Billy Hogan, EVP of the Fenway Sports Group, reveals how the marketing, sponsorship and consultancy arm of Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park owner New England Sports Ventures is scoring revenue and brand awareness via deals that encompass the Super Bowl, the NHL's Winter Classic, Nascar and other partners.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted Feb. 23, 2010)
For a very, very long time, the history of the Boston Red Sox focused on the sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, the often frustrating rivalry with the Yankees and great ballplayers such as Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski who could not lead the franchise to a World Series title. That changed in 2004 when the team won its first World Series since 1918, then repeated the achievement in 2007. The team has also appeared in two other American League Championship Series since 2003, giving leverage to the worldwide surge in people who proudly proclaim themselves to be members of Red Sox Nation.
This decade of success not coincidentally coincides with the tenure of New England Sports Ventures as franchise owners, under the auspices of principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and president and CEO Larry Lucchino. NESV also owns Fenway Park, has an 80% share in the New England Sports Network and 50% of Roush Fenway Racing, among the most prolific teams in Nascar with such drivers as David Ragan, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Erik Darnell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Colin Braun. Among NESV's biggest challenges, however, has been to maintain the aura and historical perspective of Fenway Park, which opened in 1912 and is the oldest MLB stadium, while making financial, technical and logistical changes. Among them: adding private suites and more seating such as those atop the Green Monster, upgrading the playing field and overall facilities and incorporating marketing partners and advertising - including ads on the Green Monster itself - to bring in revenue.
In 2004, NESV formed Fenway Sports Group to expand marketing, sponsorship and consultancy relationships beyond its core ownership of the Red Sox and Fenway Park. FSG now has exclusive sponsorship deals with MLB.com, the PGA Tour's Deutsch Bank Championship (which is the second of four stops in the PGA Tour FedEx playoffs), Boston College, the Fulham Football Club of the English Premier League (including jersey sponsorship beginning with the 2010-11 season), Athletes Performance, the Red Sox and Fenway Park. In 2009, FSG also started to work with Sun Life Financial, initially involving the company in events attached to the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, which was held outdoors at Fenway Park on Jan. 1, and then playing a role in the acquisition of naming rights to the stadium that hosted the NFL's Pro Bowl and Super Bowl XLIV earlier this year. FSG also works with such companies as Dunkin' Donuts, supermarket chain Stop & Shop and Gulf.
With Spring Training here, and the 2010 baseball season to follow, NYSportsJournalism.com spoke with Billy Hogan, who joined FSG in June 2004 as the company's first official hire and who now is EVP and "resident digital expert" overseeing sponsorships for MLB.com and MLB's 30 individual club Web sites as well as working to secure sponsorship deals for FSG's other clients.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What have been the strategies driving the growth of Fenway Sports Group?
Billy Hogan: Our history has taken us from being an entrepreneurial group that was focused on sales and marketing to one that is now really focused on five or six key core properties. The Red Sox is one of those. The goal from our perspective is to become the sales and marketing engine of New England Sports Ventures. We look at the business in three different columns: One would be sales and representation, which is the side of the business that I oversee. Another would be our consulting relationships, with NESV clients. Then we have a Ventures group, which is the investment arm of Fenway Sports Group. That's where Rouch Fenway Racing exists.
NYSJ: How has the economy impacted business decisions?
BH: From an overarching standpoint, the business from our end has been very healthy. The Red Sox have done very well from a sponsorship perspective. That engine helps us run [everything]. We've had great success with Boston College and the Deutsche Bank championship and MLB.com, which is one of the areas in which I focus on a daily basis. It's been a really good five and a half, coming up on six years. It's been a situation where we been able to leverage the Fenway name to go out to find opportunities on the sports landscape that have been able to allow us to drive revenue back to the ownership group.
NYSJ: Not that it is surprising to find that the Red Sox would have a strong following beyond Boston, but when FSG started was it a surprise just how strong the Red Sox Nation was and how strong it has become worldwide?
BH: That really is a credit to John Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino and the rest of the ownership group. One of the things they have done most effectively is investing in the team and the fan base. We have been very lucky. From their perspective, it is seen as being a stewardship of the franchise and really working to gain the trust and respect of the fan base. Thankfully over the past few years we have had a lot of success on the field. That is one of the keys to making our business run. The success that the Red Sox have translates to success on the business side, and vice versa. So I don't know necessarily that they are surprised, but there is an unbelievable amount of respect for the fan base internally. From the Fenway Sports Group perspective, that has allowed us to go out to find opportunities beyond the Red Sox.
NYSJ: The 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic was held outdoors at Fenway Park. How did that come about and what was the event like from an internal perspective?
BH: That was quite an incredible event. The NHL has done such a good job with that. This year was another step in creating an unbelievable tradition on New Year's Day. The Fenway Sports Group had the rink open for about three weeks outside of the NHL window. We were able to partner with Sun Life on what we called 'Sun Life Frozen Fenway.' We had a number of community skates working with the citizens and residents of Boston and the Mayor's Office. We had a number of corporate skates. We had skates for season ticket holders from both the Red Sox and the Bruins. The crown jewel of 'Sun Life Frozen Fenway' was the Hockey East double-header the Friday after the Winter Classic, which had the Northeastern and the University of New Hampshire playing in the women's game and followed by the Boston College-Boston University men's game. So we had the ability to have two great events on the rink at Fenway Park over the course of the three-week process.
NYSJ: When you looked at the first two Winter Classic in Buffalo on New Year's Day in 2008, then at Chicago's Wrigley Field in 2009, how important was it to show the NHL that you could provide the time, commitment and financial resources to bring the event to Fenway Park and then to build on the event's past success?
