitching someone who is not based in your market.

As Tamika candidly reflected, “I might initially brush off an opportunity unless you can paint the picture a little bit more, help me understand what’s happening in the market and why your opportunity is relevant there.” With all that corporate sponsorship managers have on their plates managing current portfolios and reviewing new opportunities, don’t assume that someone on the brand side can connect all of the dots; do the work for them.

In addition to gaining consideration for your property in the initial stages of the sales process, context is critically important to your sponsor contact, as it helps them make the case for the sponsorship internally.

“No different than you’re selling it to me, I am now selling it internally to counterparts and other colleagues throughout the organization,” Tamika noted. “I need you to help me tell the story.” 

3. Be Willing to Bide and Bend

Selling and retaining sponsorship requires the same principles as improving your yoga practice: patience and flexibility.

In citing how sponsorship opportunities and property partners can be most helpful to brands, sellers should be aware of the time needed for corporate decision-making.

Depending on the spending level, there can be many people outside the sponsorship team who need to weigh in before a sponsorship receives the green light, including departments that may be asked to contribute funding, corporate communications, etc. Other factors such as whether an opportunity is off-cycle from a budget-planning perspective can add to the time needed to pull the trigger.

As for current partners, being flexible is a trait that many sponsors value higher than any other.

Change is a near-constant for brands. Sometimes business softens, sometimes growth opportunities present themselves. Both can require shifts in marketing strategy and tactics, as can executive leadership transitions.

So it is often the case that existing sponsorship rights, benefits and activation plans don’t meet the needs of a company’s new goals. Tamika mentioned recent examples of sponsorships that were focused on the urban core in areas where T-Mobile needed to expand its marketing beyond cities and into other parts of a state.

“What assets can we swap out now to help meet some of those goals? What are some other things we can do? For properties, giving brands the flexibility to make changes is great.”

The need is great enough that T-Mobile now negotiates to have an annual re-evaluation of assets included in sponsorship contracts.

If anything, the pandemic has highlighted the need for everyone involved in live events to expect the unexpected and prepare to be creative whenever necessary, Tamika said.

“We literally saw assets being created in front of our eyes. Assets that did not exist before appeared because properties and sponsors had to find a way to make up the value. I hope that agility remains and that properties will retain that sense of ‘We’ve never done this before, but let’s go create something for you.”