In a time where sports leagues are competing to entice new fans and be ever evolving to current ones, it is as crucial as ever to distinguish oneself within the industry. For Jessica Smith, her growth within her career in sponsorship mirrors the trajectory of Major League Soccer within the sponsorship landscape.
After spending the early part of her career focusing on ticket sales within the A’s organization, Smith transitioned over to the sponsorship side. Smith had a desire to work hand-in-hand with brands as she wanted to help carve out dynamic partnerships within the Bay Area market. As she already had a few years of familiarity working within the A’s organization, this made it successful for her to blend her skillset within the sponsorship opportunities that the A’s organization provided to brands.
“It is important to align your personal style with how a team goes about selling sponsorships,” said Smith. “Being that I was passionate about the A’s, their reach and opportunity for brands made for a seamless transition”
Smith had a passion for sponsorships but also was looking for opportunities to differentiate herself in the industry. After two seasons of selling sponsorship at the A’s, Smith was looking for a change. With the goal of continued personal development in mind, she decided to enroll in the MSA program at Ohio University. There, she cultivated her leadership style based on the key principles of transparency and collaboration. This style has helped to set the course for her advancement in the sports industry thus far in her career.
“To me, transparency is for everyone to understand the goals and priorities of what their peers, leaders and other departments are working on. You do this to eliminate ‘silos’ and keep everyone aware of what their role is in the team’s success,” says Smith. “From there, collaboration is natural. People like to offer their help, knowledge, and perspective and with varying opinions comes the best end product or idea.”
After six and a half years with the A’s, Smith used this specific leadership style to transition over to the Columbus Blue Jackets as their Director of Corporate Development where she oversaw sponsorship and premium seating initiatives. After two seasons in Columbus, Smith leveraged past connections in the industry to transition into her current role as Vice President of Sponsorship with the San Jose Earthquakes.
While her title has evolved, her infusion of culture has remained tried and true to what she developed within her MSA program with Ohio University.
“At the ‘Quakes, we engage in ‘mindshare’ meetings,” says Smith. “Every Friday, we put multiple departments together, such as public relations, marketing, and digital and social media and we discuss and collaborate on company initiatives. These include digital content strategies, sponsorship development for new or existing partners, media inclusion all of the aspects of club priorities.”
This mindset that Smith takes with her team mirrors the mantra of Major League Soccer in today’s sports landscape. Even in a year in which the USMNT will be missing the greatest competition FIFA has to offer, engagement within the sport has been at an all-time high.
“This is a great time to be in MLS, especially in the Bay Area. Soccer globally, and certainly in America through MLS, has established itself as a different experience compared to those with the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB. The authenticity of the sport itself, which is a shorter game time with no commercial breaks outside halftime, is mirrored by organizations who strive to genuinely connect with fans and remain approachable.”
Smith echoes that this is reflected in the sponsorship side of the sport. The ‘Quakes have a strategy to have fewer, larger sponsors to ensure each sponsorship has an impact. Sponsorships include some traditional assets like their other league competitors, LED Signage, commercials, etc. but the difference in strategy caters to the genuine excitement and intrigue that a rabid fanbase has to offer. To truly have influence, the ‘Quakes create sponsorships that are beneficial for the team, sponsor and fanbase alike. Access, coverage, experience, and digital components are always explored.
“There are many different aspects that MLS has to offer to both the fans and sponsors,” says Smith. “Not only do the ‘Quakes approach partnerships this way, but the league continues to be reactive to ensure there are numerous avenues to connect with the league and each club. An example of this is the recent launch of eMLS, an esports segment to MLS that caters to the many MLS fans interested and engaged in both. This is an example of an offering that is an entirely new way to showcase a sponsor to a targeted audience. Unsurprisingly, the main avenue for creativity and sponsorship growth comes in the form of digital content. MLS fans are consuming at an all-time high with no signs of slowing down.”
To further elaborate on the personal connection that the sport has to offer for fans and sponsors alike, Smith shed light on two of the San Jose Earthquakes key partners that also have ties with MLS as a whole.
The first, Wells Fargo, is a sponsor of multiple soccer entities including the Mexican National Team, MLS, and ‘Quakes.
“Wells Fargo is the sponsor of our Neighborhood Nights,” says Smith. “Before every single match, members of the ‘Quakes’ front office, alongside Wells Fargo, go into a different San Jose neighborhood and help provide vital services tailored to the needs of that area. This could range anywhere from orchestrating an equipment drive for local schools to picking up litter and refurbishing local recreational areas. All of these activities culminate at that neighborhood’s dedicated match where community leaders are recognized pregame and supported by their neighborhood attendees who have access to discounted tickets and co-branded giveaways to support their civic pride. All of this is captured on social media to highlight the impact that the ‘Quakes and Wells Fargo have within the greater San Jose area.”
The second sponsor, Audi, utilizes an innovative approach within their partnerships with both Major League Soccer and the ‘Quakes. The car brand prides itself on being approachable and multi-faceted as their fans are “do it all” people that gel with the nature of soccer. Taking advantage of the similar psychographics, Smith outlines how Audi has tapped into the trend of soccer moving towards the future.
“Audi aligns well with the innovation mindset, which, in turn, has been at the forefront of thinking for American soccer. On the ‘Quakes side, they have taken over the naming rights of our field level premium seating club spaces and have incorporated innovation into their digital presence through the ‘Quakes ‘Innovator of the Month presented by Audi’. There are other benefits to being an Audi driver and ‘Quakes fan but you’d have to attend a game to truly immerse yourself in the experience. The parallels of brand goals around approachability and innovation have ensured this partnership’s success.”
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Smith notes that Wells Fargo and Audi are just two examples of how sponsors are willing to invest in both the genuine community-based and cutting-edge technology-based aspects of what soccer has to offer.
“There is no better feeling than finding a sponsor that serves as a true investment for the team and is genuinely appreciated by the fan base for their work.”
*For more insight on Jessica Smith’s background within the industry, check out our previous profile on her here: https://newsiteproduct.wpengine.com/a-front-row-seat-to-soccers-massive-growth/