If you happened to pick up any list of the most influential people in sports over the last 20 years, Tony Ponturo’s name was usually toward the top. As the chief sports marketer for Anheuser-Busch, he was a force in sports advertising and revolutionized the way companies partners with leagues and teams.
Ponturo left Anheuser-Busch last year and now runs his own sports marketing agency, Ponturo Management. He also recently bought an equity share of the Leverage Agency, and was named chairman.
Ponturo this week announced that he will produce a play based on the life of former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, to debut on Broadway next fall. He previously was involved in the production of the revivial of “Hair” and “Memphis.”
I spoke with Ponturo this week via phone. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the interview.
How did you get involved in making a play about Vince Lombardi?
It began with my partner on the project, Fran Kirmser. We met in doing Hair and we both had the same visions on how to produce and how to move the business forward in the future and so she said ‘we should partner and do something together.’ And that seemed like a good idea, and she said ‘maybe we should do sports based on your past career, where you were so obviously integrated into the sports world.’
It’s rarely done on Broadway, but we said ‘let’s think of a topic’ and we both had read David [Maraniss’] book and was a big admirer of Lombardi.
What we started thinking about was not only was he a good football coach but that there were good life lessons to be learned and—not to get too philosophical—but we came out of sort of a crazy economic time where greed and taking shortcuts and not seeing the big picture all sort of got distorted….Lombardi was not an overnight sensation and didn’t even go to GB until he was into his mid-40s and was a relatively patient man relative to his career and just put one step above another. And then there was his overall philosophy of teamwork and discipline and all striving for that right objective and having that satisfaction when achieved, it seemed like there was a story to be told and a real characterization.
…We thought there was a new generation that could understand one of the key legends of the NFL and a story to be told. So that’s how we got there.”
Is this a personal interest for you, to be involved in the theatre?
Yeah, I know it’s a disconnect since I’m someone who spent all those years in the sports and media world, but I’ve been married to a wife for 30 years who introduced me way back when to Broadway. We met as NBC pages and she had come to New York to audition for Broadway. I was one of only one or two of the 35 pages at the time who wanted to actually get into the business side of the media world, all the others were potential actors or theatre people. We’d been going to the theatre and Broadway and to see the arts all those years and I just really enjoy it. Even when I had my cynics among my peers at Anheuser-Busch, once I could get them to see something I thought they would like, they generally enjoyed the experience. For people who don’t go to Broadway, I think the intimacy of the Broadway theaters surprises people as well….we’re all running around chasing movies and digital and content on the Internet and television and 200 plus channels, and that’s all good. But there’s also an area of content called the theatre experience.
Has it been fun to have your own agency and take risk and do what your gut tells you to follow?
Yes, I mean with Ponturo Management, I’m investing my own money and not really borrowing anything to get the company up and running. I’m putting my money behind my own energy, if you will. And it is nice to have that level of empowerment and independence to do what makes sense. I was fortunate for a good part of my time at Anheuser-Busch to have a good amount of autonomy, but you’re still working for a corporation, and there’s a lot of consensus-building. Here, you have the risk of being out on you own but you have the benefit of coming up with an idea and say ‘let’s do it.’” I’m mentally geared as if I’ve jumped into the pool and said ‘I have to get to the other side’ and figure it out, instead of having to see all the dots connected before you jump in….in the case of Lombardi, as we look for some alliances and marketing with the NFL, it’s a familiar face sitting across the table.
How did the Leverage partnership come about?
[Leverage CEO] Ben Sturner reached out to me…we knew each other, and he had seen an article in the Sports Business Journal that intrigued him and he reached out, and said ‘You can give me 25 years of experience that I don’t have in helping guide me and my young company.’ And so I invested an equity piece, because I felt that it was important if I was going to help build their company I should have some skin in the game, not only to show my interest but obviously if we build something there’s benefit at the back end. As Chairman, in the broad sense, it’s almost a senior consulting role. Talking about 18 month plans, what resources we need to build, and also I sit in on meetings where it seems to be productive for both sides to bring my experience to the conversation. And it hopefully will bring comfort to some people we do business with, whether it’s a retainer business or a commission business.
We bicycled 12 miles in Central Park this morning and that’s one way we do our weekly update and go over things and talk about the business before the world starts to get too busy. It’s fun for me…I get personally more satisfaction helping a new company that’s growing and building than trying to get in the middle of a bigger or more established company that has plenty of chefs in the kitchen.
In the last year or two there’s been a bit of a backlash against sports marketing and whether companies get a good return on investment. Do you feel like you left A-B at a good time, where you don’t have to defend your decisions to shareholders or the public?
Well, you like to think that when you were there, you were accountable to the board and CEO and you were smart about it no matter what. But having said that, the accountability and some of the metrics that go with it are much more stringent today. It used to be you could instinctively say ‘the beer consumer likes sports’ and so that’s a particular area you want to dominate. I may be oversimplifying, but it really wasn’t much more complicated than that. We did a good job at Anheuser-Busch not complicating things because you can get caught in your own analysis. But there’s a new environment across all these companies, whether it’s driven by public spotlight or shareholder concern, it’s certainly driven my making sure every dollar spent is analyzed to make sure it moves the ball forward in terms of sales and market share growth, and there are more people internally asking those questions. It is a different time, no question.
I’m assuming you’ve remained a sports fan?
I went to every playoff game of the Yankees on my own dime, which was odd after having been a guest all these years. I grew up a Yankees fan in northern New Jersey and you don’t survive in this business for too long unless you have a passion for it. It was still important enough for me to take money out of my own pocket to go. And I still watch plenty of NFL football on Sunday. It’s a little bit more relaxing because I’m not watching every marketing aspect of the game and can actually enjoy it without saying ‘oh, our spot didn’t run’ or ‘why did our competition get that and we didn’t.’ I’m still pretty passionate about sports in general. That’s my makeup.