Ash’s Sports Industry chat with sports sponsorship guru, Michael Jackson

This weeks interview sees the founder of Elite Sports Marketing, Michael Jackson, have a chat about his adventure into the sports industry. Michael is a sports sponsorship guru that began his career in telemarketing and always had the vision to work for himself. This blog has many insights for sports enthusiasts about how to make yourself stand out in an overly-saturated market of sport, the nature of working in the industry alongside what makes a successful sporting partnership.

Q) Thanks for joining us Michael, to kick this off, I can see your career began in telemarketing. Would you mind touching on your career journey from this point to Elite Sports Marketing?

A: Yes, indeed, so I ran a telemarketing company business for 14 years. Before that, I worked for a telemarketing company when I was 19 years old. I initially needed a job and happened to have an interview for a telemarketing executive. At the time, I didn’t know what a telemarketing executive was, so I needed explaining. I was told I’d be calling people up, generating leads, appointments and things like that. Then I thought okay, let’s do it and I just happened to be very good at it.

Fast forward on a couple of years, I began to think if I can do this for other people, why can’t I do it for myself? So at the age of 24, I approached the Prince’s Trust, which is a charity that loans money for start-ups. However, you’ve got to come from a deprived background which I did, such as being in foster care, being homeless, living in hostels etc. So they gave me a few thousand pounds, and I bought a desk, chair, computer, telephones and off I went.

From my experience, the IT industry was huge on telemarketing, so this was my target market at first. I was lucky that one of my first clients was a company called Gartner research. The funny thing was that the meeting I went to was in an enormous building that had trees in the middle of the building and a Starbucks which blew my mind to how big the company were. The fact the firm was so big, this gave me leverage to reach out to other IT companies. I then picked up Sage, which led me to Konica Minolta.

After 14 years, I then got bored and wanted to do something else. I changed my mindset and thought, okay, I’m going out to get whatever client I can no matter what industry. I’m a big football fan and thought let’s reach out to some clubs and see if anyone interested. I didn’t know what type of telemarketing I would do, but I asked the question anyway and got lucky considering my first client were Spurs. I supported Tottenham with calling up their season ticket holders to promote corporate hospitality packages. From then on, I worked with Crystal Palace, Ranger, Wigan and I ended up working in sport where Elite Sports Marketing was formed.

Q) I understand Elite Sports Marketing work firmly with sports organisations to deliver high-quality partnerships in the industry, can you expand on what this looks like daily?

A: Hectic, crazy and not very well planned out. The corporate sports industry isn’t something you can plan out. For example, Chelsea announces they have brought in a toothpaste partner, crazy as it sounds, within 24 hours every football club will be ringing me about toothpaste companies as its an industry that is interested in sports. So, every club, agent and agency will go after that industry, we’ve seen it with the airline sector and tyre industry. It’s a game of whoever has the money to pay for sponsorship and wants mass exposure.

Now, I’ve done deals that mostly lie with the tech industry. I tend to do things slightly differently if you look a lot of sponsors, they’ll do sponsorship with one club for two or three years, and then you’ll find another club. I don’t change companies because I don’t see the point. Football clubs are always getting chased by agencies, and I don’t want to be like that. If you look at my clients, I can’t think that hasn’t come from me approaching them out of the blue. Most clubs I’ve reached out to have never had much support with sponsorship which is a good thing as they then trust you that you’ve built up some foundations and you’ve done a deal whether they’re going to be with you for a long time.

Every time I do a deal, they get announced. I then get clients calling me up talking about the number of agents that have called me since we’ve done that deal because everyone wants to jump on it.

Going back to your original question, I like to think I do things differently. I will look at a company that I may find on LinkedIn or elsewhere. I would research and come up with reasons in my head about what they can be doing better, and I’ll approach them about it.

Overall, it’s not a straightforward strategy in the world of corporate sports.

Q) Brilliant stuff. At Elite Sports Marketing, how many team members do you have? 

A: So for a very long time, it’s just been me, and I’m not surprised. I often get people saying to me,” But that must be hard work, right?”, however, I think it’s fantastic.

