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Athletes In Business

McGregor Keeps Branching Out With Proper No. Twelve

Conor McGregor’s latest foray outside the octagon is his most ambitious — and perhaps authentic — idea yet: Irish whiskey.

Max Simpson

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Photo Credit: Proper No. Twelve

Conor McGregor has been a professional sports icon for years thanks to his work in a UFC octagon. But his outside ventures have played a major role in elevating him to a global star. In 2017, it was his cross-sport boxing match with Floyd Mayweather. In 2018, it was a clothing line with David August that includes hand-tailored suiting and luxury menswear. And, in 2019, it might be the most on-brand product of all for a proud Irishman — whiskey.

Proper No. Twelve, a distilled Irish whiskey brand, launched in September 17, 2018. The idea, however, was in place for years.

“Since his rise to stardom in MMA and beyond, Conor’s been approached by countless Irish whiskey brands asking him to endorse their product,” said Brian Axelrod, US Director at Proper No. Twelve and Eire Born Spirits. “Conor has nothing against endorsement deals, he participates in a few for brands he truly believes in and supports. But something about endorsing an Irish whiskey didn’t feel right to him. Conor wanted to make his own Irish whiskey.”

READ MORE: How Two Top Brands Market Products Via Partnership With NASCAR

McGregor and the Proper No. Twelve team decided to start wide, canvassing top distilleries across Ireland. They ultimately settled on one of the oldest, Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim,
which had a reputation for fresh water quality, a long record of top-notch product and a master distiller who previously worked for Guinness.

With McGregor’s vision and the distiller’s expertise, the two congregated with the rest of McGregor’s team to fine-tune the custom blend. McGregor and his team selected whiskey from hundreds of barrels, a months-long process. The end result was worth it: A complex flavor profile that but one that retained a smooth and approachable taste.

But McGregor funneled that same energy into promotion.  Shortly after launch, he also embarked on a cross-country trip of the United States, stopping in multiple cities each day to personally market the brand and product to fans. McGregor went everywhere from Conan to AT&T Stadium in Dallas for a Cowboys game.

Yet one of the less buzz-worthy meetings resonated most. During one of the final stops of the trip, McGregor and the Proper No. Twelve team visited the Boston Fire Department. McGregor shook each department member’s hand and later surprised them with World Series tickets to see their hometown team in action. According to Axelrod, the day owes itself to one person in particular.

“Visiting the Boston Fire Department was all Conor,” he said. “Everything we did was completely organic or by invite. Conor’s enthusiasm is contagious. People just want to be around him.”

READ MORE: How Professional Bull Riders Successfully Introduces Its Culture to New Audiences

While the tour may have ended, the brand’s growth is only beginning. McGregor frequently posts about the whiskey on his personal Twitter and Instagram to his near-38 million followers across both platforms. Axelrod, meanwhile, says the brand is targeting much bigger distribution and visibility. And, of course, what better time to start than this weekend?

“As for St. Paddy’s Day, you better start preparing now,” Axelrod said.

The party is just getting started if McGregor has his way.

Max Simpson is a contributing writer for Front Office Sports. A graduate from Arizona State University, Max currently works for the Reno Aces & Reno 1868 FC with time spent with Sun Devil Athletics and the Arizona Diamondbacks. For @frntofficesport, Max highlights unique partnerships, brand marketing strategies, and content activation. He can be reached at max@frntofficesport.com.

Athletes In Business

Lagardere’s Rosenberg Brings Athlete’s Competitiveness to Charity Agency

From the tennis court to the agency world, Lagardere’s Carla Rosenberg has carved out a high-profile niche in the charity agency world.

Mike Piellucci

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Photo Courtesy: Carla Rosenberg

From the time when she was old enough to harbor professional goals, Lagardere’s Carla Rosenberg had a plan.

First, the lifelong tennis player and scholarship athlete at the University of Illinois would win Wimbledon. Then, after her playing days wound down, she would study medicine in the hopes of curing multiple sclerosis, the disease which her mother was diagnosed with in 1993 shortly after their family relocated from South Africa to suburban Dallas. Her career would take shape at the intersection of competition and compassion.

Wimbledon didn’t happen. Neither did med school. But she credits the ethos behind those goals as the driving force for her sports industry career as the founder of MatchPoint Agency, which works with athlete foundations and nonprofit organizations to both plan events and manage overall operations.

