Around 40 years ago, when Rick Dudley quit as a brand marketer to enter sports marketing, his boss at Richardson-Vicks admonished him for “throwing his career away.” Having since worked in senior marketing jobs at three of the biggest stick-and-ball leagues during their most expansive growth periods, and spent the past 20 years running Octagon, the largest sports agency, it’s apparent that Dudley’s instincts were unusually incisive, even at a time when most people thought sports marketing meant filling your cart at Modell’s or Herman’s.
Looking through the lens of a retirement that began just months ago, Dudley now says he should have moved to the agency business sooner. “I couldn’t get away from the appeal of working at a league — that’s where all the action supposedly was,” he said. “There’s so many different things you can do in the agency business. If I’d known that, I’d have gotten into this business 10 years earlier.”
But his time as a property marketer would then be missed industrywide. Dudley was part of a core of packaged-goods marketers recruited to pro sports by then NFL Properties head John Bello. Since then, NFL sponsorship revenue has grown from the tens of thousands to billions, in some cases.
After decades leading the development of the sports marketing industry, Rick Dudley says he’s retired. courtesy of octagon
“We evolved from a protector of NFL trademarks into a real marketing company with the help of Rick and other consumer products guys who could speak marketers’ language,” said Bello, who now owns Reed’s/Virgil’s Natural Beverages. “Rick was always very smart, persuasive, and focused. He was always good with people and ended up running an agency — exactly the right place to optimize those skills.”
No surprise then that Dudley now counts his almost 20 years at Octagon as his professional zenith. Three leagues later, he found the place where he could be influential across sports.
“The term ‘great relationship guy’ is overused in this business, but Rick IS that guy,” said Andrew Judelson, chief commercial officer at Endeavor’s Diamond Baseball Holdings. Judelson worked for Dudley at the NHL in the 1990s.
Dudley moved on from a decade at the NFL to MLB, and then to president of NHL Enterprises from 1994-98, and along with his NFL marketing brethren, including former USTA CEO Arlen Kantarian, NASCAR President Steve Phelps, and MLS Commissioner Don Garber, drew a blueprint for marketing team sports that’s still employed.
“You always look to [IMG founder] Mark McCormack when you’re talking about who invented this business,” said Dudley, “but team sports aren’t the same as golf and tennis — league and team assets are very different.”
Said MLS Commissioner Garber: “Rick brought to the early days of pro sports league marketing a business-school approach. He always thought less about selling and more about providing value — that’s what made him a successful agency guy.”
As Dudley echoed, “It was always nice to get deals done, but for me, it was always what we could do with them afterwards.”
Aside from a geometric increase of the dollars involved in sports, across the years, Dudley has seen the business change from one that would not do business with state lotteries, spirits, drugs, gambling and anything having to do with Las Vegas, to one embracing all of them. MLB logos are now licensed for spirits packaging; the NFL does business with eight legal bookmakers; and there’s a Vegas Super Bowl planned for 2024. Meanwhile, sports have become as pervasive a pop culture force as any, escalating their value to marketers exponentially.
“Sports used to be only on the back page,” Dudley said. “Now it’s on the front page, back page, society page, arts and business pages. The position sports have achieved in society and culture is an amazing accomplishment; people forget it wasn’t always that way.”
Asking a marketer to pick his favorite deal is like asking a parent to select their favorite child. Nonetheless, Dudley cites Nextel’s title sponsorship of NASCAR’s top circuit in 2003 as a memorable one that “made a fifth-place brand in a three-brand category relevant.” The longevity of other Octagon legacy clients, like Bank of America, BMW and Mastercard speaks volumes about the agency’s culture, and of the IPG shop’s senior leadership.
It’s only been since March or so, but Dudley, who turns 69 this month, is firmly retired enough (“100% hard stop,” he swears) that you can’t find him on LinkedIn anymore. Pre-retirement, he fantasized about trimming his golf handicap to single digits. Now he’s comfortably mired in the low teens. He’s been splitting time between Florida and the Northeast, where he’s been more successful in fulfilling a promise to spend more time with five grandchildren than he has getting closer to par.
Atypically self-effacing in a business driven by ego, Dudley leaves with the confidence of man who accomplished that mission planned when he walked out that door at Richardson-Vicks. Things like sports and experiential marketing efforts used to be termed “Below the Line.” You were never quite sure if that was derogatory, but you don’t hear that term much anymore.
“We wanted sports to be as respected a marketing tool as any,” Dudley said. “The fact that we’re now under the umbrella of an ad holding company [Omnicom] means we’re on the same level as advertising, media, PR, and digital. It’s accepted as a strategy companies look at when going to market. Sports marketing used to be a tent with a keg at an event, and then invite some clients. Now we’re competing with the largest creative shops in the big-idea business.”
Terry Lefton can be reached at [email protected]