As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Stetson. He is considered one of the most respected and innovative sports marketing executives in the country. In his career that has spanned over 25 years, Stetson has helped shape the growth of sports properties, which include Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, Madison Square Garden, Van Wagner Sports, and currently with the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer
As the Chief Marketing & Revenue Officer for the Red Bulls, Stetson oversees departments including marketing, content & communications, field marketing, youth programs, ticket sales & services, sponsorship sales & marketing partnerships, game presentation and team broadcast platforms. While in his third year with the club, Stetson was named the 2016 MLS Marketing Executive of the Year, given to the person in the league who best leads marketing efforts for a team. In addition, the Red Bulls earned the JD Power Fan Experience Award for two years in a row, chosen from all major professional sports teams in the New York metro area.
Prior to joining the Red Bulls, Stetson served as the Vice President, Consulting for Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment. He developed and executed marketing strategies for blue-chip clients, which included MetLife, Sanofi, Johnson Controls and many more.
While with the Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, Stetson served as Senior Director, Marketing for the Nets and Barclays Center. He was instrumental in re-branding the team’s new logo along with jersey/apparel development. Stetson also designed and programmed the Barclays Center Showroom, a $9MM multi-media interactive sales space that provided prospects with a virtual taste of the in-arena experience. He was also responsible for partnership brand integration for the landmark naming rights deal with Barclays Bank for the Barclays Center.
The New Jersey native began his career at Madison Square Garden, where he ascended from intern to Director of Marketing in his 12 years. While at The Garden, Stetson oversaw marketing for both MSG Network and FOX Sports Net NY where he was responsible for advertising, branding and business development. He was also significantly involved in the marketing of the multi-media platform and award-winning documentary series, The 50 Greatest Moments at Madison Square Garden.
Stetson holds a Master of Business Administration from New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business and a Bachelor of Science in Sport Management from Rutgers University. He and his wife Stacey reside in New York City with their two children, Penelope and Isaac.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When I was 19, I started my career as an intern at Madison Square Garden for their Regional Sports Cable Networks. For the next two and a half years, while I was getting my degree at Rutgers University, I did anything and everything that was available for me to get experience and exposure including programming, public relations and production. By the time I was ready to graduate, a job opened in the marketing department and I took that opportunity to move into an area that I always had interest in exploring. My professional journey at MSG lasted almost another 10 years in marketing department. Towards the tail end of that time, I was doing an Executive MBA program at NYU Stern School of Business and was anticipating that I would try to get into another industry outside of sports — which is a whole other story. But as luck would have it, as I was graduating from that program, one of my mentors from MSG took over as Chief Revenue Officer at the NBA team, the New Jersey Nets, and they wanted someone to join them to run marketing for the new venue that they were developing in Brooklyn — which later became the Barclays Center. I joined them to create and develop the Barclays Center brand and also begin the evolution of the Nets brand into the Brooklyn Nets. After spending over three years with the Nets, I left to work at Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment to join the Strategy Consulting group to help with the MetLife Naming Rights deal with the new NFL stadium that would house the New York Giants & the New York Jets. I worked at Van Wagner for four years advising brands with their sponsorship strategy for NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB deals, along with others. In 2014, Marc de Grandpre — who is the General Manager of the New York Red Bulls — was introduced to me as he was looking to add to the club’s leadership team and for someone to head up the Marketing and Communications departments. After just spending a few minutes with him and I knew I had to join his team. In 2018, Marc approached me about adding to my responsibilities and my new title became Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer, which has me now overseeing our commercial areas throughout the organization.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As marketing lead for the Nets, during the historic NBA Free Agency signings in 2010 when LeBron James took his “talents to South Beach” (along with Bosh and Wade), I was responsible for the actual presentation content and materials, for those pitches, including a video compilation that would be played for each of those top three Free Agents. As its author, I was given an unbelievable opportunity to be included in the incredible team (that included icon Jay Z, international Billionaire and Nets owner Mikhail D. Prokhorov, team President Brett Yormark, GM Rod Thorn, Head Coach Avery Johnson, etc) to Cleveland and Chicago to execute the pitches. In the very first of the presentations (given to LeBron James and his business partner, Maverick Carter, while in Carter’s office in Cleveland) I was responsible for the operational aspects of the live pitch production. And what a production it was — as we rehearsed every aspect of it. The video was a thoughtful, graphical illustration of Brooklyn and we gave every member of LeBron’s team their own iPad with our materials pre-uploaded for later review. We had choreographed everything including what formation we would sit in as to make sure there were no errors.
