Building a new football league from the ground up brings its fair share of surprises.
Charlie Ebersol, co-founder of the Alliance of American Football league now entering its second week of play in its inaugural season, said one of the biggest eye-openers for him has been how football appears to be good for local business.
Football is a great way to build rapport with and show appreciation for clients, Ebersol said. “Come to a football game. We’re going to do a tailgate, et cetera. I don’t think I fully appreciated what that looked like. We sold a ton of partnerships in all of our cities, but I swear we’ve sold tens of thousands of tickets to companies who are bringing their employees, their partners, their clients to the game.”
While Ebersol might have been exaggerating the number of tickets the new league has sold, there is tangible evidence of success in partnering with the business community here in San Antonio and elsewhere across the new spring league.
The San Antonio Commanders debuted in their first game at the Alamodome last weekend with a heavy presence from sponsors such as H-E-B, Methodist Healthcare, and Red McCombs Automotive. The team will play host to Orlando on Sunday at 3 p.m.
H-E-B had signage inside the stadium and sponsors a pregame entertainment area in the plaza on the stadium’s north side featuring live entertainment and services like food and beverages.
“H-E-B sees this as a great opportunity to be a part of a new chapter in professional sports for San Antonio,” said Cory Basso, H-E-B group vice president of marketing and advertising. “The fan enthusiasm and attendance for the first game was an exciting start.”
San Antonio attracted 27,857 fans to its inaugural game Saturday, a win over the San Diego Fleet. It was the largest crowd in the league’s debut weekend of four games with other sites including Orlando, Florida; Birmingham, Alabama; and Tempe, Arizona.
The league is built on reputable coaches and executives directing players who are just on the outside of the NFL trying to break in. It’s a complementary league that started the week after the Super Bowl and will wrap up its season the same weekend as the NFL Draft.
It not only serves as a minor league of sorts for the NFL but also as a new place for football fans to turn their attention when the NFL season ends. Moreover, it’s a new vehicle for San Antonio businesses to connect with fans.
The Commanders have partnerships with Sinclair Broadcasting and ESPN San Antonio for television and radio, respectively. VIA Metropolitan Transit sponsored a ticket package with park and ride and wrapped several buses with team signage. Numerous fans stood at tailgates in the Alamodome parking lot before the first game drinking Commanders Ale from Alamo Beer Co.
All of those deals were done before the team even had a product it could show potential sponsors.
“We have been received in the marketplace incredibly well from the first time we announced the team,” Commanders President Vic Gregovits said. “We were selling a concept for several months and then it becomes reality and people get to see it and they get to see not only the game but they see the building in action.”
Gregovits has decades of experience working on the business side in professional sports. He has worked for the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates in Major League Baseball and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL.
He said the San Antonio business community welcomed the Commanders, but not everyone was familiar with the team or the new league when they took meetings to discuss possible partnerships. That was the biggest difference from his past experience with more established teams and leagues.
“When we would go to some meetings, people would know about us and know about the Alliance and in others we would walk them through everything we have going on,” Gregovits said. “So it’s just a matter of timing. Some people jumped on board and some had a wait-and-see type of attitude, and that will just be a matter of time as well.”
Gregovits would not discuss the specific terms of individual sponsorship agreements but said the Commanders expect to continue their relationship with current sponsors beyond this inaugural season. He said the team hopes to expand its roster of partners and sponsorships as the community becomes more aware of the team and the league and the Commanders show they are here to stay.
Ebersol said the league has taken a long-term view with almost all of its planning and strategy including sponsorships and partners. He said the most important element is putting good football on the field that entertains and provides opportunities to young players to improve and move up to the NFL.
As that happens, Ebersol said, each team in the league will begin to expand partnerships and a footprint in the local business community.
“Opening Day is only relevant in the movie business,” he said. “You need to sell hundreds of millions of tickets when you open a movie and video game – and if you don’t, the product is dead. In live event, you need to earn that audience over a period of time, and we made a conscious decision not to over-market the league because we believe word of mouth around the quality of football will grow into something. We could be wrong.”