People often think that I have a team because of all the fantastic clubs I’ve worked with, they see the announcements and think ‘wow, that’s big’. The reason I’ve secured big clients is that I work 12 hours a day, I’ve got back to back zoom calls, and I’m always active. These are not overnight successes; it’s taken time.

But recently, I’ve taken on two guys who are wanting to learn the ropes. One guy in particular called Antonio has been terrific. He kept on chasing me and was so desperate to work with me talking about how I’m such an inspiration and all that kind of stuff. It was quite overwhelming, considering that I’m British, we generally don’t take compliments very well! I thought if he can bring value to me, then why not, which he did as he lives in the States, is originally from Venezuela and is fluent in Spanish. Already, he has a reach that I don’t own. Then very quickly, he generated a serious opportunity we’re talking about now, which is likely to become a rather large deal.

Another lad has recently come on board, an ex BMW employee who also has bags of enthusiasm and speaks German. Elite Sports Marketing now involves three team members. It’s been majorly beneficial, particularly in Antonio as he’s learning very quickly. Sometimes, this is not for everyone, but I’m glad I made the right choice to bring in both boys.

Q) I can see you’ve worked with some very prestigious clients, including Premier League clubs, American gym chains and Rugby clubs. How did you build the Elite Sports Marketing brand to draw this appealing clientele?

A: It goes back to my work in telemarketing. My first client happened to be the largest IT research company globally. Call it what you like, confidence, blinding stupidity, but my attitude is to go for the cream of the crop. Why try small businesses and small deals? I had a call with a lad a couple of weeks ago asking for advice about selling on his own to football clubs; he wanted to start with his local club. I asked him, “why?” It’s harder to sell sponsorship at £500 for a small club. Interestingly, it’s easier to ask someone for £100k+ because you’re talking about Premier League football clubs and becoming a name overnight.

“Go after the big boys”, that’s how I’ve treated things as there’s no reason why you shouldn’t or couldn’t. What are the worst people can say? No? If that happens, you keep moving. In this industry, it’s a numbers game; you might have made a thousand calls to generate one opportunity. After a while, that number could reduce to making 500 calls, then 250, 100 etc. You’re building experience, that’s what counts.

Learning how to talk to people and how you react is critical; it’s what I’ve always been good at doing. I’ve always been good at understanding people’s tone. Especially on the phone, one of the things I like to do straight off the bat is to make people laugh. To do this, I’ll find out what team they support and whoever it is, I start roasting them, and people love it!

The other point is to listen because if you’re listening, you’ll have a bunch of questions for that client. Plus, they’ll appreciate that because they know you’re engaging and you want to understand their business. Remember, your work is all about the client and satisfying their needs.

To summarise, I love my job, which makes me go the extra mile.

Q) You’ve touched on how having a personable approach has supported business at Elite Sports Marketing, would you describe this as a critical trait that sets you apart from other sports sponsorship companies?

A: I think so. One of my concerns about growing the business and bringing more people on board is that you kind of become like everyone else. I believe what people like about Elite Sports Marketing is that they deal directly with me and it doesn’t go through a funnel of processes.

If I had a company of 50 people, I would always ensure my clients have my number so they can message me anytime, and I continue the relationship that I created. One of the biggest problems with the larger agencies is that they’re too big. With smaller ones like mine, there’s more of a personal touch, whereas, with the larger agencies, it’s very much a conveyor belt, once one project is completed, they move onto the next without hesitation.

Reputation is everything in this industry. It’s challenging to build a reputation, and it’s easy to lose money. Also, you hear news typically before the rest of the world hears it, which is excellent to understand that my relationships with some clubs are that strong to trust me with keeping information like that.  

Also, people do business with people. That has always been the case. If they like you and know you, they will keep coming back. For example, I was with a client and a club in a meeting, and they offered me to be their next sponsor if a deal went through successfully. When the client said this, it reminded me how valuable strong relationships are because they trust you based on your integrity of knowledge.