READ MORE: Gus Kenworthy Starts Next Chapter as Activist, Athlete, Actor

“This is the way for me to stay involved in sports, and I love feeling good about giving back every event we do make an impact,” she says. “This is definitely an area that not only interests me but inspires me.”

Rosenberg cut her teeth on the team side, first for the Texas Rangers and later for the Dallas Stars. It was with the latter where she broke into community relations work by serving as the director for the Dallas Stars Foundation as well as a senior director for community marketing. She entered the agency world in 2010 and spent two years primarily focused on marketing and branding across stops at SCA Promotions and Zelo Public Relations.

But it wasn’t until August 2012 when her interests crystalized. She was happiest when she was working with charities, but she also the agency world. The solution, her family insisted, was to start her own shop. The first step was to come up with a name, so she headed to a place renowned for inspiration – Starbucks. Within five minutes, she came up with MatchPoint, a tie-in to her tennis career and, as she says, “the only point that matters.”

“Quickest decision I’ve ever had to make was the name,” she says with a laugh. “Everything else, not as easy and not as quick.”

Athletes’ philanthropic work can be as diverse as the players themselves, both in structure as well as cause. Some simply want to plan a single event. Others want a full-on foundation. Some have a passion project. Others prefer broad-based work. And all of them have a different way of handling it.

Fundamentally, Rosenberg’s job boils down to two components: Plan successful charity events and help foundations realize a profit. But no two clients have the same road map for getting there, which forces her to wear a wide variety of hats. She must be adept at speaking legalese with attorneys to form the foundation; understand the athlete’s brand well enough to handle the foundation’s marketing and public relations; network to raise funds; keep a trained eye on website design; and be meticulous enough to organize seven-figure events. She’s blended them all well enough to count the likes of former NBA MVP Dirk Nowitzki, women’s basketball legend Nancy Lieberman and all-time Dallas Stars win leader Marty Turco as clients.

“It’s not like we’re doing rocket science, but everything we do here is strategic and everything is custom,” she says. “There is no cookie cutter. Everyone is at a different stage in their career. Every charity at a different stage of their formation.”

It’s a diffuse, complex skill set, which helps explain why charity agencies remain a relatively small niche. Yet Kern Egan, President, Americas at Lagardere Plus, believes it’s the sort of sphere that more athletes will begin to gravitate toward at a time when hands-on brand management is becoming more ubiquitous.

“When you’re going to raise your game in that space like you might do on the field or on the court, I think the days of it being your sibling or your spouse or an uncle managing that for you starts to become not as practical as somebody more professional in that space,” Egan says. “As athletes want to give back more, as they want to formalize that part of their brand more, they want more sophistication in and around how that’s managed.

“And there are very few people like Carla that can do that.”

Egan would know. He first befriended Rosenberg through Dallas Influencers in Sports and Entertainment, a professional networking group in Dallas, and wound up leasing her office space in Lagardere’s Uptown Dallas building. It afforded him an up-close view of her work. He ultimately was so impressed that he orchestrated a deal for Lagardere to acquire MatchPoint outright in 2018.

“You’ve got people that understand the nonprofit space. Then you have people that understand the events space. But to be at that intersection… is really special,” he says.

Turco, who now serves as the President of the Dallas Stars foundation, agrees. After years of working with Rosenberg as both a current and former player, he compares her breadth of high-level talents to those of a five-tool player in baseball.

“[As athletes], we think about our own reputation,” he says. “You attach Carla Rosenberg to yours, and it only enhances it.”

Now, with a year under her belt at Lagardere, Rosenberg has a fresh set of goals. Lagardere’s client roster opened up doors to a new list of clients to help and events to plan. But on a macro level, she’s channeling her old competitiveness from the tennis court into setting a new standard within her field.

READ MORE: “I Thought This Was a Good Deal”: AAF Vendors Speak Out

“I’ll put it out there: The ultimate goal is to take this group and really make our thumbprint and that we become like kind of the benchmark for other agencies in this field,” she says. “Like IMG, Wasserman, CAA, Octagon – I hope we can make a big enough impact that everyone’s looking at it like, ‘We want to do what they’re doing,’ or ‘We want to have the group they’ve having.’ I hope we can become that.”

