Minnesota Wild Secure Corporate Partners With an Assist from AI
The Minnesota Wild have leveraged artificial intelligence to increase their corporate partnership revenue by $1 million to $2 million for the upcoming season.
Bryan Bellows, the Wild’s director of corporate partnership sales, doesn’t don skates to compete on the ice. But he’s charged with attracting corporate partners to the Wild while his sales competitors are making the case for the Timberwolves, Vikings, Twins, and Minnesota United FC.
“To have five major professional sports teams—and a Big 10 college—all within 10 miles of each other is pretty unique,” Bellows said. “It also creates a very competitive sports market.”
In January, the Wild decided to get some outside help, so Bellows and his team of three account executives could identify more strong prospects for buying Wild sponsorships and suites.
To generate more revenue, the Wild forged a business relationship with Demand Sports, which was launched in 2022 by its parent, Demand Inc.
“The vision for Demand was to really create a best-in-class sales development platform to help any B2B company book meetings” with sales client prospects, said Derek Rey, founder and CEO of Demand Inc. “Up until the onset of the pandemic, we’d never worked with a sports team, and it was really the pandemic that brought sports teams to us.”
Demand Inc. consists of about 100 team members—employees and contractors—who are spread across six continents, Rey said. They all work remotely. Rey has been based in the San Francisco area and he’s in the process of moving to Nashville.
“We run kind of lean,” Bellows said, so it isn’t possible for him and his three sales executives to identify all the potentially good corporate partners, connect with them, and secure sales meetings. Demand Sports, with a vast data base of information about companies, serves as an extension of the Wild sales team by assisting with research and connections. The Wild organization pays Demand Sports a monthly fee for the prospecting that employs artificial intelligence, or AI.
“They reach out to brands and companies every week on our behalf, and their main goal is to stir up some interest and try to get a meeting booked,” Bellows said. “Once there is a potential partner sponsor with interest, then they do what is called a turnover to us.”
Demand Sports, which has access to the Wild sales team’s email accounts, books the sales meetings, the Wild pay a small fee for each interested prospect, and the Wild staff directly communicate with the companies that might become corporate partners.
The Demand platform searches for potential Wild partners on a local, regional, and national basis. “Even within our own state, there are businesses that might not be on our radar that will be on their radar,” Bellows said.
Wild sign new deals
The Wild will begin the 2023-24 season at home with an Oct. 12 game against the Florida Panthers, who lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup championship series in June.
The Minnesota NHL franchise has more than 75 corporate partners. “Most of our partners that come in as new sponsors sign multi-year agreements,” Bellows said. “Managing that relationship is key to what we do.”
On an ongoing basis, Bellows and his team members are searching for new partners, meeting with prospective partners, and ensuring the needs of their existing partners are met.
Between January and July, the Wild signed four new partner deals with companies identified by Demand Sports. Those deals are worth more than $1 million annually.
Upside, a Washington, D.C.-based retail technology company, is one of three new corporate sponsors discovered by Demand Sports, Bellows said.
Inspire Sleep, a Golden Valley-based company that provides sleep apnea treatments, is a new annual suite client, he said.
Beyond securing four major clients via its relationship with Demand Sports, Bellows said that the Wild are in “active conversations” with more than a dozen “legitimate prospects in our pipeline” that were identified by Demand.
As a result of working with Demand, Bellows said, the Wild found “another four to five clients that have committed to a suite for a specific single Wild game this upcoming season.”
When he entered into the relationship agreement with Demand Sports, Bellows said he viewed it as “a low-risk, high-reward opportunity.”
Among NHL teams, Demand Sports also is working with the Nashville Predators and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Demand has several clients in other professional sports leagues, but the Wild are the only pro team in Minnesota with a Demand relationship.
“They’ve created a platform that is working for us,” Bellows said.
Evolving sports revenue marketplace
Zack Sugarman is the chief strategy officer for Demand Inc. and Demand Sports. He joined Demand Inc., a six-year-old company, after working for 16 years for Wasserman, a global sports and entertainment marketing agency.
For many years, direct sales agencies placed a premium on longstanding relationships with key brands. He said the pitch would be: “I know the right people, so hire me and I will help get you those meetings.” Many companies were interested in the same brands. “That is how the industry worked for many years,” Sugarman said.
“With the advent of technology and all these new sports leagues and entertainment options popping up, everything is competition for sports,” he said.
Fans for professional sports teams include people from around the country as well as the cities where teams play their home games. Professional sports leagues based in the U.S. also have been playing some games in foreign countries to broaden their fan bases.
The Wild will travel to Sweden in November to play two Canadian teams: the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Sugarman, who earned an economics degree from Amherst College in Massachusetts, is using his analytical skills to help teams evolve their marketing and sales efforts. “Your sport is more global,” Sugarman said. “You are reaching larger audiences, newer ones. You don’t need to just go after those [businesses] that are regional and local.”
Rey said that Demand Inc. recognized the power of artificial intelligence several years ago. “The framework of AI is really for identifying accounts, reaching out to them with personalized messaging, booking the meetings,” he said. AI can be deployed to find prospective sponsors within geographic proximity of a metro area’s sports stadium, but it also can be used to locate business sponsors who are based thousands of miles away and want a digital marketing presence with a specific sports team, Rey said.
For example, he said, a sports team may want Demand to prospect for sponsor leads within 30 miles of a stadium. “We can identify every single business, we can identify if they are hiring, if their revenue is increasing, if they have filed for an IPO, if they are showing signs that they want to be public before they actually go public, if they are raising capital, if they are spending ad dollars in market, if their ad expenditure is increasing,” Rey said.
“New companies pop up all the time,” Sugarman said. The AI research done by Demand Sports is designed to capture new and old companies that might be good revenue matches for sports teams, whether they are within a given sports team’s geographic area or well beyond it.
For his part, the Wild’s Bellows views the use of AI by Demand Sports as a positive tool for his sales team. “They are complementing what we are doing,” Bellows said. “They are getting enough interest that the prospective client is willing to have a meeting. They are giving 100% of those meetings over to us.”