Tony Ponturo - Chief Executive Officer, Ponturo Management Group, LLC
Tony Ponturo's HOF Speech
Tony Ponturo loves a good sports metaphor. He heard them all while working for 26 years at Anheuser-Busch, building Bud Light into the world's best-selling beer brand- with Budweiser second-thanks largely to the incredibly savvy sports partnerships he designed. But the one-time president and CEO of Busch Media Group always lived and worked by one big sports-related code: It's important to have a good tiebreaker. In other words, if you give a little bit now, a lot may come your way later on, when it counts most.
"Lots of people lose sight of the fact that in some deals, it can be, OK, I'm not sure I see the full benefit yet but I know it's important to you, and at the end of the day, I know I'll get my benefit," Ponturo says. "And that really does go so far."
It's a style born from a commitment to service and a belief that, in a highly competitive brand-building world, a greater degree of old-school kindness and respect will often win the day.
And Ponturo has seen more winning days than just about anybody in his business. Leading the in-house team charged with building Bud Light to compete with Miller Lite beginning in 1982, Ponturo presided over deals that forever turned A-B into the quintessential Super Bowl commercial brand, from the creation of the Bud Bowl (pitting animated teams of Bud and Bud Light bottles against each other on the gridiron) to the airing of some of television's most anticipated annual ads. With Ponturo quarterbacking the team, A-B also orchestrated official beer sponsorships with Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer and NASCAR, as well as a host of international deals. By wisely managing more than $700 million annually in broadcast and cable buys, Ponturo frequently turned ground-floor opportunities into long-term victories.
"Tony Ponturo understood the business of sports marketing as well as any human I've known," says MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. "His impact on the business of sports and marketing is enormous. Should he be in the B&C Hall of Fame? I'd say that's an unequivocal yes."
Ponturo's determination for such success was established when he started at A-B after six years in the New York advertising business. Anheuser-Busch CEO August Busch III set the tone, and threw down a gauntlet when he announced to his A-B branding team his desire to best Miller Lite in the market.
"There was an amazing competitive spirit that started at the top, and you came to work every day a little bit with a bayonet in your mouth," Ponturo recalls. "You wanted to win, you wanted to do well. We were proud of what we were accomplishing, and the energy in the building was never to be satisfied. And we were fortunate that we had amazing consistency with the people in our company, so you had that team that worked together and didn't get distracted by the new kid on the block that had a different way of doing things. We just stayed to our knitting and the consistency gave us a step up on the process and it proved out."
Ponturo may have been at his best beginning in the mid-1980s, when the rights to air the Super Bowl were traded annually between CBS, NBC and ABC. In each negotiation-continuing in the early 1990s, when Fox intercepted CBS' NFL rights-Ponturo came to view the big game as a linchpin of much grander deals.
"The networks were not gonna sell [the Super Bowl] at isolation," he recalls. "And that led to these amazing multi-year, multi-sport deals. In a 30-day period of time we would have locked up three or four networks' Super Bowls over five years, as well as their NFL football, their NASCAR, their baseball, their college football, all-encompassing packages. And because the deals had such girth, we also had very reasonable inflation points each year. So we really created in many respects our own upfront, locking up not only the Super Bowl but all the major sports properties."
The deals were often-to use another sports metaphor -red zone-like skirmishes with pride and profit very much at stake. By keeping both his cool and his belief that everybody deserves a piece of the win, he and A-B's business continued to thrive and grow.
"Tony was a statesman in very difficult situations, and he had this great style," recalls Brian France, chairman and CEO of NASCAR. "He had to buy a lot of sports rights and media and had to do it in a competitive environment, and he did it with a great approach."
And for Ponturo, that approach always went back to laying the groundwork for those sweet tiebreakers. "In the late '80s, Miller [Brewing] had for years the Los Angeles Dodgers local baseball sponsorship, and we wanted it," he says. "And it was on a local Fox affiliate. Fox had just started in 1985 and we had taken somewhat of a risk to be, for a million dollars, one of their five or ten gold sponsors to support the network when it was just a Tuesday and a Wednesday primetime schedule. And when we were competing for this local [Dodgers] sponsorship, the tiebreaker came when I was brought in to the station manager, along with Jamie Kellner, who was CEO of Fox at the time. And [Kellner] said, ‘You also helped support us at a time when we needed it, so that's gonna be the tiebreaker.' So you never know when it's gonna come back and help you, but it usually does."
After InBev purchased A-B in 2008, Ponturo took the early retirement package and returned to the New York area of his youth. It brought back plenty of memories: Of starting his career as an NBC page-where he met his wife-and embracing his love of both sports and entertainment. Founding his own Ponturo Management Group LLC, he indulged his love of theater and began exploring a new career: Broadway producer. It's led to yet more wins for Ponturo: He earned a Best Musical Tony award as one of the chief backers of the hit show Memphis, then snapped up rights to the acclaimed David Maraniss biography of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered. The much-anticipated Broadway adaptation of the book-titled Lombardi-was scheduled at press time to open this month.
Ironically, it brings Ponturo back to the Super Bowl: The winning NFL team gets to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy, after all. "It's the passion of my old job, working with the NFL all those years, and then taking this new passion of theater from the business side," he says. "Raising capital for the show, it really has all the elements of business and management and marketing. When people step back and think about it, it's not that much of a leap in some respects as some may think. It's your game to win or lose, using a sports analogy again. It's been fun, and it's a real challenge to do it."--Rob Edelstein