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Official cheese of the Buffalo Bills? How sponsorships bring big money to sports teams, marketing opportunities to companies

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Galbani cheese products will make their debut inside Highmark Stadium this season as the latest sponsor to join the long list of local partners for the Buffalo Bills.

Their partnership, announced in August, highlights the variety of sponsorship opportunities offered by the football team, as well as the Buffalo Sabres hockey organization. Galbani, manufactured in Buffalo by Lactalis American Group, will become part of the Bills’ game day experience as their “Official Cheese.”

And Galbani is far from alone. The Bills have an official water and an official car dealer, not to mention an official cleaning company. Meanwhile, the Sabres have an official ice cream and an official ambulance provider, along with an official pizza and wing.

It's a big part of the professional sports business. The Bills have 75 official partners, most exclusive to a certain industry, while the Sabres are a little more modest at 36 partners, as of the 2021-22 season.

For the companies, it's a chance to use the professional sports team as a marketing tool. For the Bills and the Sabres, it's a way to bring in more marketing revenue.

“It’s great for the community, great for the Bills and Sabres, and great for these companies,” said Charles Lindsey, a professor in marketing at the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Sponsors are looking to connect to the popular sports franchises and their audiences, while the Bills and Sabres accrue essential local revenue to keep them competitive with larger market teams.

These partnerships help sponsors gain brand recognition, in-stadium and in-arena experiences, hospitality opportunities and digital and social engagement. Both sides get to strengthen their connection to the community.

"The Bills are a pillar of the community and one of the best brands in professional sports," said Daniel Assef, vice president of marketing at Lactalis American Group. "As we partner with the Bills, we look forward to continuing to enhance our presence and commitment to Buffalo."

For the Bills and the Sabres, the key is flexibility.

The Sabres and Bills customize sponsorships to each brand. That flexibility – and the opportunity for innovation in how it's created and rolled out – has helped build relationships that have been deeply rooted for years, said Dan Misko, senior vice president of business development for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which runs the sports ventures for Sabres and Bills owners’ Terry and Kim Pegula.

“Many of them are top brands either in the category that they’re in or in the business world. So for our fans to be able to engage with their products or services, provides value beyond just coming to a game or reading or learning about a team,” Misko said.

The cost of these sponsorships can reach the high six figures, some even around $1 million, so the marketing arrangements aren't cheap. But the sponsors do it because they see good value in the partnerships, whether it is with the preseason Super Bowl favorite Bills or the Sabres, who are mired in an 11-year playoff drought, said John Jiloty, senior vice president for growth channels and content at the The Martin Group.

“I can’t imagine many better ways to spend dollars and get value back,” he said.

It’s not all about brand awareness and exposure. For some companies, they use the Bills and Sabres to help them activate their community involvement.

“What we look for is that our partners come with us to be catalysts for the greater good,” said Francesco Lagutaine, chief marketing and communications officer at M&T, the “Official Bank” of the Bills. “The Bills have shown, even when their sports performance wasn’t at its peak, their community engagement has always been consistent.”

Other companies rely on the teams to aid in providing an experience to other businesses they work with and prospective clients.

“Using the Bills as a point of reference around town is a big deal in a place like Buffalo,” said Eric Fiebelkorn, vice president and general manager at the Buffalo office for Toshiba Business Solutions, the “Official Copier of the Bills.” “We want to put someone in a position where they’re out at a game with us and get a sense of the people we have. Our current clients, of course, we take care of, but most of the people we take to games are prospects.”

Partnering with both teams the past two years has been an important way for Austin Air Systems, the “Official Clean Air Provider” of the Bills and Sabres, to spread its message of health and wellness, said Stacy Malesiewski, marketing director at Austin Air Systems.

Meanwhile, Imagine Staffing, in its fourth year as the Bills’ “Official Talent and Workforce Solutions Partner,” has relished being the lone sponsor of the team from its industry because they believe it helps them stand out among the competition, said Stephanie Dommer, brand manager in marketing.

“Once you’re in the Bills Mafia, you’re always in the Mafia, so we’ve always been a bunch of great Bills fans, but now it’s at a next-level approach,” Dommer said.

Community aspect important

In a close-knit city like Buffalo, community initiatives and cause marketing are priorities for the local major sports teams and their sponsors.

