Tom Fox, a true luminary in the realm of sports marketing, has left an indelible mark on the industry. With a storied career that includes pivotal roles at prestigious organizations such as the NBA, Nike, Gatorade, and renowned football clubs like Arsenal FC and Aston Villa, his journey offers a treasure trove of insights and experiences. In this exclusive interview, we dive deep into the wisdom he's gathered over the years.
From the vital importance of authenticity in sports marketing to the evolving challenges of the industry, and from strategies that propelled the NBA's global growth to the unique dynamics of football club management, Tom Fox shares his profound knowledge and compelling stories, making this a must-read for anyone passionate about sports and marketing. Tom also serves as a trusted advisor to Talisman, and his perspectives offer a valuable lens into the hyper-growth strategies that the company currently enjoys.
Q: You've had an impressive career in sports marketing, with roles at the NBA, Nike, Gatorade, and more. Can you share some key insights or lessons learned from these diverse experiences that have shaped your approach to sports marketing today?
I think the key thing I’ve learned in sports marketing is the importance of authenticity.
Sports is a powerful platform when both the rights holder and the brand bring value to each other, less so when a brand is simply borrowing interest and doing little more than slapping a logo on available inventory.
Gatorade and Nike are both brands built on the same fundamental promise; to help athletes perform better and neither have ever wavered from that, no matter how large their businesses have grown. The NBA has been a powerful global platform to both brands to reinforce their efficacy and authenticity but I’d also argue the league has benefitted greatly from the association with these two successful brands. Iconic campaigns from both companies featuring a young Michael Jordan helped drive interest in the league from people that wanted to Be Like Mike and fly in his shoes.
Q: As a thought leader in the industry, what do you believe are the most significant trends or challenges currently facing the sports marketing field, and how should professionals address them?
No question the biggest issue facing the industry is the current threat to advertising supported live-content. The sports economy has been driven by brands and advertising dollars for decades and anyone trying to sell advertising around live sports programming these days will tell you it’s never been more difficult. Young audiences are simply moving away from live, ad-supported programming and are unwilling to watch 3-hour live programs filled with commercial breaks. They’ve been trained that commercials are avoidable by the many streaming series that currently carry the content they’re interested in.
"Sports executives need to recognize that there are now 2 generations of fans who won’t allow their eyeballs to be monetized in the way the industry has operated for decades."
This means more than pushing short-form content to them via social channels, it requires a total rethink of how to reach and connect with this audience.
Q: Your time as the NBA's Asia MD played a pivotal role in growing the sport in the region. Can you discuss some of the strategies and initiatives that contributed to this success?
The NBA’s global strategy for growth took shape alongside the changes in broadcast and digital media technology in the early 90s. The success of the Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 happened to coincide with the expansion of satellite distribution and the evolution of DTH satellite paid sports programming. We knew that the world wanted to see the best basketball on a consistent basis and we were able to enter whatever market we wanted and cut deals with both terrestrial broadcasters like CCTV and TVB and regional pay services like ESPN Asia and Star Sports.
Once we had the exposure and the audience, the advertisers and sponsors followed as did the demand for NBA licensed products.
Q: Gatorade is an iconic brand in the sports beverage industry. As the SVP Worldwide Sports Marketing at Gatorade, what were the key strategies you implemented to enhance the brand's presence and impact?
There were essentially 3 but the most important one has been the least talked about and is probably the least understood;
The first was to put the product on the field of play where athletes could be seen drinking it. We chose to use orange on the coolers and green on the cups and squeeze bottles and keep that consistent across all sports so as to be instantly recognizable. This endemic usage at the “point of sweat”reinforced Gatorade’s efficacy as the best sports drink on the planet.
The second strategy evolved over time and that involved signing a few select athletes for use in advertising to draw greater attention to what people were seeing when they watched live games. Since every athlete at some point during a game had a Gatorade cup or bottle in their hand, we already had broad “implied” endorsement. Putting iconic athletes like Jordan, Hamm, Jeter and Manning in the TV ads simply reinforced it.
