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Connecting To Your Customers

Sports, at all levels, can be an efficient means for marketing

Lew Sichelman headshot
Lew Sichelman
Connecting To Your Customers

Years ago, John Wayne had a side job as spokesman for Great Western Bank, at the time one of the country’s largest home loan lenders. When “Duke” passed in 1979, the gig was taken over by character actor Dennis Weaver, who played, among other roles, Chester, Marshall Matt Dillon’s trusted sidekick on Gunsmoke.

Both actors are gone now, as is the once big California savings bank. But the idea of using actors to promote companies, particularly in real estate, still flows. For a while recently, for example, Elizabeth Banks was the face of (Her first commercial for the search engine was directed by Fred Savage.)

And who can forget the long list of actors representing the reverse mortgage business? Right now, the front man is Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning actor Tom Selleck. But before him came actor-turned Senator Fred Thompson, the “Fonz” Henry Winkler, Robert Wagner and Jerry Orbach.

Choosing the right spokesperson is all about finding someone people can relate to. The celeb doesn’t necessarily need to be famous, but he or she must be recognizable.

Take Peter Koch, who advocates for Homelight, a buyer-agent matching service. You think you know him — he’s a former football player and fitness guru who has played in numerous movies and TV shows — but you’re not sure from where.

There are reasons companies pay to have someone like Selleck and Wayne endorse them. One is that it gives them instant credibility, either to the product or to the brand. Another is that it gives them instant publicity. And in the long run, according to Forbes, “it will encourage more and more customers to find out more about the business their favorite celebrity happens to be supporting.”

Make The Right Choice

According to Social Media Week, an endorsement by a famous actor or sports star can increase sales by about 4%. But companies must have the right personality, because choosing the wrong one can backfire. And sometimes, the right one now can become the wrong one down the road.

Once called one of the most believable people in American, for instance comedian Bill Cosby hawked Jell-O, Coke and numerous other products until his legal woes with sexual assault. O.J. Simpson shilled for Hertz before he fell from grace, as did Lance Armstrong, who pitched for Subaru. Or golfers who have split with the PGA to join the Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf.

A number of sponsors have dropped their backing of said golfers, including Rocket Mortgage, which shed Bryson deChambeau after he elected to join the rival tour. At the same time, RBC, Canada’s largest bank, has cut its ties with Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell.

Rocket, now the nation’s largest lender, is often credited with being the first in the field to recognize the value of hooking up with a sports teams. In 2019, the company created the first-ever PGA tour event in its Detroit hometown. And now it is so entwined with sports marketing that the name is practically ubiquitous when it comes to teams and their venues.

Currently, Rocket is an official partner of the PGA as well as host of the Motor City event. It also has deals with the World Pro Ski Tour and four NFL teams, including its hometown Detroit Lions. Rocket’s founder Dan Gilbert also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA plus other sports franchises. And his mortgage outfit has deals with 27 college football and basketball programs, including — you guessed it — Michigan State.

Its connection is undoubtedly at least part of the reason the lender is the nation’s marketing leader, sitting for two consecutive years atop USA Today’s Ad Meter. But other big-name lenders also link their names with sports teams, too. Ruoff Mortgage, which has 67 branches and originates in 45 states, joined NASCAR last year in a multi-year partnership. And Guaranteed Rate is now the official sponsor of the NHL as well as a backer of professional rugby teams and bass fishing.

Think Local

Smaller, local companies often get in on the celebrity branding act by using locals. And sometimes the outfit’s owner makes himself into a celeb. Who among those of us who have ever traveled to Southwest Florida can forget the Fort Myers, Fla., car dealer who was known for loudly uttering the word “HUGE” when he was on camera hawking … well, the make of the auto is long forgotten, but not him.

Other firms sometimes support local sports teams. For the same reason large, national outfits pay big money for the naming rights to a professional sports team’s stadium — think loanDepot and the Miami Marlins, among many others — they might even put their names on a minor league field or perhaps just a fence surrounding a sandlot.

In Pepperell, Mass., for example, the local Mortgage Network office signed on for the second consecutive year this summer to sponsor the town’s youth baseball and softball programs. It’s an affordable investment that lets people know the company supports the town and its kids. And when the need for a mortgage arises, the hope is that Mortgage Network will be top-of-mind.

Actually, sports have become a HUGE — no pun intended — venue for the housing business, especially mortgage companies. And for the same reasons: A connection to a team brings instant recognition and credibility. We support them, the thinking goes, so their fans will support us.

Of course, most entities in mortgage finance don’t have the — echm — HUGE bucks to spend that Rocket or the others mentioned here. But there are numerous opportunities at sports’ lower levels. The Danvers, Mass.-based Mortgage Network sponsored the 2021 National Championship USA Track and Field Half-Marathon and backed this year’s NCAA Hockey East Men’s Championship, which featured 11 teams. Now, it is sponsoring a regional golf tourney in Hilton Head, S.C.

