By: Travis Grosch, @tgorsch
Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Rob Miller, Manager — Business Development, Hawkeye Sports Properties. Rob was gracious enough to have offered up his time and insight into the world of sponsorships in college athletics, exploring different areas of the sports industry by dipping your toes in the water while you’re still in school, and leveraging your network when seeking future career opportunities. Rob talked about building meaningful relationships whether they are with sponsors or in the community while doing philanthropic work.
You received a Bachelor’s in Health and Sport Studies as well as a minor in Mass Communications from the University of Iowa. In your career you have mostly focused on sports marketing. What were your plans when you chose your degree and what did you hope to do after obtaining it?
“In the classroom, we were taking courses focused on gender equity, sport history up to 1900, etc. The Health and Sport Studies degree at Iowa wasn’t a Sport Management degree. My feeling is that my classroom experience was not as practicable or applicable as most programs are now. I was learning a lot outside of the classroom from my internship positions as a student. However, it’s important to note that without that classroom work, I wouldn’t have had access to the rest of it. I didn’t learn as much from the textbook, but being a student gave me opportunities for internships that I would not have had otherwise. My minor in Mass Communications helped me understand the early days of social media. We talked a lot about the next wave of communication and that helps me more today than I realized at the time.”
“I finished up my undergraduate studies in 2010 and was able to stay on in a postgraduate sports marketing assistant position with Iowa Athletics for another year. The assistant position was an extension of my internship. It allowed me to gain full time professional experience in a collegiate athletics department. I was able to go deeper than just getting my toes in the water. I focused my attention on men’s basketball — working with signage and ended up getting stronger with Photoshop. That’s what got me noticed by Learfield Sports. I had taken it on as a personal project to enhance advertising images and digital signage.”
“Later, I met the Hawkeye Sports Properties General Manager, Chuck Schroeder, who was there at the time. As time went on, he asked me to work for him. I think that job offer stemmed from showing interest in something that previous people in my position hadn’t put an emphasis on. That extra effort caught his attention and helped me land the position.”
You were involved in many different activities and organizations as a student, including the Student Committee on Athletics, Hawks Nest Executive Board, Daily Iowan TV, and the first ever Big Ten Network StudentU at the University of Iowa. How important is it to get involved as a student?
“I’m a huge believer in testing different avenues and opportunities that you are passionate about. I came to Iowa studying chemistry and biology with hopes to be a pharmacist. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would, so I needed a change. Something I had always enjoyed was Hawkeye athletics. I went to all the games and loved the experience. A friend of mine asked if I was interested in becoming a student reporter for Daily Iowan TV. I joined their team and interviewing student-athletes and coaches and traveling to cover teams turned out to be an incredible opportunity. I got an in-depth experience right away and really enjoyed it.”
“The next summer, another friend emailed me about a student internship in the athletics department. I applied for the position, had an interview, and ended up getting it. I was with Daily Iowan TV for two and a half academic years. I started in the Iowa Athletics Sports Marketing office in 2008 and was there for two years during undergrad and one year post-grad. Those positions offered me experience on the marketing and business side of athletics. This is when I started to hone in on what I was passionate about in the sports industry.”
You landed an internship with Major League Baseball as a Marketing & Advertising Intern during a summer while at Iowa. How were you able to land this position? What is your advice for students and young professionals seeking internship opportunities?
“It was the summer of 2008. I had a friend at home in Cedar Rapids, Stacey Walker. We were sitting around a bonfire one night. Stacey had just been recognized as the National Youth of the Year by Boys & Girls Club. Later that summer, he was asked to speak on behalf of the relationship between the MLB and the Boys and Girls Club. Stacey volunteered to put me in touch with Tom Brasuell, VP of Community Affairs with Major League Baseball, and encouraged me to apply for an internship. The very next day, Stacey connected me with Tom. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t right to get hired and the internship didn’t work out that summer. Tom recommended that I apply for the next year and they would consider my application. Spring 2009, I applied for the position and was hired.”
“They hired me to work with community-related marketing. I was a part of the team coordinating communication between the clubs and ALS campaigns that MLB was running. The most memorable experience happened on my very first day. We received hundreds of pink bats from Mother’s Day that were signed by Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and Alex Rodriguez, and other players — all in support of breast cancer awareness. It was unforgettable. My portion of the project was to catalogue the bats with the authentication team. Then, as a fundraiser, the bats went to online auction on MLB.com. One other highlight included sending a glove to President Obama to wear to throw out the first pitch in the All-Star Game in 2009. It was a glove with the number #44 on it. Unfortunately, he didn’t end up wearing it when he threw out the first pitch.”