Finally, the establishment of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI) in 1985 enhanced the belief in the scientific community that Gatorade was more than a product on the grocery store shelf. To the leading scientists studying human performance, Gatorade was seen as a trusted partner, sharing their goal to explore ways to help athletes perform at their peak. We did this by funding research around hydration but also other areas that weren’t directly connected to Gatorade’s key areas of benefit.
"You’ll hear businesses talk about their “moat”, their protectable competitive advantage, and for Gatorade that was and is GSSI."
Q: Transitioning to roles like CCO ofArsenal FC and CEO of Aston Villa, how did your approach to sports marketing change in the context of football clubs? What unique challenges did these roles present? Any cool stories?
A fellow football exec once told me that running a football Club is like running a business that issues an annual report every Monday, only you have no idea what’s going to be in it. The challenge around running a football Club or a team revolves around weekly results and that’s a dynamic that doesn’t exist in any other business. At Arsenal, we’d get complaints about the cost of the food and the concession lines in the stadium if we lost.
"But if we’d won, everyone had a great day out."
What ultimately came away with from European football is that, at it’s core, it’s about pride. When people choose to buy the replica kit and wear the badge, they’re making a visible statement about who they are and what they represent. If the Club and players honor that relationship and make them proud, either through winning or sometimes just effort, then you’re on the right path.
Q: You moved back to the U.S. and became the President of the MLS San Jose Earthquakes. What goals did you set for the club, and what achievements are you most proud of during your time there?
MLS is still a League in investment mode and trying to achieve results on the field while minimizing losses is always the goal. As a Club that consistently spends in the bottom third of the League, achieving the postseason was always the goal and one we only achieved once in my 3seasons at the Club. Despite the performance on the pitch, by far my proudest moment was working alongside our GM, Jesse Fiorinelli, to recruit Mathias Almeyda to be our head coach. Given his coaching profile in Argentina andMexico and his background as a player in Serie A, I don’t believe our fan base even imagined we could attract him to San Jose, so it was a real coup when we did. And given the large Hispanic population in the South Bay, it spurred some real interest in what we were doing at the Quakes.
Q: In your current role at Talisman, you're involved in growth acceleration and senior management mentorship. Can you elaborate on the specific strategies and mentorship approaches you find most effective that has propelled their hyper-growth?
Honestly, this team are already rock stars in my mind. While I’m happy to open doors and give them the benefit of my 35+ years of experience in the industry, I marvel at their utter fearlessness for the sales process and am in awe of their work ethic and tenacity.
If I can help them avoid mistakes based on my experience of making many, then I’ll have added value to the business.
Q: How can you best describe the team at Talisman and what they do, and how do they differ from other sports marketing agencies out there today?
Dharpan and his dedicated team are unwavering champions of brand-centric sports marketing, and their accomplishments in aligning cutting-edge brands with Tier-1 rights holders in the sports industry are truly commendable. While this may seem straightforward, they have honed a method that delves deep into generating mutual value for all stakeholders, delivering impressive results within a remarkably short timeframe.
What sets them apart from other agencies, in my opinion, is their distinctive approach and their seamless integration into the brand's marketing team. They possess an exceptional ability to fully immerse themselves in the brand's identity and objectives.
Q: Lastly, for aspiring professionals in sports marketing, what advice would you offer to help them stand out and make a significant impact in the industry?
My advice is typically is to focus first on marketing, the broader endeavor, and not just sports. What always helped me in my career was the experience I gained through brand management at Quaker on Cap’n Crunch and Chewy Granola Bars. It was on these brands I learned the importance of positioning, packaging, pricing, distribution and all the other tools that go into putting a product on a shelf and creating the demand that takes it off. Sports Marketing is powerful when done right and for the right reasons, but it needs to compliment everything else the brand is doing to build loyalty and preference.
"Sports Marketers, team and league executives will be eager to hire people with broad marketing skills and experience running real businesses. I don’t think the opposite is true."
Talisman is an award-winning global agency redefining sports, entertainment, gaming & Web3 partnerships across key industries and regions. With offices in Dubai & New York City, Talisman thrives on unparalleled storytelling, reflecting the great brands and creative minds they have the pleasure of working with. With global resources and connectivity in key markets, Talisman has won prominent industry awards for executing groundbreaking partnerships & activations across sports & gaming.
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