At least one person is convinced she’s already there. Now that he’s on the charity side himself, Marty Turco can’t foresee any of Rosenberg’s competitors rallying past her.

“Anybody who wants to accomplish what she has, I wish them all the luck in the world,” he says.

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Athletes In Business

Kobe Bryant Increases Chinese Presence through New Web Store

Kobe Bryant’s flagship online store in China looks to further connect Chinese fans with Bryant’s already massive brand in the country.

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Photo Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Kobe Bryant is capitalizing on his massive brand recognition and a gigantic e-commerce economy in China by launching an online store last month.

The store is the first outlet for Kobe Bryant-licensed products in the Chinese market, including lifestyle and electronic items through the Taobao and WeChat platforms. The store on Taobao is the “Kobe Official Enterprise Store,” while on WeChat it’s “Kobe Bryant 24.”

Bryant is the most-followed global athlete in China, which necessitates the direct-to-consumer opportunity for his fans, said Andrew Collins, CEO of Mailman Group, the agency running the store.

READ MORE: UFC Looks to Asia as Next Frontier of Expansion Efforts

“His fans are spread across the country with a large majority across the southern parts of China,” Collins told Front Office Sports by email. “Almost all of them will never have the opportunity to see Kobe live, and they long to celebrate his 20-year NBA legacy. The branded e-commerce store was a great way to offer a line of merchandise to his fans and offer products at a more reasonable price point and more variety of products endorsed by himself.”

Products available through the store include trolley suitcases, mugs, phone cases, sports bracelets, sunglasses, backpacks and pendants. Collins believes the Kobe brand has come to represent “success” and “hard work” among his Chinese fans, and is particularly attractive to the nation’s middle class.

“All parents aspire for their children to develop a great work ethic, and they long for success,” he said. “Kobe captures that very well. His on-the-court success and cutthroat attitude captured the hearts of many.”

In a video to Chinese consumers announcing the store, Bryant said, “I hope you continue to be motivated by the ‘Mamba Mentality’ when using these products, whether at home, work or at play. Thank you for visiting the store, and I hope you like the collection we’ve put together.”

The online store play by Bryant is a wise one in China, the largest and fastest’growing online retail market in the world. A 2017 article from consulting firm McKinsey & Company pegged the market’s worth at approximately $830 billion. The article also found 67 percent of Chinese consumers shop on mobile devices.

“And Chinese consumers aren’t just buying Chinese products from Chinese websites,” the article reads. “Cross-border e-commerce is experiencing explosive growth, powered by Chinese consumers’ desire for lower prices and higher-quality products.”

Mailman Group’s other clients include the NFL, NHL, UFC, Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo. Collins said the company’s mission is to help athletes, teams and leagues to build their brand story in China by leveraging social media and digital platforms to create opportunities for partnerships, content, commerce and tours. In Bryant’s case, Collins believes that work is all but complete and current ventures are more about deepening connections to his already established fanbase. Possible avenues include live streaming interviews, branded partnerships, appearances and short video engagements with fans.

READ MORE: Former NHL Defenseman Tells Canadian Stories Through Whitby Watch Co.

“All this activity adds to the overarching brand theme for Kobe in China,” Collins said. “He maintains engagement with his fans and his commitment to China hasn’t wavered post-NBA career.

“As he now expands his career into publishing and entertainment with his book and TV projects, there is an ever-present brand narrative that is always evolving.”

With more than 1.3 billion people in China, Kobe Bryant has a long runway to capitalize on with his brand. There’s plenty of room for the rest of the American sports industry to try and catch up, too.

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Athletes In Business

Gus Kenworthy Starts Next Chapter as Activist, Athlete, Actor

Gus Kenworthy worried that coming out as gay would kill his career. Instead, he’s more marketable than ever, and is growing his brand off the slopes.

Tim Marcin

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Photo Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

About three and a half years ago Gus Kenworthy, was the best freeskier in the world. And he was worried his career was cooked.

He was going to come out as gay. Nobody in his sport one in which athletes depend on endorsements to make a living had come out before. But he decided he couldn’t go on hiding his truth, especially after the increased limelight that followed his 2014 Olympic silver medal win.

Kenworthy expected to be a pariah. The exact opposite happened: He became more popular than ever.

