By Heather Blahnik (MA´96/US ´97/AI ´98)
Matt Levine served as Executive Vice President of Marketing and Broadcasting for the San Jose Sharks from1990-2000 and is currently hailed by many as a pioneer in the field of sports marketing. His career was catapulted by a feature article on him in Sports Illustrated (April 1980) naming him the new marketing whiz of the sports world but his origins began with AIESEC at Columbia University in 1961-3. We are honored to call him one of our own! Please read highlights of a special interview with him below.
1. When, where, and how did you join and get involved in AIESEC?
"I became part of AIESEC while I was attending Columbia University Graduate School of Business where I began in the fall of 1961. Importantly, it is where I met my wife Diane, who was a fellow student and also became a participant in AIESEC … While not an easy task, I had success raising 6 or 7 traineeships in the greater New York City area, as did Diane, who herself raised 2 or 3. This was a time when the traineeship numbers were very different than they are here today in the United States. Raising a traineeship was a condition for traveling abroad and it was also a time when going abroad was more a special experience than it is now when it is more common and many young adults have already done it as children. "
2. Please describe your AIESEC career (positions, traineeships, conferences).
"We had a very active committee. There were 25-35 active members and we were connected to the founding roots of AIESEC in the United States … When it came time to decide on who would represent our LC at the National Conference in February 1962 at the University of Chicago, the president of our LC, Frank Holz, and I were elected to attend that meeting. I went to the National Conference and was selected as one of the 15 delegates to represent the U.S. at the International Conference being held in Berlin the following month. This was a time when AIESEC - US was generating about 500 traineeships a year … I was responsible for the trading with England and Sierra Leone since I didn’t speak any foreign languages … and the trades were conducted manually in face-to-face negotiations. No computer matching. My England trading counterpart spoke great German which made a big difference when he and I went to the East side of the wall and met with students, bringing them cigarettes and candy bars, and hanging out over beers in buildings that were still bombed out from WWII, exchanging stories about what our lives were about.
As it turned out, I was able to get a traineeship for Diane in Paris … I got myself a job in Copenhagen … but that spring I let my folks know that I was going to ask Diane to marry me and they cut me off financially and refused to pay for any of my continuing education. While the job I would have had in Europe would have paid for my living there, it would not have paid for my travel back and forth … So instead of taking a traineeship, I volunteered to take control of reception in New York City that summer while I accelerated my way through graduate school. I was responsible for all AIESEC and IEASTE reception in New York City and we had more than 500 exchange students come into or through NYC that summer. My responsibilities entailed handling legal problems, facilitating a social life, helping them find housing; and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in my life. While I would have very much liked to have gone on a traineeship, this was a much more comprehensive reward and out of it came friends, not only whom I made while I was in Berlin, but also those with whom I was in the reception program.
AIESEC hosted the 1964 World Congress at Princeton and I devoted about 3 months of time after graduating from business school raising funds from corporations in the greater New York area in order to finance the event.
At the same time, I was asked to join a board of AIESEC U.S. Inc., then a combination of sponsor benefactors and the full-time leadership … I served on that board for about five years. When Diane and I moved from New York to San Francisco in 1971, I pretty much lost contact with AIESEC and had virtually no contact with AIESEC until I was approached three years ago when the alumni organization was being organized.”
3. How did you get involved in sports marketing? What attracted you to the business?
"My first experience in industry was in banking but then I moved into consumer packaged goods in sales, marketing research, brand management and new product development. In the middle 1970’s, Diane had become the highest level woman executive in the whole U.S. airline industry and I started to become familiar with airline operating economics and how much, like many consumer perishable products, a seat in a plane was a perishable commodity. If you don’t sell it today, you can’t sell it tomorrow. So one prices it, promotes it and markets it in a way that is very similar to what happens at sports events when seats go unsold. So I started putting some ideas down on paper, blending airline profit economics and consumer perishable product economics and what you had to do to build awareness, get trial and repeat purchase. I started knocking on doors, having them slammed in my face, but then I got the attention of a new general manager of the Golden State Warriors, a basketball team in the San Francisco Bay area and he became my first client. I helped him better understand his fan base through some new marketing research tools that I literally invented, and which are now common practice in sports and live entertainment industries, and interpreted the research in terms of its implications for advertising, promotion, PR, community development, and sales and it grew from there. Before I knew it, I was doing work with the Houston Rockets basketball team, the Houston Astros baseball team, and the San Francisco Giants baseball team and then I started getting some publicity about what I was doing and the phone was ringing off the hook. A six page story was written about my work and accomplishment in an April 1980 issue of Sports Illustrated and then my practice exploded. I had never fully appreciated the power of P.R. before that, having always subscribed to the importance of measured media, but then I saw the power of P.R. … As soon as the article appeared, everything I said was all of a sudden the gospel, which wasn’t true either, but that led to me being an expert witness for the National Football League in some major litigation and I built a company through the 1980’s. That is what led to my being recruited to build the business and marketing plans and organization structure for what became the San Jose Sharks. I was asked by the client if I would be open to implementing my own plans, an invitation I accepted, so I wound down my own company and brought a few of the people with me and I became the second employee of the Sharks.
