Evolving Elevate

After Year 3, the agency redefines itself following a series of acquisitions, hires and new partnerships.

By Michael Smith
Chairman and CEO Al Guido and President Chip Bowers (below) have laid out a vision for the agency that leans heavily on technology and data analytics.Elevate

 

The 1-2 punch from Elevate Sports Ventures strode briskly across the restaurant to their table, smiling and energized about the afternoon to come in Charlotte. Elevate Chairman and CEO Al Guido and President Chip Bowers were there in June for a get-to-know-you retreat with more than 60 of their newest employees to explain the agency’s brief and busy past, as well as its intended future. And since Charlotte will be the site of Elevate’s headquarters, it seemed like an appropriate gathering spot.

 

Over a lunch of smoked chicken salad, avocado toast and crab cakes, Guido and Bowers laid out the vision for Elevate 3.0, as they called it — the next iteration of the still young but growing business. If getting it off the ground in its first year was Elevate 1.0 and this past year of super-charged expansion through acquisitions, hires and strategic partnerships was Elevate 2.0, then 3.0 represents the next chapter of integrating all of those parts and redefining what the agency wants to be, and can be.

Guido and Bowers provided SBJ with a guided, in-depth tour of what that future looks like for the agency in transition. The acquisitions of Dynamic Pricing Partners and Infinite Scale, a new strategic partnership with Learfield, and the high-impact hire of Chief Client Officer Cameron Wagner from GMR have made 2021 a bridge to Elevate’s future.

This much is clear: It’s a future steeped in technology and data analytics that will drive the agency’s business in brand representation and sales, ranging from premium seating and corporate hospitality to naming rights. Event ownership and management could be part of the mix as well.

Transactional arrangements, such as sponsorship valuations and market feasibility studies, have served as the meat and potatoes for the first three years, and Elevate has done plenty of those. But it’s the analytics and research piece — Elevate calls it the Insights division — that will make the agency more indispensable to teams and leagues. Guido describes it as being sticky as opposed to transactional, and sticky is the future, he said.

“A really good agency in the future — and we’re getting there — will have the stickiness to provide clients with proprietary data analytics and consumer insights that no one else can give them, alongside the people that can operate with that data,” Guido said. “The reality is we’re going to be a very good third-party agency that has very good sticky technology. You won’t need to hire us, frankly, to be just a sales agent. You’re going to want to insert our technology inside of your teams.”

Todd Johnson / San Francisco Business Times

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Guido, who also serves as team president for the San Francisco 49ers, founded the agency in 2018. In its three years, Elevate’s work has touched close to 100 brands and clubs representing all five of the major professional sports leagues in North America.

Some of the big wins in 2021 include founding partnership and kit sponsorship deals with Purina for the MLS club in St. Louis and naming rights for PayPal Park for the MLS team in San Jose. The Insights division has been diving deeper into the value of the NBA patch and NHL helmets. Its property consulting business this year has added the likes of EuroLeague Basketball and Bellator MMA, among others.

Backed by an A-list of power brokers in sports and entertainment — Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, Ticketmaster/Live Nation, Oak View Group and the 49ers — Elevate has expanded rapidly to 140 employees across 20 states and multiple countries. Scott O’Neil, the former CEO of HBSE who stepped down from that post in June, was one of Guido’s first calls about launching an agency. O’Neil, formerly  on the Elevate board of directors, maintains a financial investment in the agency.


Elevate Sports Ventures

Founded: 2018

Headquarters: Santa Clara, Calif.; Charlotte

Chairman and CEO: Al Guido

President: Chip Bowers

Equity partners: Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, San Francisco 49ers, Oak View Group, Ticketmaster/Live Nation

Services: Premium ticketing and hospitality sales, data analytics, brand representation, property and venue representation

Clients: More than 30 across all five major professional sports in North America

Domestic: Seattle Kraken, St. Louis City SC, U.S. Open tennis, New York Islanders, Circuit of the Americas, Denver Broncos, among others

International: EuroLeague, 2022 FIFA World Cup

CAA Sports was one of the original investors along with HBSE and the 49ers. When concerns arose from CAA potentially representing players and teams, it stepped out. That prompted the addition of Oak View Group and Ticketmaster/Live Nation.

That bumpy launch and Elevate’s roster of big-name investors put the agency in the spotlight from the start. Allies and rivals, alike, made Elevate a popular topic of conversation as the industry wondered how that mix of high-profile equity partners would mesh, especially with so many powerhouse figures — O’Neil, Oak View Group founder Tim Leiweke, ex-Ticketmaster chief Jared Smith — each with a hand on the steering wheel as directors.

Running point has been Guido’s charge as chairman and CEO. That he would create a competitor to Legends, after spending five years cutting his teeth as Legends’ sales chief from 2009-14, made for juicy talk around the industry water cooler. Going back to Elevate’s first deal, it provided sales and marketing for premium seating and suite sales at Oak View Group’s then-$600 million Seattle NHL arena project, which ordinarily would be right in Legends’ wheelhouse. It was a striking first blow that announced Elevate as a competitor.

Insiders say it didn’t go unnoticed at Legends either, and the rivalry sparked in 2018 by Elevate’s entry created a frosty relationship that remains at the highest levels of both companies.

The agency’s unique lineup of equity partners led to some confusion in the marketplace during the agency’s early days. Elevate’s business appeared to run into Ticketmaster and Oak View Group at times, but Guido said the agency has forged relationships that keep it complementary, not competitive.

Elevate provides its analytics to Ticketmaster. It assists Oak View Group’s new buildings with premium seating and hospitality sales. The 49ers and Elevate share resources to analyze data for its Insights group.

