How to transition from partnership "activation" to partnership "sales"

by nate racela - partnership sales manager at the minnesota timberwolves | October 10, 2019

Ever since I started in sports, I always knew I wanted to be in Corporate Partnerships. I love the ideation process of bringing campaigns to life and working with numerous stakeholders (internal and external) to make a true impact in someone’s business.

When I started as the Corporate Partnerships Coordinator for the 49ers, I knew that I was very fortunate to start off my career with a talented partnerships team. The opportunity to create all the new business proposals, as well as learning how to implement and activate inventory, set me up to understand how a successful department works. During this time, I really started to get the itch to eventually transition to sales, but I knew I was still far from making that leap.

After a couple of seasons, I transitioned to an Activation Manager, and it required me to be more partner-facing than my previous role. Here I learned the importance of strong relationships, as well as how to effectively communicate to current partners. I approached every renewal with a sales mindset, and I knew that by helping lead those conversations, I would be growing my skillset for the next level.

Everything that I learned in my previous two roles helped me build a case to get my current role as a Partnership Sales Manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves. As much as I love my new team and my new role, there has definitely been some ups and downs along the way. The transition from activation to sales is not an easy one – especially if you’ve never made a cold call in your life. But as with every role, if you refine your process based on previous experiences, you can inch your way to success.

Now, I am by no means an expert in Partnership Sales, but I do think that if you’re looking to make the leap from the activation side, here are some of my key learnings so far in this role:

Building a relationship from scratch isn’t as easy as it seems

While I was on the activation side, I remember vividly sitting in department meetings and hearing of the great prospects and proposals that the sales team would report on. It seemed like week after week there was always a big prospect that was about to be pitched, so much so that it looked like an “easy” job to do.

What I didn’t know at the time was the amount of outreach going on behind the scenes in order to get that one big prospect. Until I started selling and building my own pipeline, I realized that concept of reaching out to someone you don’t know and asking them to commit to a multi-year partnership took a lot of time and skill.

I understand now that these relationships that get handed off to activation don’t come out of nowhere. For that one big prospect to come through, there were hundreds of emails and calls sent out beforehand to get to that point. Once I had that realization, I understood that in order to have success in this role, I needed to be diligent and strategic in my outreach.

Never forget what made you a great activation manager

A number of things transition well to sales from your time as an Activation Manager. Being proactive throughout the entire relationship, understanding your partner’s objectives, staying updated with your partner’s overall business are just to name a few.

One thing that I think makes “good” Activation Mangers “great” is their ability to go the extra mile for their partners. Whether that is knowing when their main contact’s birthday is and sending them a cake unexpectedly – or knowing their favorite band and comping them tickets to their next concert at your venue – these are all things that make the relationship more personalized.

As a seller, utilizing creative engagement is an awesome way to showcase that you’re different than the other salespeople who are flooding their inboxes. It’ll set you apart and be the difference in building that trust between you and your prospects. If you’ve made or are being considered by your director to make the leap from activation to sales, don’t forget the reasoning why – you were great in dealing with your previous partners, and now treat your new prospects the same way.

Utilize your resources

We’re all lucky to work in sports. There is a certain “community” about the industry that doesn’t compare to any other industry. That being said, this industry isn’t very big, and we all tend to know a number of people across multiple teams and leagues.

Utilizing your network of peers across the industry is huge. I know for me, the biggest learnings that I’ve had in talking with my network is about the prospecting process. Whether it’s about which title you should reach out to first, or the cadence of your outreach, it’s all helped me craft my own style of outreach that’s continuing to evolve every day.

When you talk to your peers, there is a lot of idea sharing that happens behind the scenes and staying on top of industry trends will help you become more valuable as you talk to more prospects. As you gather a bank of best practices across multiple teams, not only will this allow you to start conversations externally, but some ideas may spark a discussion internally as well.

All in all, whether you’re looking to make the leap from activation to sales, or if you’ve already done it – remember your advantage is that you know how partnerships work. You’ve seen how a successful partnership can impact a business, and that experience alone will help you tell a story to new prospects in how you can mimic the same success for their business. Apply what you already know, and with time you’ll get closer to success.

  • Nate

Nate Racela is the Partnership Sales Manager at the Minnesota Timberwolves. Prior to that he spent nearly 5 years in corporate partnerships at the San Francisco 49ers and prior to that he worked an internship in corporate partnerships at the San Jose Sharks. He graduated from San Jose State in 2013 with a degree in Sport Management and a minor in Public Relations. He's a great example of someone who put together a game plan for their career and executed it. He's also a clubhouse mentor, if you're interested in setting up a call with Nate you can contact him here.