What TARP, Enron and Liquor Have Done to Sports Marketing

Q&A: Former A-B Media Maven Tony Ponturo on the State of the Industry -- and His New Gig

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Five months after Tony Ponturo departed Anheuser-Busch, where he was VP-global media and sports marketing, the media maven is chairman and part owner of the Leverage Agency, a sports-marketing firm that works with the likes of KFC and Gillette.

Tony Ponturo
Tony Ponturo
Mr. Ponturo routinely graced lists of the most powerful people in sports in his 26-year run at A-B, which spends more than any other company on sports sponsorships.

Mr. Ponturo's decision to invest in sports marketing comes at a time when the field's growth has slowed dramatically and outlays in it by banks and automakers who've received bailout money have been painted as perk-filled vanity plays with little value. He's also running his own consultancy, Ponturo Management Group, based in New York, and is associate producer of the Broadway revival of "Hair."

Ad Age caught up with him this week to discuss his plans and the state of the industry he once dominated.

Ad Age: So, is Leverage basically offering you up as a consultant to big sports marketers who want to learn the secrets of the biggest sports marketer?

Mr. Ponturo: This is [CEO Ben Sturner's] company. I'm not there to overpower the situation. It's more about helping the vision, focusing the energy and looking at the goals. And to people who have known me 25 years but don't know Ben yet, they may decide it's worth a conversation.

Ad Age: You're buying into sports marketing at a moment when it seems under siege. Huge stadiums can't sell naming rights; the banks and automakers are getting tons of scrutiny for their spending in this field. Spending overall has slowed sharply. Why has this field had such a hard time of a sudden?

Mr. Ponturo: It may be that, like the financial markets, we were growing fast and furious, and people were doing well, so they sort of just went along for the ride. And while that was happening, the out-of-pocket for sports really grew and grew to the point where it becomes prohibitive. If, at A-B, we used to do Nascar for $5 million and now a primary sponsorship costs $25 million, that number becomes a hurdle, and you start looking at what else you can do with that amount.

Ad Age: Is that why stadium naming rights have been such a tough sell of late? It would have been unthinkable a few years ago that an NFL stadium for both New York teams would have a hard time finding a taker.

Mr. Ponturo: If the standard was Enron paying $3 million a year [for the Houston Astros stadium], then maybe the standard wasn't created by, you know, the best business plan.

Ad Age: Are those pricing concerns what's driven A-B away from a lot of exclusive deals with local teams and the Olympics? That's a trend that started when you were there and seems to have accelerated since you left.

Mr. Ponturo: There's a dilution factor, because of the demand for revenue by a lot of these teams. They say, "We get this much from beer, but, by the way, now we want to open it up to distilled spirits and wine, too." So then the advertiser says, "Well, I don't really own that anymore, so I'm going to cut back to just a partial sponsorship."

Ad Age: Why do you think naming rights and golf-tournament sponsorships have been such public-relations liabilities for the bailed-out banks and automakers? Shouldn't they be better at making the case that these deals actually have value?

Mr. Ponturo: Well, obviously they lost a bit of strength of voice when they took taxpayer money. ... But I hate to see the marketing community get weak knees. If the [return-on-investment] numbers are there, sell it hard internally and go with it. ... If this is perceived as an ego buy, they need to stand up and say that it's not. If they did it in the first place, it should have made good business sense, or they shouldn't have done it.

Ad Age: Do you miss beer?

Mr. Ponturo: Under the current circumstances, and how they look at the business, maybe how the world has to look at business now, it was the right time for me to go.

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