“Of course, we’re not going to compete with Ticketmaster or Live Nation or any of our equity partners,” Guido said. “What I hope that we’ve proven in the last three years is how we’re additive to the process.”

The agency held a retreat in Charlotte in June so the many new employees could get acquainted.Elevate

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While Elevate has steadily grown over its three years using its sales acumen, the goal going forward is to develop much deeper business relationships with clients like professional sports franchises and major global events, such as the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.

“It’s been a robust, crazy kind of three years,” Guido said. “I don’t know that any other agency could say they’ve had the same growth trajectory and acquisition track along a similar period of time, but by no means are we where we want to be.”

Guido brought on Bowers, the former Miami Marlins president of business operations, last September to run the agency’s day-to-day. Bowers has built out Guido’s initial vision with a flurry of hires. More acquisitions could come by the end of the year.

The agency’s three verticals are now more clearly defined and easily explained in front of a prospective client.

Out-of-the-box Insights

Elevate’s Insights division operates at the core of everything the company does, whether it’s a feasibility study for a new building, naming-rights valuation or the potential for new development around a pro team’s practice facility.
After spending a few hours with the agency’s leadership, it’s clear they believe they have a winning hand with the data analytics and research group led by Vice President Thomas Bernstein.
If there’s a contrarian in this sports and entertainment building, it’s Bernstein. While many of Elevate’s senior leaders come from the team side, Bernstein brings the perspective of his background in consumer technology. The Vanderbilt graduate spent four years building Overdog, a social platform that helps gamers find competition online.
It was Executive Vice President Moon Javaid’s idea to push for an out-of-the box hire for this role, in part, because Javaid was that kind of hire himself nine years ago when he joined the San Francisco 49ers. He had never worked in sports, having been in private equity and management consulting.
Similarly, Bernstein came to Elevate in 2018 with some new ideas on how to develop and incorporate Insights into a central piece of the agency’s business rather than being those guys at the end of the hall siloed away from everyone else. Many of his hires for Insights, in fact, come from the brand side of consumer packaged goods, not sports.
“We do in-depth studies of our partners and their needs, but it’s not just applying best practices,” Bernstein said. “Not every best practice fits a partner’s specific needs. So, if you think about a suite product at the Texas Rangers’ new stadium, well, that may not work in a different market, in a different stadium, with a smaller corporate community.”
Much of the research that goes into the planning for a project starts with fan surveys, like most places, but it goes much deeper too. There are one-on-one interviews and focus groups with fans, along with the market analysis. Bernstein said the process of not just conducting the interviews, but comparing them and finding the trends “tells a comprehensive story.”

Insights is the analytics unit that performs valuations and market feasibility, among other chores.

Sales covers a wide range of naming rights, sponsorship and hospitality inventory.

Brand representation under Wagner is the newest vertical. Late last year, Bowers lured her away from GMR, where she had worked with blue-chip brands like Visa, Intel, U.S. Bank and Humana, for 14 years. A major attraction, Wagner said, was the data coming out of Insights.

The thread that runs through all three verticals, Bowers said, is that so many of Elevate’s highest-ranking executives have worked  for pro teams. In addition to Guido and Bowers, COO Flavil Hampsten spent time with the Charlotte Hornets and San Jose Sharks, Executive Vice President Shawn Doss was with the New Jersey Devils and Executive Vice President Moon Javaid has been with the 49ers almost nine years. Javaid has been instrumental in building Insights.

“We’re what I’d refer to as an operator’s agency,” Bowers said. “We’ve been in those shoes. We can tell the property that we understand your challenge when you’re caught up on the treadmill of life.”

Seattle Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke gave Elevate its first assignment at Climate Pledge Arena, marketing and selling premium spaces.

“A lot of times, consultants darken your door and tell you what to do when they’ve never actually done that,” Leiweke said. “And then you have this potential disconnect because they don’t really understand the practicality of the day in, day out. So when you look at Elevate’s roster and see people who know how to take things to market, that counts for a lot.”

Many of Elevate’s early wins came from soccer, such as premium ticketing and hospitality Elevate

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On this day in Charlotte, part of the mission was to better define who they are and what they’re about. It’s a challenging proposition now that Elevate has gone on a buying spree and expansion in 2021.

Dynamic Pricing Partners and a new strategic partnership with Learfield have taken Elevate much deeper into the college space, where the agency believes it can be a useful resource for revenue generation, especially now as schools climb out of the financial crater left by the pandemic.

Learfield CEO and President Cole Gahagan and Guido share an appreciation for the kind of research that’s found in Insights and Learfield’s own analytics division, Fanbase. That will come into play with naming rights, donations and ticketing revenue, they believe.

Elevate sold a founding partnership and kit sponsorship that will put Purina on St. Louis City SC jerseys.Elevate

“It all falls into the category of thinking differently and boldly about new revenue projects that I think we can deliver to the college space,” Gahagan said.

Integrating those new additions and explaining how they fit into the company were central to Elevate’s retreat in Charlotte in June, especially given that almost all of the employees there were new.

As the two-hour lunch ended, Guido and Bowers gazed around the long table, where they had been joined by Wagner; Thomas Bernstein, vice president over Insights; Amy Lukas, Cameron Smith and Molly Mazzolini from Infinite Scale; and Dynamic Pricing Partners’ Jonathan Marks.

They’ll all play integral roles in converting Elevate 3.0 into the high horsepower engine Guido set out to build. But on this day, they were just trying to learn each other’s names.

“We’re going to continue to evolve into these new spaces,” Bowers said. “If you think about the needs of a team … teams have become companies, so their needs are evolving too. The competition is evolving. It’s not enough for an agency to say they can do it. You better be able to show you have the infrastructure to support it.”

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