You help generate content for the official Hawkeyes Athletic website, Facebook page, and Twitter account. Fans have access to your content basically anywhere they go on their smartphones. How are you creating an in-venue experience using digital technology and social media platforms? Do you use beacons in the stadiums and arenas? How are you creating content to engage fans that are watching on a laptop or TV from home?
“The Learfield staff works with the athletic department on several enter-to-win contests that include a sponsoring partner. For example, we recently launched a football promotion on the Hawkeyes Facebook page. We develop the content with the sponsor and work with Iowa Athletics to get it out there. The ‘Iowa Hawkeyes’ Facebook page becomes more valuable by offering the contest. It’s also beneficial to the partner because it extends the relationship between their brand and the Hawkeyes.”
“A challenge that we have at Iowa, along with other older stadiums across the country, is cellular connectivity. Lately, it’s been awesome to learn about the San Francisco 49ers and what they are doing at Levi’s Stadium. Our communications partner at Iowa is U.S. Cellular. This year, they’ve installed extra data boosters to help with connectivity. We’ve seen major improvements on gameday and expect that the upgrades should help us with connected promotions into the future.”
Can you talk about the importance of relationships with partners and sponsors? How do you determine if the partnership is beneficial to the sponsor at the same time being beneficial to the Hawkeye Athletics?
“A lot of my job includes seeking out prospective sponsors. We’re looking for business that would be a viewed well in the eyes of Hawkeye fans and those that are an ethical fit. The first question we have to ask is ‘Are Hawkeye fans important to your company and can we get them engaged with your brand?’ From there I use a three-legged approach I picked up while at UNI [University of Northern Iowa]. Is this partnership good for the fan? Is it good for the school? And, is it good for the partner? Without answering ‘yes’ to all three, it becomes hard to justify the relationship. If we do a promotion that isn’t fun for the fans, but drives revenue, it’s not a good partnership. Personally, I can’t put the ball in the end zone for our team, but I can do as much as I can to create a positive experience for our fans and listeners.”
You started as a Sales & Marketing Coordinator with Hawkeye Sports Properties before becoming a Manager of Business Development with Panther Sports Properties at the University of Northern Iowa. What brought you back to the University of Iowa to accept the position as their Manager of Business Development?
“My first step with Learfield was a role as the Sponsorship Coordinator. I took my game day marketing experience from my time in the Iowa Athletics Department and brought it to Learfield. I would assist in executing a sponsorship that was sold by someone else on our staff. Whether it be stadium signage, radio and television spots, web advertisements — I was responsible for taking the assets in the agreement and developing a calendar to track activation in order to make sure they were running. From there, I received a promotion within Learfield that gave me the chance to sell sponsorships at UNI.”
“Moving to Panther Sports Properties offered me the opportunity to develop sponsor relationships in the state I grew up in — and at a school that is really compelling at the FCS level. It was a knockout fit for me. A negative-turned-positive for me was that we had quite a bit of turnover at the General Manager level. Those challenges gave me some valuable experience taking on more roles and responsibilities. In 2014, Iowa had a salesperson move on and I ended up accepting a sales role with the Hawkeyes.”
What major differences do you see when preparing for an event at Kinnick Stadium compared to an event inside of Carver-Hawkeye Arena?
“I work with our Marketing Coordinator a lot in the office. Leading up to football Saturdays, I stress that if you’re not ready by the end of the day Friday — it’s not happening. You can’t jam things in on a game day. On Saturday, our plans should be in place so you can turn the key and execute the plan.”
“Basketball is different. The games are usually in the evening and on weekdays. They are a bit less labor-intensive in terms of activation. With multiple home events per week, the time dedicated to basketball is greater, though in smaller chunks.”
“Get involved in more than what you’re passionate about professionally. For me, philanthropic engagement is just as important. If you go back to my internship with the MLB, that doesn’t come together if I don’t get involved with the Boys and Girls Club in Cedar Rapids. Those relationships led to a connection, interview, and job. The same thing applies now, being back in Iowa City. I’m finding different ways to get involved in a volunteer capacity. Volunteering allows someone the chance to connect with people outside of their regular circle.”
“I’ll also say, ‘be smart on social media.’ Don’t post anything that you wouldn’t want your grandma to see. There is so much more value in consistently being positive, rather than being the instigator or complaining about something. You wouldn’t want someone else publicly airing your dirty laundry. Be positive and don’t place someone else in a negative light.”
“When thinking about internship opportunities, dip your toes in the water. Unique to internships, it’s fairly low risk for both parties. As an employee, you’re likely not getting paid a huge income. And, the employer doesn’t likely have you in a position of major decision-making. You have the opportunity to learn and to keep things moving for the company or department. And ultimately, if you don’t like the internship — you can get out. There is just as much value in discovering what you don’t like, compared to what you do like.”
We would like to thank Rob for his time and insight and we wish him all the best in his future endeavors