Q) Sport is a world which is constantly changing, more than any other industry from my experience. How do yourselves at the Elite Sports Marketing team keep up to date with the latest trends to support business affairs?

A: I’m not a massive strategic thinker. So, it’s a strange one for me. Due to the changes, we’re experiencing, its more challenging to get hold of clubs and clients, although, those who are serious about doing business tend to be available. I’ve done a front-of-shirt deal recently, which isn’t announced yet, but with furlough, it made things difficult but not impossible.

Front-of-shirt deals are the biggest sponsorship deals I do currently. The most significant pain in the backside is a club’s position. For example, Bournemouth FC is a club I’m working with, and it was unprecedented throughout the season past whether they’d be playing Premier League or Championship football next season. The same applies to Aston Villa and clubs that are in the race for promotion in the championship. There isn’t a tremendous amount of discussion to have as it is not guaranteed where the client will be the following season, meaning the value of the sponsorship is unstable.

However, you can organise pre agreements. Such as, if Bournemouth FC gets relegated, your proposed deal doesn’t go through, whereas if they stay up, the deal follows through.

In this industry, you follow your ‘knows’. What I mean by this is that there isn’t a significant strategy because sport doesn’t work like that. Right now, betting companies are the ones that do a lot of shirt and sleeve deals. Clubs also have agreements with many airline partners, they don’t always appear on the kit, but the two industries have broad relationships with one another.

The Premier League is an example where every agency wants to go. Because they can get mass exposure quickly, therefore, always think about who your competitors are and ensure your deal is different.

Q) COVID19 has had a severe impact on sport, what have Elite Sports Marketing done in response to this pandemic to support your clients in the best way possible?

A: There’s not much you can do other than continue to communicate. A big challenge is rearranging some of my client’s inventory. So they would have been going to matches and having lunch and sitting in hospitality suites, whereas now they’re not doing that. Conversations are being had around getting refunds, moving agreements to next season and tieing up current business.

There’s been a certain amount of rejigging and renegotiation with football clubs, clubs have been empathetic to the situation. Therefore, conversations to sustain those relationships have been short and swift.

There are two types of football clubs. Clubs that will go through clients, they’ll get a name and sign them up, do a couple of years, and then move onto another brand because the club didn’t do their job very well. On that note, Norwich City is probably one of the best teams I’ve seen at looking after their clients; you only need to look at their website to see how long they’ve had long-term partners. This is because they will call clients and say, ‘hey, we’re thinking of doing a campaign, and we’d love to get you involved with no extra cost’. Part of my brain thinks yes, this sounds amazing, let’s do it. And that’s the difference between an ethical commitment from a club compared to one who will not sign a deal. Clubs that are proactive with clients will find themselves financially secure not because they’re bringing in the revenue, but they’re self-sufficient with their network.

With COVID you’ve got people on furlough, that’s one thing. But also, Wigan has gone into administration, and this demonstrates the problem with football is sometimes people go into it for the right reasons, whereas others are purely money motivated. For example, if you buy a low-level championship football club and we spend £5-10 million, maybe we’ll get into the playoffs, perhaps we’ll win the playoffs in the Premier League, and then we’re adding, £100 million in TV rights money. That’s where we’ll make a profit.

Understandably, COVID has created its problems for the industry. But at the same time, there are always good stories. One being Harry Kane promoting Leyton Orient’s new kit launch. Which has been a lesson to show if you have a relationship with another club, as Kane did with Leyton Orient being a big part at the start of his playing career, you’re likely to be more in demand from that.

Q) As an organisation that thrives from delivering high-quality partnerships, what makes a successful partnership in the industry? Plus, does this answer differ depending on the sport?

A: It’s straightforward. For example, on Linkedin, there’s plenty of courses about sales. However, I’ve never done sales training, and I never want to. The reason for this is because if you’re told the same thing that 1000’s of others are shown, you’ll be the same person. Whereas, YOUR personality and determination can’t be replicated. As mentioned earlier, people do business with people. Therefore, character is vital.