“It’s a way for our fans to show what they care about, show what Western New York is made of and get involved,” Misko said.

Companies want to be the preferred provider of the local teams because it shows that they are active in the community and helps build a bond between the company and consumer, both of whom are supporting the sports teams, Lindsey said.

When Austin Air donated purifiers to the Boys and Girls Club in Buffalo, they were joined by Bills players.

“It helps make it more fun for the kids,” Malesiewski said. “This helps our outreach to the community and helps us give back.”

M&T uses its decades-long partnership with the Bills to raise money for education through programs like Touchdowns for Teachers, hold the annual Gift of Warmth winter clothes and accessories drive and start a flag football game benefitting underprivileged children.

Bills toast of town but Sabres still popular

The energy around the Bills is palpable and their partners have used that to engage with fans. At the same time, the Sabres still have appeal as partners as well, as its young core of players tries to propel the franchise back into playoff contention.

“Even when the Bills weren’t great, people were still invested in the team. In Buffalo, people are committed to the Bills and Sabres regardless,” Jiloty said. “There’s optimism for the Sabres future and this is a hockey town, so that’s something brands can wrap their minds around.”

The Sabres also offer opportunities that the Bills cannot, Misko said. For example, the NFL is limited in their media offerings. But the Sabres produce their own broadcasts for nearly 80 games per year – not counting national games – and have consistently been in the top three U.S. markets for TV rankings.

There’s also additional exposure from being a sponsor in a smaller, more intimate arena during a season that starts in October and goes until at least April.

But everybody flocks to a winner, and that's what’s happening with Bills mania.

“It makes it a lot of fun and has created buzz and momentum in the company,” Malesiewski said. “It’s a partnership that everybody here is on board with.”

Innovation and flexibility

Dommer of Imagine Staffing said the Bills are not just putting on events in the community and being amenable to sponsors’ requests as part of “a show.”

“They really do care about the community and Buffalo, in general,” she said. “And that shows in our partnership.”

Being a flexible partner is critical to the teams because business changes so quickly, Misko said. On at least an annual basis, Pegula Sports and Entertainment meets with sponsors to discuss goals and review data analytics that guide the two sides’ focus and allows them to quickly pivot strategies when needed. While many of the contracts signed with sponsors last several years, Misko said the teams try to be nimble.

“Our contracts guide us but within that, we do our best to make sure that if there’s a business change or something happens on the partner’s end, we’re ready to help them respond to that and change course,” Misko said.

Value makes six-figure investment worth it

If companies didn’t find value in these sponsorships, there wouldn’t be so many Bills and Sabres partnerships.

But make no mistake, these partnerships are not cheap, Fiebelkorn said. They are mostly six-figure agreements that he said most of the competitors in his space cannot afford.

“They are not cheap, even for me in a cooperate setting,” Toshiba's Fiebelkorn said. “But in a world that comes down to people, one or two things can help move the ball along in business.”

Dommer said there is no concrete way to measure the value of these sponsorships but Imagine Staffing’s partnership with the Bills has certainly brought the company more visibility, especially with the team’s social and digital platform having worldwide reach.

Fiebelkorn said he measures the value of Toshiba’s partnership with the Bills by who they spend time with during games and whether that leads to the two sides doing business.

Teams need the local revenue

For teams, the local corporate sponsorships supplement the shared national revenue from the NFL and NHL and sometimes can be the difference between whether teams have a good or bad year financially.

Like every other NFL team, the Bills received about $300 million from leaguewide revenue sharing last season but they are 29th in league value because of the difference in local revenue between large and small markets. Local revenue also consists of ticket sales, parking and concessions.

“Teams in Buffalo will never deliver revenue like New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas or Houston, but to have an exciting team, you have to have fan bases like ours,” Fiebelkorn said. “Having that locally bodes well for marketing these teams.”

And for the Bills and Sabres, those sponsorships add up.

“How well you do in local revenue can really make the difference between an 8% operating profit margin versus a 15% or 20% operating profit margin in any given year,” Lindsey said.

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Michael J. Petro is a business reporter for The Buffalo News. The Buffalo State College graduate is a former sports writer who previously served as the editor of both The Sun and Buffalo Law Journal.

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