CEO Q&A: Sam Kennedy, Fenway Sports Management (Extended)

Fenway Sports Management CEO and president Sam Kennedy talks about working with LeBron James and online innovation.

Sam Kennedy, CEO and president of Fenway Sports Management (FSM), formerly Fenway Sports Group, speaks with Danielle Drolet about his group's partnership with LeBron James and how the sports marketing world continues to lead the way in online innovation.

In April 2011, LeBron James' LRMR Branding & Marketing teamed up with FSM to become the exclusive representative for James. What is the comms strategy moving forward for this partnership? Will FSM's internal communications team be supporting James? If so, how?  
Our deal is structured such that FSM is partnering with James and Maverick Carter, CEO of LRMR, for James' off-court business activities. FSM handles the business development and sales. It will introduce James to the broader corporate marketplace. As part of the arrangement, James has also become a limited owner of [English Premier League soccer team] Liverpool FC.

It's a game-changer in the professional sports industry. From a PR and marketing perspective, both sides have internal teams that work together on major initiatives, such as the partnership announcement, which generated significant global media coverage. Our teams remain in regular contact, planning a number of new ventures. Last fall, for instance, we worked closely together on our first joint global representation deal for James with luxury Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet.

Given the competitive and highly passionate sports culture in Boston, we knew the partnership would not be popular among some local constituencies because James directly competes with the Celtics. This provided us with an interesting challenge from a local PR perspective. When you know an announcement will be poorly received, all you can do is state the facts and explain your rationale.

Many fans understood this was a great deal for parent company Fenway Sports Group (FSG) and that it would only serve to strengthen FSG, which, in turn, benefits all of the companies under its umbrella, including the Red Sox. We were able to effectively communicate that this deal would not take away FSG's focus on the Red Sox, which was a critical message to share with the local audience.

From a global standpoint, the announcement was extremely well received. It helped us garner attention that will support our sales efforts across the entire FSG portfolio on behalf of James, which was our ultimate goal.

What is the biggest challenge for the sports industry today?
Marketplace saturation – the number of sports and entertainment options available to consumers and the ever-increasing ways in which they can consume this content. Being mindful of this helps us focus our marketing efforts on cutting through the clutter and delivering our message in a way that stands out.

It's hard for sponsors to choose the best platform through which they can reach and engage consumers, but we're fortunate to own and sell for blue-chip teams in some of the world's most prestigious leagues – MLB, EPL Football, NASCAR, the NBA – and can present advertisers with a number of great sponsorship opportunities that will help them achieve their marketing objectives. It's akin to having a diversified stock portfolio. Red Sox owners John Henry and Tom Werner have had this vision for a long time. It has really come to fruition over the past two years.

How important is social media relative to other team marcomms vehicles? Do you see social media playing a more prominent role in teams communicating with fans?
Social media will become the most important communications vehicle in the coming years. We've just scratched the surface of social media and understanding what it means for both our fans and us.

Today's fans are much more plugged in – more sophisticated and more connected to the constant flow of information. Facebook and Twitter are extremely large platforms and we are constantly using them to connect with our fans. James, for instance, has more than 6 million fans on Facebook; Liverpool has 5.5 million, and the Red Sox have 2.5 million. We're constantly analyzing these numbers, looking at what information resonates with fans, and seeing how we can best leverage these channels to add value for our sponsors.

FSG owns a number of distinctly different sports-related organizations, from the Boston Red Sox to 50% of Roush Fenway Racing, as well as sports entertainment network NESN. How does the company successfully integrate its marcomms for each of the brands?
It's a common misconception that we integrate our marketing communications. To us, they are separate concerns. Each individual company has its own marketing team, communications team, and its own agenda. Occasionally we will have crossover, such as when James wore Liverpool's gear at a post-game conference, which ended up creating a big stir in the social media world. But overall, each business operates individually with its own budget, fan base, and communications team.

How do you effectively balance your dual role as president of FSM and COO of the Red Sox?
By hiring the best management team possible. There's also a tremendous amount of crossover. For instance, I lead Red Sox business operations and the club is one of FSM's largest clients. My management style is a combination of both hands-off and very hands-on, depending on what the situation calls for. We like Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino's saying that “micro-management is underrated.”

Many have said that the sports industry was one of the earlier adopters of online content, serving as a blueprint for news agencies in the early '90s. What do you think is important for the sports market moving forward to continue to be an innovator online?
Online content is constantly evolving. We need to ensure we're keeping up with the moving parts. Sports content is arguably some of the most popular online material; there's a constant flow of information, scores, stats, and news about teams and players.

We must work hard to cater to members of the online media community and provide them with the access and information that their medium requires; similar to the approach we've always taken with print, TV, and radio reporters. It's important to provide equal access to digital media and to respect their audiences, which are growing exponentially.

Fenway Sports Group recently was renamed Fenway Sports Management. What was the reasoning behind the new branding? How was it communicated both internally and externally?
As Fenway Sports Group (previously New England Sports Ventures) expanded internationally by acquiring Liverpool FC and Roush Fenway Racing, ownership felt we needed a brand that more accurately reflected our global reach. The sports management arm (previously known as Fenway Sports Group) then became Fenway Sports Management. Obviously, we think the name Fenway has cachet. We like it, but, of course, we're biased.

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