In this industry, you will get lots of no’s, but rather than treating it as a set back use it to pick up gems of wisdom. Having an imaginative and creative way to look at a company is a significant step forward to understand what benefit your client can have from partnering with you. Demographics are essential to understand, acknowledging how you can help your client better engage with their audience and doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Personality comes in as it’s essential to build a relationship and rapport. For example, I did a deal between Southampton and Kuflink, and before it got signed, I spent 45 mins on the phone bantering around with the client. This proves to be more than a business relationship and shows my personality sticks out, which is excellent. Therefore, to make a successful partnership, find out what you’re good at and accentuate those things while having the confidence to understand who you are.

Q) Throughout the 4 years and 6 months at Elite Sports Marketing, what other additional challenges have you faced, and how have you responded from them to enhance business?

A: The lockdown isn’t anything new; I work from home anyway, so there’s no massive change, the main difficultly was not being able to get my Starbucks! However, working from home has its challenges, including difficulties to focus as I often find myself ‘quickly’ checking the news and then 3 hours later I’m still in front of the TV!

It took a while to get regimented. Another big challenge about being an entrepreneur is money; it’s all well and good to work for yourself when you can pick when you do and don’t work, however, who is paying the rent? It’s me. So having a healthy level of discipline is a big one when working for yourself.

The biggest driver that keeps me focus and beating the drum is my family. They are my number one priority; if I were to pull off a big deal tomorrow, but I drop dead, I will be happy because I have provided my family financial security. Everyone needs to have something substantial, driving them and prioritise making money.

To summarise, whatever your drive is, make it compelling and aim for the top; that way, no challenge will be enough to bring you down.

Q) For people reading this who are inspired to devise their own sports sponsorship company, what advice can you pass on to them to consider?

A: Sports sponsorship is essentially a sales industry. Therefore, you need a strong backbone and a grinding mentality. Be prepared to send out a lot of messages but not receiving many responses. Treat everything as a learning curve, including the tone of your voice and the way you speak, this makes a big difference in securing a deal from my experience.

Patience is also crucial. On a slow week, I make about 3-15 calls with young people coming out of college and uni providing them careers advice. I enjoy being in a position to help, and I’d advise this to others as well once people start coming to you for information.

Another game-changing piece of advice is to utilise LinkedIn as much as you can. 80% of my clients are from LinkedIn. There’s no other place where you would find groups of brands and professionals in sport. Increase your connections, interact with other people as much as possible and get yourself noticed.

Q) What qualities do you look for when bringing in new employees at Elite Sports Marketing?  

A: I didn’t know the answer until I met Antonio. Since then, it’s about having determination and passion. What made Antonio stand out was how he didn’t care about earning on a commission-only basis. Call it blind enthusiasm, not taking no for an answer; you can’t ignore an attitude like that.

Also, in sports sales, everyone wants to aim for football clubs. Sport is a big world, why not diversify your thinking and go for cricket or tennis clubs instead? Being openly minded is also essential as it presents other ways to get your foot into the door

Q) Final question, what is the one phrase you like to use to summarise what makes a successful sporting career?

A: It all comes down to passion. You love the game; you enjoy watching it, seeing it and talking about it. Simply use that passion to build partnerships, apply yourself to the right club and make sure you always have a strong enough purpose to wake up each morning. I know I do, I get to talk about sport all day and get paid for it, there’s no reason you can’t either.

Wow, what a brilliant interview with Michael. He didn’t hold back one bit about the reality behind working in sport and what it takes to reach the top. It’s incredible to see how his commitment has led him to secure humongous clients in and how this has leveraged further opportunities to build his sporting portfolio. I hope this interview has brought value to your sports career ambition, and if so, make sure you subscribe to my mailing list for more inspirational sporting stories.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Published by Ash

I'm a First-Class Graduate in Sports Business Management who has worked across Local Government, Sport and the Third Sector. Throughout my career, I've developed a thriving passion to promote sport being used as a tool to bring positivity to the world we live in. This ethos has inspired me to create a website which champions this value through comprehensive online content for you to gain value from. Join me on this journey of discovering what sport can do to enhance society.

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