By Annie Ourso — Robert Munson, executive director of sports operations for SSG Sports, says Baton Rouge has the potential to become a regional hub for sports businesses. Photography by Brian Baiamonte
From thriving youth programs and recreational adult leagues to top-tier college athletics—not to mention the loyal fans who support them—it’s easy to see how big the business of sports is locally. But what about on the regional and national level?
Sure, Baton Rouge churns out its fair share of professional athletes, but it’s not exactly a major media outlet like New York City, Los Angeles or Atlanta. No matter, says Robert Munson, who sees Baton Rouge as an untapped market teeming with potential.
In July, Munson—a longtime business, political and sports strategist—partnered with Washington, D.C.-based Sanderson Strategies Group to create a new sports division, SSG Sports, in Baton Rouge. Munson will serve as executive director of sports operations for SSG Sports, which will work with sports leagues, individual athletes, college athletic programs, professional sports and other sports-related businesses.
SSG already counts the Commissioner’s Office for Major League Baseball and 22 of the 30 MLB teams as clients, providing services such as brand and reputation positions, crisis management, communications, media relations and more. Business Report recently caught up with Munson to chat about Baton Rouge’s potential and his company’s plans to capitalize on it.
What exactly does a sports strategist do?
The business of strategy is a very nuanced vocation. In Louisiana, one thing we’re familiar with is strategists in politics. As a strategist in politics, what I do is develop and execute a strategy and a message. We anticipate problems, manage crises and ultimately position clients to get elected. Many of those same principles apply to my work with businesses, nonprofits and sports. It’s about the big-picture strategy. The sports world is very high stakes, high profile, and it’s under an intense, 24/7 spotlight. There are billions of dollars and big-time reputations at stake. I can’t think of any business of that size who would consider moving forward without some type of strategic positioning. And that’s what we do. Sports is a unique industry, but it’s like any other business. The difference with sports, in the Southeastern Conference for instance, is it’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
What are some specific examples of the kind of work you do?
We met with a major league team during spring training because we were asked by ownership to talk with the players about how to position themselves publicly. One big area was social media, helping them become cognizant of what they post. We also help train them in how to deal with the media, more so with the unconventional media, like bloggers. Another example could be stadium initiatives. If a team needs a new stadium, it becomes more like politics. You have to work with state and local government, and public officials when it involves public money.
What are the biggest areas in which athletes or sports teams need consulting?
Media is a big one. It’s so difficult to get your hands around the media environment surrounding sports, and it’s extremely difficult for young athletes. Another big area is positioning athletes for draft status or as free agents. We also help in their own professional lives with their own businesses. Public positioning and brand reputation are big areas.
What made now the right time to create this sports consulting group?
Basically the timing wasn’t so much the concern as was the place. I was born and raised here, and I’ve worked as a strategist here for 18 years. In that time, I partnered with Len Sanderson at Sanderson Strategies Group in Washington, D.C. He and I had done some projects in Louisiana, and we found that we did really good work together—and we have a shared love of Louisiana. When we decided to expand our sports business, we looked around and all agreed Baton Rouge presented some unique opportunities that other cities frankly did not.
What makes Baton Rouge a good location for SSG Sports?
There are a lot of advantages the city has that are quite unique and numerous. One thing is the location. We consider Texas as part of the American South in terms of business. When you put Texas into the mix, Baton Rouge is centrally located. Between our airport and New Orleans, we can get anywhere in the country very quickly, and we do travel a lot. On the sports side, Louisiana happens to produce more professional athletes per capita than any other state in the country. When you apply that same metric to the South as a whole, the numbers become pretty mind boggling. So the area by its very nature will make the business of sports a lot stronger here. There are a number of successful sports businesses all over the state already and when you throw big-time college athletics on top of that, it’s a really good start for something pretty special.
What is the competitive landscape like for sports strategists in Baton Rouge?
The short answer is I don’t know of another strategist who works in the business of sports in this region.
Since SSG Sports began, have you picked up clients or seen growth in the business so far?
Here in Baton Rouge, we’re working on three big, exciting projects that will be rolling out over the next few months with three different groups. I think they will bring economic development and national attention to Baton Rouge as a place where sports business is done. We’re more focused on community initiatives right now to help Baton Rouge become a hub for sports business. We’re not currently thinking about how many clients, but about how we can help grow sports business here.
What’s something most people wouldn’t know about what you do?
It’s a whole heck of a lot of fun. I have a blast doing what I’m doing, whether it’s working with MLB teams or local elections. It’s fast paced. It’s never boring. Every day there’s something new and extremely challenging. Sometimes people get their information from movies or TV and they think I’m a spin doctor. The reality is a lot of what I do is encouraging people to do the right thing. My father was a strategist. I learned a long time ago from him to be on the right side of the issue. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it makes chances of success greater. I encourage my clients all the time, if for no other reason than strategically, it makes sense to be on the right side of the issue.
Who would you say are examples of sports figures with great public images?
I think you have to start with a guy like Stephen Curry. He’s well liked by the media, very personable with fans, but also really deliberate and careful about how he is perceived. He minimizes mistakes. Clayton Kershaw is another player who gets it—tons of pressure, a huge media spotlight in L.A., but he stays focused and is always incredibly gracious. Von Miller is a great study as well. He’s authentic in his social media, very outspoken, and his personality shines through more than most. Other guys I can think of are Hunter Pence in San Francisco, Drew Brees here in Louisiana and Leonard Fournette. For a young man, Fournette handles himself like a pro already and has earned a lot of respect because of that—that’s going to serve him well as NFL general managers and owners evaluate him for the draft.
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