I was with the Sharks for 10 years … I left in January of 2000 and was recruited away to a company by the name of Classroom Connect as their CMO, a pre-IPO on-line education company, that provided on-line curriculum and content for the K-8 market and professional development teaching teachers how to integrate the Internet in how they taught every day. It was a company that was probably a decade ahead of its time. When the market went south and the IPO market went south, we were forced to sell the company to Harcourt Publishing and 6 months after that, we mutually agreed that it was best for me to leave.
I then went back to my consulting work and what I have been doing since is continuing to work with teams, leagues, arenas,
stadiums, race tracks, horse racing and motor racing. But also I would say that probably 50%-60% of my work now is working with early stage technology companies, helping them figure out how to penetrate sports and live entertainment markets, either on a B2B basis or a B2C basis and I play a role in business strategy, business development, product development. I sit on the board
of advisors, sometimes the Board of Directors, of these companies.
Beyond the for-profit side of my work, I do pro bono work for cultural institutions, sitting on Board of Advisors of an off-Broadway theater, The York, in Manhattan and a Marketing Committee of the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. The latter is the nation’s oldest forum on world affairs and I help them, using the same tools I’ve applied in sports, helping them to build membership and a contribution base. I’ve done similar kind of work helping opera, ballet, theater groups and museums my way of contributing to the community. That’s what takes up most of my work today."
4. What changes have you seen happen in sports marketing since you first got involved?
"It is much more sophisticated. Franchise values have soared into the billions of dollars. When losses occur, they are no longer "gentlemanly", a term used in the 70s and 80s. They can easily mount into eight figures. And that is why there is an increased premium placed on effective business management. Winning isn't enough … In retrospect, the idea of bringing consumer goods marketing to the sports world was greeted with a yawn and a “what does that have to do with what I do,” because sports marketing in the early 1970’s was not much more than giving away a premium at a game. That was "marketing", which was all about Public Relations and not really about marketing. Today, marketing strategy, understanding the consumer, generating major revenue streams from sponsors and managing those relationships is very big time … And when I started, you could count the number of people who offered consultative services on one hand and now there are thousands of sports consulting firms and agencies. So it is much more fragmented. Most of the entities focus on the sponsorship revenue side of the sports world. In the mean time I have taken what I do in basketball, baseball, football, soccer and hockey and applied it to horse racing, motor racing and theme park marketing.”
5. What are your next projects or focus areas? Anything you want to focus on or do?
"Diane had been urging me for five years to launch a blog or a website because people were interested in what I had to say ... I have subsequently done so, coordinating it with outreach on LinkedIn, and I have found it opening all sorts of new and distant doors for me that I never would have contemplated. A lot of them are around technology-driven product development for the sports and entertainment industries and assisting companies on the business development side as well. Things are coming to me and I have a Skype call tonight with some people that I have been talking to for the past three weeks in Melbourne; they could become my first client outside the U.S. and Canada so I am very excited about that. Although most of the initial work would be in the U.S., they are asking me to build them a global marketing plan and to implement it globally …
I have two colleagues, Bob Brand and Andy Dolich, with whom I am collaborating on an entirely new venture. We have an idea for a breakthrough global sports and entertainment related business that will revolutionize the sale of sponsorships, radio and TV time, signage and promotional inventory, that teams and leagues and concert promoters have, and even inventory on their websites. We are going to do some market research to validate the concept later in October and will then formalize a business plan on how to roll it out, raising capital in the months that follow. This is another direction that has me energized."