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Bears Open Halas Hall To Business Even

Chicago Tribune, March 20, 2014

By Ed Sherman

Ted Phillips always was struck whenever visitors walked through Halas Hall. The Bears president saw their eyes darting around and the look of fascination on their faces as they toured the team's headquarters and training facility in Lake Forest.

He realized he had an untapped commodity.

"It amazed me that they were so intrigued," Phillips said. "Usually, the team wasn't playing. There weren't any players around. They loved just being where the Bears practice. It got us to start thinking, how can we do more?"

The result of the brainstorming is a new 43,000-square-foot addition to the Bears' facility that will allow fans — at least well-connected fans — to have dramatically increased access to Halas Hall. And it will enable the Bears to make some money in the place where key decisions are made.

The sprawling facility, renovated during the past year, includes expanded locker rooms and workout areas, a new dining complex for the players, and a state-of-the-art broadcast operation for TV and radio shows produced by the Bears.

The centerpiece of the addition, from a business and marketing standpoint, is the new event center, which can seat up to 180 people. There also is an airy two-story atrium with touch screens highlighting Bears history and the current team. In another part of Halas Hall, there is a new plush skybox for VIPs to watch practice. The team also is shopping naming rights to the addition, though George Halas' name will remain on the entire facility.

When asked if Halas Hall now is set up to become a profit center, Phillips said, "No doubt about it."

Bears officials last week told a group of prominent team sponsors that the space is available for charity functions, business meetings, sales presentations and promotion opportunities. The message was clear: This is a chance for companies to take people behind the curtain.

"You can buy a ticket to a game," Chris Hibbs, vice president of sales and marketing, told the gathering. "You can't buy a ticket into this place."

Hibbs said access will be available only to sponsors, business partners, suite owners and key philanthropic supporters.

"Would we sell space now to someone who came in off the street?" Hibbs said. "The answer is 'no.'"

The Bears view the event center as a way to enhance the value of doing business with the team. Promotion is terrific, Hibbs said, but marketing has become about providing a different experience to clients.

"Brands across the board in sports realize the need to come up with more experiences that people can't get elsewhere," Hibbs said. "Not to oversell this, but it's just different from what people have seen before. The average fan doesn't get a chance to see this. They're usually blown away."

Added Phillips: "These companies don't just want signage. They want an experiential asset. We have that now."

Experiential marketing — using real-world activities to get marketing messages out — has grown in popularity as a way to break through the clutter of traditional advertising and public relations.

"You'll be hard-pressed to beat the experiential aspect," said Jim Andrews, senior vice president at IEG, a marketing firm based in Chicago. You're talking about experiences you can't buy anywhere else."

Andrews added about the Bears' plans: "The going rates for these sponsorships are very expensive. If a company is going to pay in the millions of dollars, they want more than just a billboard. They want other benefits. If they can get clients through those doors, spend quality time with them, it can make or break a sale."

Mike McKinney, director of market development for Dr Pepper Snapple Group, came away impressed from the presentation. Since his company is heavily involved in marketing with the Bears and NFL, he can envision strategic meetings at Halas Hall before the 2014 season.

"We have all kinds of Bears fans in our company," McKinney said. "The idea of bringing our people up here to see how the Bears live every day and see what happens in Halas Hall is much more meaningful than coming to our office or a hotel. They could feel it more up here."

McKinney also intends to use the facility with important business partners and customers. He believes bringing them out for a special function in the event center or to watch a Bears practice will make quite an impression.

"This is something our competitors don't have right now," McKinney said. "We want to bring our customers up here. Our competitors can't do that."

MasterCard, an NFL sponsor, already has used Halas Hall for a promotion with consumers. It hosted 50 winners of a contest for an event in the facility.

"You get a lot of talk about experiential events being a point of differentiation (in marketing)," said Michael Moutenot, vice president of U.S. sponsorships for MasterCard. "There's definitely a wow factor when you bring people inside of this building. There is a sense of, this is where the decisions get made."

The Bears also used the renovation as an opportunity to maximize their broadcast operation. The Bears produce multiple team-branded TV and radio shows that are distributed locally along with special programming for their website.

Greg Miller, the Bears' director of broadcasting, said the new facility is capable of "operating a network." It includes a 2,000-square-foot TV studio connected to the event center, allowing for live audiences for various shows.

Hibbs said several NFL teams have visited Halas Hall with the prospect of doing something similar at their headquarters. The Bears, meanwhile, are trying to determine exactly what they have with their facility.

The Bears still want to see how the new space works with their business partners before thinking of expansion to outside entities.

"Could you have an entire staff here every day devoted to (working events)?" Hibbs said. "That's a vision."

Phillips goes further and speaks about the possibility of even opening a restaurant at Halas Hall.

"Could we rent out some of the space? Perhaps," Phillips said. "We want to see how it develops for our clients first."

Hibbs wouldn't get into specifics about how much it will cost a company to use the new addition for an event or company meeting. In some cases, the fees are built into "the integrated marketing partnership."

Since the facility is new, Hibbs said the Bears still need more data on pricing.

"We're still figuring out what the right value proposition is," Hibbs said. "We believe brands will pay a premium to come to this space."

Phillips is looking forward to getting more answers. He believes the new addition positions the Bears better in terms of broadcasting and interacting with sponsors and key business partners.

"This gives you an opportunity to say, 'What does the future hold?'" Phillips said. "Some of that, we can't answer right now. But we do know we have the facilities to do what we want to do."