What Makes Behind-the-Scenes Sports Events Successful

On Super Bowl Sunday, football fans will flock to Houston's NRG Stadium. Some will be there on their own dime, pursuing a lifelong dream to experience the pinnacle of football fandom. But with tickets costing an average of $2,000 to $5,000 -- and the best seats sometimes fetching over $20,000 -- many will be guests of corporate sponsors, who spend millions every year to give customers, partners, and employees big-game experiences that they could never afford on their own.

And for good reason: People love sports. The global sports industry is growing faster than most countries' GDP, according to a 2014 study by management consultancy A.T. Kearney, which found that the sports market grew 7 percent per year between 2009 and 2013, with annual revenues expected to reach $90 billion this year alone. These kinds of numbers reveal what many corporations have known for years: Because sports are so popular, leveraging sporting events can be an extremely effective way to drive participation in meetings and incentives.

To find out what it takes to pull off a successful behind-the-scenes sporting event, Successful Meetings spoke with Tony Knopp, co-founder and CEO of InviteManager, a mobile app that helps users electronically manage their client entertainment programs, from invitation and registration to post-event analysis and follow-up.

Whether it's for a meeting or incentive, organizations have a lot of choices when it comes to group activities. Why might they choose a sporting event over another type of activity?

You're looking for activities that really entice people to attend, and sports is one of those things people are really passionate about. When's the last time you were in a public place and saw two people argue vehemently about which theme park was their favorite one? And one was wearing a Six Flags hat and the other a Great Wolf Lodge hat? None of us has ever seen that. But when is the last time you saw a Green Bay Packers fan and a Chicago Bears fan joyfully getting into it about whose team is better and why? We've all seen that. Sports incites passion in grown men and women in a way other things don't.

Also, sporting events are very difficult to get great access to. When you can give your customers or employees access to those events, it feels exclusive and makes you as a provider or employer stand out from the crowd because you're giving them an experience they probably wouldn't be able to have on their own. It's very cool to say, "I took 100 people to a theme park," or, "I took 60 people to the Bahamas." But those are things people can do on their own. It doesn't give you bragging rights at the water cooler the way it does if you were there when the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger threw the touchdown that won the Super Bowl in 2009. That's something a sports fan is going to remember for the rest of their life. And they're going to remember you, because you gave them that experience.

So what it all boils down to is: Experiences are more popular than things?

Experiences are powerful. Our airwaves and inboxes are full of commoditized products -- everywhere we look we're being exposed to some brand or another -- but experiences are something that haven't yet been overly commoditized. That's why companies are doubling and tripling down on experiential marketing.

What types of experiences, exactly, are available to groups that are interested in leveraging sports?

You can plan events across multiple different sporting events and activities. If you're talking about football, for instance, you can get your group in a situation where it's in the tunnel the player runs through on their way to the game. You can get your group to a training camp where they can meet some of the players afterwards. If you're talking about baseball, baseball teams do a really good job of letting you have batting practice on the field, or letting you meet players during spring training. Or, you can take tours through the ballpark and have meetings at the ballpark before the event. They do a very good job of this in basketball, as well. All these teams and leagues give you the ability to differentiate the experience you're having compared to something you could afford on your own. Because the reality is: To go to an NBA game where you can get on the court and get a picture taken with players before and after the game would cost thousands and thousands of dollars. And for most us as individuals, the return on investment wouldn't be there. But for a company who's trying to win a new client, recruit a top executive, or motivate a star employee, a couple thousand dollars is money well spent.

In your experience, what makes for a successful event?

Number one, you want to understand your audience and be sure your goals align with your brand. If you're trying to communicate that your brand is the most exclusive brand there is, you're going to go that direction with your event. If your brand is that you're family-friendly and that you care about work/life balance, you're going to involve kids and family members in the event.

It sounds very basic, but it's not. For example, people tend to believe everybody wants to go see the New York Giants play the New England Patriots because that's the highest-rated TV program there is. But it's going to cost you a lot of money to be involved with that game, and your audience might not really care about it. It might be better to visit one of the teams' training camps and invite attendees' kids to come and get autographs signed. In fact, one of our customers, HP, said they did two events with the San Francisco 49ers two years ago. One of them included the kids and one didn't. The kid-friendly event sold out immediately; the other one took three weeks to sell out and required multiple emails to promote it. The moral of the story is: You really have to understand your audience. Just because everybody else is spending $1 million to go to the Super Bowl doesn't mean it will be effective for you.

So, it's not just the big, marquee sporting events that are effective?

Not at all. We've seen success with tennis, lacrosse, and rugby, and Major League Soccer is becoming really popular with the younger generation because the games are only 90 minutes, which makes them really easy to digest. You just have to understand what you have available locally and within your region, and find out how you can work with those sports brands. You're going to get a lot more bang for your buck, for instance, when it comes to an experience with a minor league team. With a minor league hockey team, for example, you might be able to get ice time, where you can get your group out to play hockey on the same ice that the professionals play on. Or, I mentioned kids. You might be able to tour a minor league baseball stadium on an off day and have attendees hit batting practice with their sons or daughters. Those are the kinds of things that are available to you when you're willing to interact with a lesser-known brand.

Again, you have to know who your audience is. When you talk about big events like the Masters, the Super Bowl, and the Final Four, those are for the executive level. If you invite a CEO to a sporting event, and it's not a sought-after sporting event, and the seats aren't great, it actually could do more harm than good. But if you're targeting middle managers or junior staff, those more regular events can be very successful.

Clearly, your audience is important. But what if your audience includes people who couldn't care less about sports?

Sometimes people aren't sports fans. They're not. And I think that's taken for granted a lot. The good thing is: Sports realizes this, so they offer other opportunities. A good example is the Super Bowl. A lot of people aren't football fans, but the Super Bowl includes a bevvy of entertainment opportunities around it. For instance, there's Taste of the NFL, where every team chooses a chef from their city who partners with an NFL player to serve their city's most famous food. Or if that doesn't stoke your fire, you can go see the Red Hot Chili Peppers in concert at the DirecTV party. Most sporting events allow you to have other experiences like this that are beyond just the game.

Because some people aren't sports fans, one activity that can be really helpful is having a shoptalk where an expert explains the basics of the game. Not everyone in your group understands why the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers are such big rivals. A shoptalk with a former player or other expert gets people who aren't familiar with the sport into a scenario where they can digest the game and enjoy it.

Finally, what tips do you have for meeting and incentive planners who are planning their first behind-the-scenes sporting event?

The planners who plan these events are probably the most unappreciated group we see because a ton of detail goes into planning events like this, yet there is very little information available to planners outside of the information made available to them by the vendors themselves. It's very difficult to find reviews about how the Masters went, or what a group's experience was at a minor league hockey arena. So, the number one thing is to gather as much information as you can from the vendors, understanding that they're biased, and then leverage your network of fellow planners to find people who've done this before. Because if you can learn from people who have done this before, you're going to save yourself tons of time and lots of headaches.

Also, it has to tie into your strategic objectives. If you're just going to buy tickets or rent a suite because you really want to do something around sports, and that's the cheapest or easiest thing to do, you'll just be throwing your money away. But if you tie it to your organization's goals and invite the right people, you'll be successful.