LeBron entered the room and was gracious, polite and very sharp. But during the initial small talk, he realized his phone was low on battery and he reached down casually to plug his charger into a nearby outlet. When we launched the pitch, at the exact verbal queue for the video, the television screen wouldn’t turn on and it was clearly on me to find the solution as I was the one that set everything up. I wanted to crawl up into a ball and hide as I noticed that the TV was no longer plugged in. When LeBron had reached down to charge his phone, he had inadvertently un-plugged the TV cord. Problem solved, but those 15 seconds felt like 15 hours. I’ll never forget that feeling of panic and terror. But my one take away was that no matter how much you prepare, there is always the possibility that things that can go wrong. And in many instances, things that are outside your control. The key learning is… what do you do when those moments occur? I learned that in those moments when something appears to be catastrophic, and it is due to something you cannot control — remembering what you can control is your reaction — both in that moment and the moments afterwards. Those reactions and the ability to find solutions to those moments are more important and carry much more weight than the actual moments themselves.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have to start with my current boss, Marc de Grandpre, who consistently challenges me to be comfortable with things that traditionally have made me uncomfortable — including expanding my role into overseeing the revenue side of our business. He pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone and explore a new way to expand my capabilities and had confidence in its benefits to our organization and I am forever grateful for that.
I have been very fortunate to have some amazing bosses in my career. For example, Debbie Patire and then Steve Mars at MSG, who both taught me so much about how to be a marketer and to always think a few steps ahead. Also, Fred Mangione, who is one of the most well-respected executives in our entire industry, not only due to his vast knowledge, but more importantly, how he handles relationships. While at Van Wagner, Kip Koslow and David Paro both taught me the proper strategy behind the right partnerships. And I’d be remiss not to mention two mentors starting from my days at Madison Square Garden in Scott Epstein and Neil Davis, who I followed each to specific jobs and roles in my careers. I am fortunate that both still mentor me today.
The person who has had the greatest impact on my life and career has been my father, Philip Stetson. Watching him run a business and then transition into a consulting role taught me the importance of respect and integrity. I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with my Uncle Burt, who was a business partner of my dad’s for many years. He said to me that Business books often stress the importance of integrity, accountability and responsibility in business. Yet, rarely in business do people actually follow those rules as those principles are too often compromised for all the wrong reasons. He said my dad would actually follow those principles… consistently… unwaveringly. My only hope is that I am following those principles daily, too.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our club’s mission is simple, yet direct: to “Develop, Engage and Inspire the Community through the game of Soccer”
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
This past year there was more uncertainty and difficulty then I’ve ever seen in my career. The key was to recognize the opportunity in this crisis. Ed Foster-Simeon, the President & CEO of US Soccer Foundation recently spoke on a panel for us and shared a great expression: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”. I thought that was brilliant and so relevant to this past year on so many levels. It was important for me to make sure the team can visualize and capitalize on opportunities that tend to arise out of crisis. In our case, we are in a market where there are over a dozen professional sports teams, most of which typically have a much larger share of voice in our NY Area media. But after March 11, 2020, every team was in the same boat. No games for a while… no fans for the majority of the last year… and everyone working with limited resources. It was important for us to do everything we can to stay relevant by engaging with our community in every way possible.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Gratitude is what seems to get me through any challenge that I face.
Gratitude for working for a leader in Marc de Grandpre who keeps pushing us all to become better.
Gratitude for teammates that seem to run through walls on a daily basis.
Gratitude for an organization that has our back and truly has our best interests at heart.
And most importantly Gratitude for a loving and supportive family.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Empathy. I think to be able to understand that we are all going through challenges. Being able to understand those challenges both professionally and personally and help provide solutions where applicable or even just provide an ear and listen when that is what is most needed.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Celebrate the wins, both big and small. During the last year, there were small wins every day that we, as an organization, found ways to celebrate. We had people whose job functions were limited due to the pandemic and the state of sports, but people stepped out of their traditional roles to assist in areas where we needed help. It was inspiring to experience as everyone wanted to get in on the action.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Communicating with transparency is key. Knowing that there are some things that can’t be answered or are in question — be open and honest about what you know, but just as importantly what you don’t know. This was such a unique time that was truly unprecedented. If there was ever a time to show vulnerability while still being able to lead — this was it. Our organization learned so much about ourselves and each other by being vulnerable with each other. I truly believe this made us a stronger unit and more prepared to deal with any adversity in the future, TOGETHER.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Being flexible and preparing as many scenarios and contingencies as possible.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle is to have belief and trust in your team and for your teammates to play a collective role in getting you through the turbulent times. It’s essential to have belief and trust in their abilities and their capabilities to even stretch their traditional role and responsibilities to help in other areas if needed. But also, belief and trust in their ability to accept tough realities… that honest and transparent discussions can be had and received from all parties from a place of solving problems and growth during these turbulent times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Closing the circle of trust — too often during difficult times, leaders and leadership teams actually close the circle of trust even tighter due to fear of people not being able to handle tough conversations or deal with the anxiety of some tough decisions. Rather than protecting the team, it tends to have the adverse impact — it actually creates more anxiety, less engagement and less productivity.
