Lead The Charge1 Nov, 2010 By: Thomas Haire Response
Ken Derrett and A.G. Spanos have made good use of DR marketing as part of the mix that has supercharged San Diego’s NFL brand.
"Our use of direct response gets down to communicating with our customer," says A.G. Spanos, executive vice president/executive officer of the National Football League's (NFL) San Diego Chargers. "In any business, that's tremendously important. We're constantly looking at how to communicate better with our fans, our ticket holders."
Adds Ken Derrett, the team’s senior vice president/chief marketing officer, “It’s about communicating with them and hopefully building a relationship with them. If you want to be a season ticket holder, that’s a relationship we like. But building a relationship with someone sitting in Bakersfield or Wyoming, using unique offers and messaging during a TV or radio broadcast, using chargers.com or using Facebook, is just as important. It’s not a price point message. We’re selling a brand. We’re selling fun. We stage 10 games a year here. We view each one like a mini-Super Bowl.”
Both Spanos (son of team owner Dean Spanos) and Derrett joined the Chargers in 2001, with the franchise coming off a dismal one-win, 15-loss season. Though the franchise had been to a Super Bowl six years earlier, its marketing efforts were just about as troubled as its play on the field. In the intervening years, Spanos and Derrett have teamed to turn the franchise into a marketing powerhouse, while the Chargers have now won five of the past six AFC Western Division championships.
“We were here at the times of 1-15, 4-12. And fans always said, ‘Give us the product!’” Derrett says. “We’ve been able to do that. We’ve had record-breakers, Pro Bowlers, MVPs, great TV ratings in L.A. and San Diego. We’re stretching our tentacles now. People know about the Chargers’ Bolt in stores in New York City. They know our players. Last year, the 50th anniversary was a great branding opportunity for us. We’ve been able to communicate that history and tradition beyond San Diego.”
A key to spreading the word has been integrated direct response marketing for both ticket and merchandise sales. Prior to the 2010 season, the Chargers had sold out six consecutive seasons worth of home games. And the team’s Web site, chargers.com, has become a huge profit center, selling Charger tickets and merchandise.
With the help of its advertising and marketing agency partners, the Chargers launched this season’s ticket and merchandise theme — “Lead the Charge!” — in April. Spanos and Derrett say the campaign has been successful in a tough economy, and has helped galvanize the team’s merchandise sales efforts, especially since late summer.
Combining Histories and Opportunities
While the Chargers have been to just one Super Bowl in their 51-season history, the team has plenty of successful tradition to fall back on — from its American Football League (AFL) powerhouse days in the 1960s, to the high-flying success of its potent passing attack in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to its current status as the four-time defending AFC West champions. And, with the departure of the St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders from the Los Angeles market in the mid-1990s, the Chargers are the lone NFL franchise in the massive Southern California market.
Spanos, who was elevated to his current title in 2008 and is in charge of all of the team’s business operations, is familiar with the Chargers’ history, having grown up around the franchise owned by his father. He leads the team’s public relations, sales, marketing, community and ticket relations departments.
“I’m in my 10th season now, but I really started before that,” he says. “I was delivering mail when I was 16 to the on-field staff. I’ve always been around the organization; I grew up in San Diego. It gives me a native’s perspective on the team.”
After graduating from the University of Southern California, Spanos worked for NFL Europe’s London office, analyzing market research for the entire league.
“I definitely learned a lot in NFL Europe,” he contends. “That was a great experience. I worked for the director of strategic planning, and he was able to break down the different European markets we were in — why some markets were doing better than others, and they really had to be creative over there with how to market a new game.”
Derrett, on the other hand, has a long history in both marketing and the sports world. He ascended to his current title earlier this year and is charged with “building the brand and building relationships with corporate America and all of Southern California.”
He began his career with a 10-year stint in the Canadian Football League (CFL) from 1978-1988, developing the annual business and operations plan for the league’s Grey Cup championship game. But it is his stint at Labatt Breweries of Canada that Derrett credits for his biggest career boost.
“Working with a packaged goods company like Labatt gave me some good background in the world of brand management,” he says of his role as manager of sport and entertainment properties, including relationships with the NFL, Hockey Canada and the Toronto Blue Jays, among others. “It helped me understand branding, marketing, advertising. Certainly, you never stop learning, but that was a great opportunity. And it touched the world of sports and entertainment.”
His next stop was the National Basketball Association (NBA), from 1995-2001. In 1996, he became managing director of NBA Canada, and from 1999-2001, served as senior vice president for global marketing partnerships. “The NBA was a nice opportunity as well, working in the league office in a global position,” he says. “You begin to understand building strategic relationships with major organizations around the world.”
He adds the experiences in large national and global organizations “gave me the background to come in here and do that on sort of a regional basis, but in a very significant region. Southern California is pretty large, pretty vibrant. It’s a great opportunity.”
A Direct Charge
Both Spanos and Derrett recognized that opportunity early in their time with the Charger organization. From ticket sales to merchandise sales, from getting fan feedback to creating a community around the Chargers, direct response marketing was a natural fit as part of the mix. “At the end of the day, we’re all about results,” says Derrett.
According to Spanos, DR across all media has been crucial to ticket sales. “Since we started, we’ve always — save for 2007, when season tickets were sold out — been in a position of needing to push season tickets,” he says. “Sometimes there is a misconception that there aren’t tickets available, and Ken and I have talked about this. How do we communicate better with our fans? Our newsletter, Web site, TV, radio and other ways to get our messaging out there — they all tie together. They have to work cohesively.”
And cohesion in the team’s marketing efforts was missing prior to Spanos and Derrett working together. The Chargers’ “Bolt” logo was not being utilized well, according to Spanos, and the team’s uniforms were outdated, leading to many fans on game day not wearing team gear. So, cleaning up and creating a true look and logo for the franchise and its marketing efforts was the first step.
Spanos says, “The feeling was, when you look back at Chargers history, there are three defining eras. There were the ’60s Chargers that had their look. The ’70s and ’80s Chargers, with Dan Fouts, had their look. There was the Super Bowl team, with Junior Seau, that had that navy look. And we were still using that into the 2000s. This was a new team, we needed a fresh new look. That’s what drove it. Let’s give these guys a look they’re going to be remembered by. We’ve paid homage to the past, while still looking forward.”