Sports marketing “is not something we’ve historically done,” Executive Vice President Brian Koss told me. “We don’t see ourselves doing a lot more of it … With mortgage rates so high, we try to be more surgical, whereas sports is more general.”

Still, in the case of the hockey playoff, “many of our people and the people who work with us” are big college hockey fans, “so we decided to do a one-time thing for them,” Koss says. And in Hilton Head, the company is a top lender, so the sponsorship made sense.

Small Investment

Typically, though, the Mortgage Network is not a brand-based, if you build it, they will come type of marketer. Rather, it provides marketing dollars to local offices based on their volumes. Which is how Thomas Popson, the Pepperell branch manager, came to have the money to put the company name above the concession stand at the local ballfield. The cost was a “relatively inexpensive” $750, he says.

Actually, sponsorship wasn’t even Popson’s idea. “They approached me,” says the senior loan officer, who relies mostly on social media for his marketing. And since it “complemented other things I’m doing,” he decided to take the plunge. Now, he’s in his second season of sponsorship. “It says I’m here and I’m local,” the 30-year mortgage lending veteran told me.

He could have put the Mortgage Network mantel on the outfield wall, but he chose the hot dog and soda stand instead. For several reasons: The outfield wall was farther away, therefore not as noticeable; his was the only name on the stand, so he’s not competing with anyone else, and people wait in line for food and drink, so they almost have to see his name.

Popson, who has no children and has never attended a game at the park, admits it’s “hard to measure” whether or not the signage has really paid off. “It’s not that type of market,” he says. “But people have commented on it.”

Sometimes, sponsors aren’t looking to get any business out of their outlay. But that’s not always the point. Royal Hartwig of Royal Family Real Estate in Schaumburg, Ill., outside of Chicago once sponsored his own kids’ teams to the tune of $200 to $400, depending on the sport. His company’s name was mentioned a few times but it was not on any uniforms or other apparel.

“I didn’t do it for the money,” Hartwig told me. “I did it so my kids could see that my company was involved in their team, and I did it for my client — a very involved dad — because he asked me to.”


People Will Talk

If you do decide to out your name on a uniform or an outfield fence, make sure you proofread first. The old adage “measure twice, cut once” also holds true for advertising: To wit, the experience of Washington, D.C., area title attorney Harvey Jacobs, who, in the early 2000s, talked his now former company, AmeriTitle, into sponsoring a little league baseball team of 12-year-olds in Rockville. Md. The company paid for “quite nice” uniforms with its name splashed across the back.

Opening Day was attended by several dignitaries, including the local congresswoman and the mayor. But no sooner had the kids taken the field, several people started asking Jacobs for a quote. One wanted to redo his kitchen; another, a bathroom. That’s when the title guy took harder look at the uniforms, whereupon he discovered the second “t” in word title had gone MIA. Thus, the sponsor appeared to be “AmeriTile.” not AmeriTitle.

Jacobs has never sponsored another local team since that error, but not because of the misprint. While he’s not sure the $600 or so he spent on the uniforms generated any direct business, at least people who knew he was an attorney found out in which field of law he practiced. “It didn’t launch my career,” he told me, “but people were talking about us, so at least we got something out of it.”

For a step above youth sports but below “The Show,” think the minor leagues. From time to time, local realty companies, mortgage firms and even title outfits have advertised with the Bowie (Md.) Baysox, the Double A minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. Though no housing-related outfits currently advertise, the team offers a number of marketing choices, among them, numerous signage opportunities.

Besides the outfield walls, advertisers can put their names on the marquee on the highway outside the stadium in the state’s fifth largest city. Roughly 100,000 people pass that sign daily.

Reach Families

Other possibilities include putting your name on speed pitch sign and the sign above the fan assistance center. “Where there’s a wall, there’s a way,” says the team’s director of sponsorships, Matt McLaughlin.

The cost for a full season outfield wall billboard is $10,000; for the smaller speed pitch signs, one down each foul line, it’s $7,000. But companies also can sponsor events or stadium spaces like the small kid’s amusement park, promote themselves in the full color, game-day programs and put their names on pocket and magnetic schedules. There’s between inning and half-inning sponsorships, too.

Of course, the minor leagues don’t pull like the majors, at least not in the millions. But they draw more than youth sports. And they are far more affordable for young, growing families and fans, perhaps some of which are looking for a new home or a new mortgage. During a single season, McLaughlin says his team draws 250,000 visitors – and more, if non-baseball events held at the stadium are included.

This article was originally published in the NMP Magazine August 2022 issue.
Lew Sichelman headshot
Lew Sichelman,
National Mortgage Professional Contributing Writer

Lew Sichelman has been covering the housing and mortgage sectors for 52 years. His syndicated column appears in major newspapers throughout the country. He also has been the real estate editor at two major Washington, D.C., dailies and spent 30 years on the staff of National Mortgage News, formerly National Thrift News.

Published on
Aug 01, 2022
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