- Not exercising patience — We saw it a lot this year… brands and organizations making quick declarations and promises due to publicity benefits or optics but then having to walk back some of those statements or initiatives. It is important to not get baited into trying to be “the first” for the wrong reasons or without fully thinking through the long-term impacts…especially during difficult times.
- Not finding balance of heart AND brain — During difficult times, many organizations lead too much with their heart focusing on the compassion element or lead too much with their brain and try to be too pragmatic and eliminate the human element. Finding balance of the two is such an important exercise and having open (and sometimes tough) dialogue is key to reaching that balance.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Being creative with how we can re-imagine engagement from virtual opportunities to digital content. We were able to retain substantially more business from our core revenue areas than we expected.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
During this time, I charged our team to focus on four areas to simplify things and keep us grounded:
COMMUNICATIONS — It was important for us to manage all internal and external communications with a focus on transparency, facts and consistency. We also were not going to be quick to make statements and grand declarations of how we were going to fix the pandemic and societal problems without genuinely being mindful of what role WE CAN play in helping, while staying true to our values. What has been remarkable is that during this time when we’ve been working from home, our internal communications and engagement has actually improved. We focused on overcommunicating during this time and executing on new solutions to transform the fan experience.
ENGAGEMENT — We stayed engaged by telling our story of who we are as a club, beyond the X’s and Os. We started the process of establishing our story of who we are as an organization (far beyond what we do on the pitch) when we created and launched RED RUNS DEEP right before the pandemic hit. Prior to 2020, we charged our Marketing team to establish an identity that will be sustainable for many years and we created RED RUNS DEEP that provided us with a North Star to look to for inspiration & direction when times are tough and keep us grounded when things are great. And RED RUNS DEEP focuses on our values and key pillars with an eye towards Fan Experience, Development, Culture and Community. We had no idea this pandemic would hit the way that it has. But we were prepared to pivot into storytelling and engagement as the transformation of how we were engaging was already taking place by launching our new brand and organizational identity months prior to COVID-19’s impact. The strategy behind RED RUNS DEEP was immediately tested and we were able to go right into engagement mode and launch new content strands, platforms and campaigns.
- On the Community Side:
We worked in concert with so many of our partners including Hackensack Meridian Health, Hospital For Special Surgery, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of NJ and so many others to create Thank You Heroes campaigns, our Homegrown Heroes initiative, Local Assist Program, player virtual visits at Children’s Hospitals and others. We also worked with Red Bull to drop off product at many of our community and marketing partner locations to help support essential workers.
- On the Development Side:
We were one of the first to launch our Train@Home Program, a free virtual program providing youth soccer players weekly fitness routines to ensure they are staying active and healthy while staying home. We launched it to our network of almost 50,000 youth soccer participants that we engage with during the year. We also went wide and sent to schools, PTA lists, mommy blogs and local government partners, prompting the mayor of Hoboken, NJ to include it in his daily address.
- On the Fan Experience Side:
Connor Lade, who retired from playing after this past season, joined our club’s front office staff as our Player and Alumni Relations manager. He started just days before we started working from home. Connor, who is a club legend and embodies RED RUNS DEEP as he played through all levels of our development system starting when he was a teenager, dove headfirst into finding ways to transform our fan experience during this time. He created our Virtual Player Appearances platform; creating and hosting a series of fun interactive ways for our fans to get to know our players more. From cooking classes to tours of player’s homes — this has been a great experience for our fans and players. It also produced a unique platform that we’ve been able to integrate brands and retain revenue.
- On the Culture Side:
Working with our partner JLab Audio, we were able to create “JLab Faceoff”, which was a fun and engaging bracket-style voting platform for our fans to vote on who is our best dressed player
PREPARATION — We were preparing for the Return to Play from a very early period and that enabled us to execute one of the strongest Return to Play plans in the league complete with virtual branding, virtual fan engagements and fan zoom rooms during games. That preparation included staying in close contact with our partners and Season Ticket Holders (we call them Red Members).
RELATIONSHIPS — which might be the most important one. It was not about just maintaining relationships at this time — it has been about cultivating these relationships. We have shifted our focus over the majority of the pandemic to genuine connections based on care for our partners, Red Members and community’s wellbeing vs. primarily focusing on the business aspects of the relationships.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was growing up, whenever my two brothers or I would say something negative about anyone, my father would respond with “Funny, he/she always spoke well of you”. It was something we would find funny at the time, but what he instilled in us, is something that runs parallel with one of our company’s core values of “Always assuming positive intent”. What my father taught us is that we should always come from a place of positivity and that no matter who we are dealing with, visualize that they are coming from a good place. I have found that it helps to create understanding and progress a lot easier and faster.
How can our readers further follow your work?
@slystets, @newyorkredbulls and https://www.linkedin.com/in/joe-stetson-1615911/