“I really thought when I came out it was going to have the opposite effect, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to lose all my followers. My sponsors aren’t going to want to sponsor the gay guy,’” he told Front Office Sports in a recent interview.

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Instead, endorsers jumped at the chance to work with him.

“Brands heading into the 2018 Olympics, were like, ‘We want to tell a story of authenticity. We also want to tell a story of diversity and in the Winter Olympics there’s just not a lot of diversity.” he said. “So being openly gay actually really opened me up to a ton of endorsement opportunities and more media attention.”

Kenworthy has been sponsored by traditional skiing brands like Smith for his goggles and Atomic for his skis but also has done work with Monster Energy Drink, Ralph Lauren, Samsung and Toyota, among others. Perhaps his most noteworthy spot was a Head & Shoulders ad that made history by featuring a pride flag, which had never been done before in a national TV spot.

So, what’s next? Kenworthy is already about as decorated a skier as possible, having won five X Games medals, an Olympic medal and eight world championships. But he’s got goals outside the sport, too, and has become a leading advocate for LGBT+ causes and has jumped into the world of entertainment and acting.

This week he appeared on a panel at a New York summit for Out Leadership, a group that works to promote LGBT+ inclusion and leadership in the business and political world. The summit featured corporate executives and high-powered politicians. It also debuted a new business climate index ranking states on its treatment and inclusion of LGBT+ folks.

It was the sort of event and sorts of people to which Kenworthy is now granted access as a famous advocate. It’s a role he takes seriously.

“When I decided to come out publicly, I knew that I was going to be stepping into that [leadership] position, whether I wanted it or not,” he said. “There was a lot of people watching me. And I did want it. I wanted to be a positive influence. The thing I always say and I continually go back to is: I want to be, and hope to be, the version of myself that I needed when I was like 14.”

In that way, Kenworthy stands apart. He is the rare winter Olympian with a presence in front of sports fans and non-sports fans alike, whether that’s through his prowess on the slopes, his prolific Instagram presence or his work for the LGBT+ community.

“In the winter athlete space he has a unique stature because he came out,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert and creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. “In a sport that has a once-every-four-years appeal, it’s difficult to maintain your popularity in between Olympics, especially because he didn’t win a gold medal… [He’s] not a top, top, top performer, let’s say. But what he did outside of the slope probably made him much more significant and brave and important than your average freestyle skier.”

Will Ober, the director of sports marketing at the firm Platinum Rye Entertainment, similarly called Kenworthy unique. Ober, who acquired talent for Procter & Gamble for the 2018 Olympics, landed the skier his Head & Shoulders ad by virtue of Kenworthy being relevant and having a unique story.

“And for Head & Shoulders, having great hair is obviously a key component,” he added, laughing.

The classic good looks and charisma have helped Kenworthy expand outside skiing. His hopes are to qualify for one last Olympics he’ll be 30 in 2020, old for his sport while also keeping his acting chops sharp.

“I hope by that point I’ll have gotten enough experience acting and playing these different roles that it’ll be able to be a seamless transition,” he said. “Kind of hang up my skis and know I have something in the works.”

So far, so good. He’s appeared as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race and will act in the next season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story.  

Baker Street’s Dorfman did say there can be a career drawback to being a prominent LGBT+ figure. “[There] is a significant percentage of people out there, particularly in this Trumpian era, that will never give him the respect he deserves,” he said.

READ MORE: Sports World Takes on TikTok as Next Social Media Frontier

But if Kenworthy’s million-plus social followers are any indication, there are plenty of people who are drawn to him. It’s a busy life from the slopes, to a video shoot, to an audition, to a set, to back to the slopes–he has accomplished about everything one could hope for in athletics and is actively working to make a go of it in entertainment. It’s one longshot dream to the next. But the way his entire world shifted in 2015 is the throughline of it all.

“My dream acting role is honestly a superhero role. I know that it’s kind of cliché,” he said. “I know a lot of actors, the reason that they do superhero roles is because it’s an insane paycheck and it’s a huge audience.”

“But for me growing up, I really felt a sense of connection to superheroes because they had to hide their identity from everyone. They were one person in their real life — whether it was Clark Kent or whatever — then they had their alter ego as Superman or Spiderman or Batman and no one could know the two.”

But now, years removed from his decision to come out, everyone can know all sides of Gus Kenworthy. No alter ego necessary. 

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