Photo credit: Gary Bassing, Orlando Magic
REAL Careers: Women in Sales explores the different sales roles in sports, what they entail and the skills necessary to succeed. Catherine Carlson is senior vice president of corporate partnerships and premium activation at the Orlando Magic. She is in her 11th season with the team.
Driving and retaining sponsorship and premium revenue for the Orlando Magic. My team is responsible for developing, selling and executing fully integrated marketing platforms for all of our corporate partners. We also manage the sales and retention of all premium hospitality product at Amway Center, including suites, loge boxes and premium seats.
I’m originally from Australia and went to undergrad in Melbourne. Back then, in the 1990s, sports management was a relatively new career path in Australia, and we were actually the first group ever to undertake this new path. A group of 23 of us went through the program. Most of us landed in different sports organizations, mainly national and state governing bodies or a particular sport. My early years were working for sports like field hockey, rugby and golf.
You describe your early career experiences in sports as being on the event management side. How did you come to find yourself in sales?
After graduate school, I had an opportunity to work at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. But once again, I was more on the program event management side. About six years in, they were creating a new department called business development. The objective was to recruit events to host their events at Walt Disney. It was exciting, going out there and bidding on events, and getting untraditional events, everything from paintball to the world archery championships to the U.S. Transplant Games. This is where I got my first taste of sales. In the first six months, I didn’t bring one event to Disney, and I thought, “Uh-oh, I’m in this new business development department and I haven’t sold a thing.” One of my big pieces of advice I share with my staff, especially younger staff, is just have patience. Deals don’t happen overnight. It’s not transactional; it’s relationship selling. And so I hit that six-month mark, and all of a sudden, these deals started to happen, and it was really exciting to see all that hard work — the calling and the research — pay off.
You said you developed a real passion for sponsorship. What about it appealed to you?
I started in sponsorship when it was very old-school, very much put a sign on a building and call it a day. But what I realized was that brands genuinely wanted to leverage sponsorships to build their business. I’m a student of the industry, so studying what the client needed and figuring out the solution was exciting. I had the opportunity to travel the world, meet people from different cultures, learn how different business mechanics work overseas. The thrill of the pitch, the signature on the contract, and then seeing it come to fruition, whether it’s in a theme park or in a sports venue, was just very appealing.
How do you ensure you’re on your game and able to bring the best solutions possible to your clients?
We have a department meeting every week where we talk about what’s happening in the industry, because if you’re going to sell and be creative and drive new revenue, you have to be on the cutting edge of what’s happening. Preparation is key. The only thing you can prepare is preparation itself. And you’ve got to understand the clients, sit in their shoes. You can’t just sell your sponsorship packages as one size fits all. Everything is completely customized based on the client’s objectives and needs.
What resources and professional development opportunities have you relied on over the years?
Reading SportsBusiness Journal or SportsBusiness Daily every day is the bare minimum; that’s 101. And not only the sports publications, but local publications, so in the instance of Orlando, I read the Orlando Business Journal to know what companies are moving into Orlando. We read Ad Age, Entrepreneur Magazine — anything and everything. I do Google alerts on all my clients, so if anything’s announced, we know. Also, broaden your network through LinkedIn. That is my favorite social media platform because my peers are sharing stories of what they’re doing in the industry, and it’s probably unfiltered versus when you read it in a publication.
How do you use metrics and data to determine the value of a deal?
What’s really, really important right now as we’re putting deals together is providing the data and the metrics to back it up. Most sports properties use Nielsen to provide a media value of the sponsorship signage and other media-visible assets. We also use internal research, brand awareness surveys and other key industry data to demonstrate the value of the overall partnership. We are also very focused on measuring social media, so we’re using Social24, a Nielsen product, GumGum and various other companies to help us determine the value of social media posts and campaigns.
How would you describe the pace of sponsorship sales?
The more complex the deal, the longer the deal takes. Some deals take nine to 12 months to close. Very complex deals like naming rights and team jersey branding can take 18 months or longer because they are so substantial. It goes back to having patience. And you have to do it the right way. If you take shortcuts, it doesn’t work out, or sometimes a deal may fall apart this year, but it will pick up in one or two years’ time.
What role does persistence play?
Sometimes the client will knock you down and say no, no, and you go back to them the next year, and they say maybe, and the third year, they’re like, ‘You’re right. We need to do something.’ That’s where an experienced salesperson continues to keep building the relationship even after they get a no. You continue to keep that relationship going because it may be an opportunity down the track.
The biggest fault of young salespeople, though, is they become what we call POHs — prisoners of hope. They get excited when they get a call back, and they’re thinking, “Yes! I have a potential prospect on the hook — I’m going to keep talking to them.” They follow up, and then the conversation stops outside of an occasional call or email from the potential client saying, “I’ll get back to you next week.” In their mind, they keep holding on to the hope this client is going to close, and it’s not. If you become a prisoner of hope, you’re putting all of your eggs in one basket. An experienced person will keep the relationship going, but know that it’s probably not a real opportunity now and keep moving on.
What can you do to avoid becoming a prisoner of hope?
If there’s no timeline or deadline, there’s no sense of urgency. If you’re able to provide the prospect with a decision deadline, I think decision-makers are OK with that. I think sometimes brands don’t want to tell you no. They like you and they don’t want to offend you, and they kind of don’t want to break up with you. But in sales, you’re better off getting to no quicker because then you can move on.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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