BH: It was never going to be about the NHL putting the ice down, playing the game and leaving. Hockey is a huge part of life in Boston and New England, so we wanted to give a lot a people in the community access to the ice and access to experiencing hockey inside Fenway Park. Obviously not everyone who wanted to participate had the chance, but a lot of people had the chance to skate at Fenway, which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But it was an overwhelming success, even to the point where fans are clamoring to having Fenway host this as an annual event rather than the Winter Classic rotating to different venues. But that is ultimately up to the NHL.
NYSJ: Was that your first opportunity to work with Sun Life Financial?
BH: Yes. They have a great team of senior executives [many of whom] have come in over the last year or so from Lincoln Financial. So about a year ago they started to talk to us about sponsorship opportunities for events where they could have ownership. We met with them just before the discussions began to try to bring the Winter Classic to Fenway. It seemed to make a lot of sense to have them involved. That was a case where we wouldn't have an opportunity to work with them on the Red Sox side because John Hancock has an exclusive category relationship during the [baseball] season at Fenway. But this provided Sun Life with an opportunity to work with us during the off-season. They are headquartered in Toronto, but we worked with their [U.S. headquarters] in Wellesley, which is just up the road from us.
NYSJ: Was this around the same time frame that Sun Life was building its marketing presence in the U.S., which eventually led to their acquiring naming rights to the stadium in South Florida where the 2010 NFL Pro Bowl and Super Bowl XLIV were played?
BH: Yes. It all was [starting to activate] around the same time. From our perspective, timing is everything. This was an opportunity that allowed Sun Life to attach their name to a unique event at Fenway. As you see in their ad campaign, they are all about building their brand and building name recognition. But they also want people to know that their U.S. headquarters are in Wellesley. So the Winter Classic gave them an opportunity to build local relationships and at the same time continue to establish their name nationally because the Winter Classic was getting national exposure. But it was spearheaded by the fact that there was a significant changing of the guard in marketing and a change in the marketing attitude among the executive team at Sun Life.
NJSJ: The naming rights deal for what is now Sun Life Stadium was announced in January, but the negotiations themselves took months. Did working with Sun Life on the Winter Classic put FSG in a better position to work on the naming rights deal?
BH: This was the first time we were involved in a naming rights deal that actually came to fruition. We had been involved with other partners where because of timing or circumstances we were not able to get a naming rights deal completed. But this was a case where we have a relationship with the folks in Miami, primarily Mike Dee, who used to be president of FSG before becoming CEO [in May 2009] of the Miami Dolphins and [what was then known as] Dolphin Stadium. We had a conversation with him in which he was talking about how they wanted to look for a new naming rights deal. And we had had a conversation with Sun Life in which they said they would be interested in a naming rights deal with a blue chip property. And, again, the timing was right for Sun Life because of the tie-in with their advertising campaign. So it made a lot of sense for both sides and was a great deal for both sides. For the Dolphins, it is a great name just from a straight branding perspective. And it clearly fit well for Sun Life in what they are trying to accomplish.
"At the end of the day, everything comes down to the Red Sox. That is the most important brand in the FSG portfolio. We use that platform to go out to do other things."
NYSJ: Nascar has been having challenges with the economy, as have most pro sports. How has the alliance with Roush Racing been affected?
BH: This is one of the most successful teams in Nascar. They were doing a great job, and continue to do a great job, from a business perspective. FSG has been helping on the sponsorship side. The fact that they are successful on the track opens up great opportunities off the track.
NYSJ: How challenging - and how important - has it been to make necessary changes based on business decisions but still keep the aura and history of Fenway Park relatively intact?
BH: Even with the changes and additions, it absolutely is still a great place to see a baseball game. The great thing is that not only has it been preserved and protected but it's also been improved structurally while maintianing the ultimate fan experience. It is a credit to John, Tom and Larry that Fenway remains a great place to see a game and that the ballpark itself remains a star.
NYSJ: Do you feel you have provided options and blueprints for others to follow as far as meshing an historical property with current financial needs and technological advancements?
BH: This is one of those situations where we are trying to find every opportunity we can to partner with blue chip brands. There are people out there doing similar things and we wish them all well. But we are focused on what we are doing.
We have had a very good run. In certain situations we are unique, and we are thankful for that. Boston is an incredible sports town. We don't take that for granted. Things have gone well for us.
NYSJ: What are the challenges and also unique opportunities on the digital side?
BH: We have had a relationship with MLB.comn for about five years. I am the point person between Fenway Sports and MLB.com working with the sponsorship team and senior leadership there. The digital landscape is changing so quickly that it's been a lot of fun from our perspective to be involved with them. It is different than just a straight sponsorship where you have signage, some marketing rights. There are many more areas to explore with digital, not only from exposure but from a content perspective and the ability to monetize that.
NYSJ: What are you looking at as far as the upcoming baseball season and in a couple of years the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park?
BH: From a marketing perspective, our challenge is not only to maintain the sponsorship relationships that we have but also to go out and find new partners. And we will have new partners that will be in place when we open up in April. We face that every year, maybe with different wrinkles, but that is part of the challenge and the fun.
NYSJ: Even with the other partnerships that FSG has started and continued to explore, have the Boston Red Sox remained at the top of the pyramid?
BH: At the end of the day, everything ultimately comes down to the Red Sox. That is the most important brand in the FSG portfolio. We have to provide the right amount of attention to that property. And when we do, things fall into place. So at the core we are a baseball team. And we use that platform to go out and do other things. It has been fun, and successful from a monetary standpoint.