Interview with the USAWP Chief Marketing Officier, Jennifer Rottenberg

Joan Gould
Water Polo Planet
11/01/09

As USA Water Polo begins the journey toward the 2012 Olympics, we are seeing some key staff changes in Huntington Beach that auger change within the organization as we know it.

An NGB of an Olympic sport typically has a relatively small staff thus significant management position changes directly impact fewer employees than do analogous management changes in corporate America.  Corporate changes are generally not apparent to the end consumer…for instance, major changes in the management structure of General Mills may create organizational chaos in the home office but have little, if any, impact on your morning bowl of Cheerios.

Conversely, key management changes in an Olympic Sport NGB are more likely to have direct impact upon many members who are the NGB equivalent of the corporate end user. There is a much smaller distance between staff and end user.  A large percentage of USAWP membership will take part in USAWP events such as JO’s, ODP, and National Championships which bring us into direct contact with the staff of USAWP and thus staff changes can impact many of us directly.

In 1996, John Kotter published the book Leading Change. Considered to be the seminal work in the field of change management, Kotter’s research revealed that only 30 percent of change programs succeed. Since 1996, thousands of books and journal articles have been published on the topic, and courses dedicated to managing change are now part of most major MBA programs. Yet in 2008, a McKinsey survey of 3,000 executives around the world found, as Kotter did, that only one transformation in three succeeds. Other studies over the past ten years reveal remarkably similar results.

I raise this point as a caution that all change does not necessarily equate to success. While the recent staff changes are clearly a net improvement, change is often painful and in the past 2-3 months, we have seen 6 new staff members join USAWP.   On which side of the 30% success ratio will the USAWP changes fall?  Hopefully, on the side that nurtures growth, structure, organization, customer satisfaction and continuity. 

One of the major positions within USAWP is that of the Chief Marketing Officer who is tasked with creating the public face of our sport which will, in turn, lead to growth or stagnation. The WPP recently had the opportunity to pose some questions to Jennifer Rottenberg, USA Water Polo’s new Chief Marketing Officer.

From the USAWP Website:

Jennifer Rottenberg joined USA Water Polo in October of 2009. In her role, Rottenberg will oversee all marketing and sponsorship efforts of the National Governing Body while also placing a priority on promotion, branding, and new media.

Rottenberg comes to USA Water Polo from DSNV Marketing Group, a company she founded in 2007. Rottenberg began her career in the industry at IMG and has worked with a host of different sport and entertainment entities over the years, including: the US Men’s and Women’s National Soccer Teams, ESPN, Nike, the WTA Tour, USA Luge, the Virgin Mobile Festival, VH1 Save the Music Foundation, US Club Soccer, the US Adult Soccer Association, the Arena Football League, American Golf Corporation, and the West Coast Conference, among others.

A graduate of Princeton University and the Harvard Business School, and a well-respected executive in the industry, Rottenberg has also served as an instructor of Sport Marketing in the Graduate Programs in Sport Management at both the University of San Francisco and California State University Long Beach. 

Here are the answers to questions that the WPP sent Jennifer Rottenberg, the USAWP Chief Marketing Officier:

  1. What do you see as the top 5 most pressing issues you face in your new position?

    There is so much opportunity and so much to get done, but the highest priorities fall into the following categories:

    1. Increase sponsorship revenue and integration between marketing and sport development.  In other words, find additional external resources that help fund our marketing efforts and membership initiatives while at the same time providing greater exposure for this great sport.

    2. Increasing awareness for the accomplishments of our Women’s and Men’s National Teams.  We are currently one of the most successful performers among all USA Olympic Sports, and more people outside of Water Polo need to know about that.  This consciousness raising may take many forms, including advertising campaigns, sponsor integration, and media exposure.

    3. Implementing a program of brand consistency.  Prior to taking this position, I conducted a three month consulting project with USA Water Polo that provided great feedback and insight into views of the brand from within and outside the sport.  The USA Water Polo brand is highly regarded, but we have been lax in properly protecting the integrity of the brand. We will be creating a complete branding program.

    4. Begin the lengthy process of revamping our website to create a resource that is informative, interactive, and easy to navigate.  We need to better serve our members and constituents through this important communication mechanism, and it needs an overhaul.

    5. Improving the integration of Marketing as a support mechanism for other areas of the organization, including membership, sport development, national teams and events.  This relates to the consistency issue, but is also critical to the proper functioning of USA Water Polo as an increasingly successful and complex organization.

  2. USA Water Polo’s last advertising campaign featured a janitor picking broken teeth out of the bottom of a pool following a water polo game. Do you believe it possible to create a successful marketing program based on concepts such as teamwork,  fitness and/or  academic success (high achievement levels of NCAA water polo players is well documented) or does the 21st century require violence and injury to sell?

    I don’t believe the 21st century requires violence or injury to sell.   As part of my consulting work, I conducted extensive interviews during the summer with youth players from across the country,.  I found tremendous pride on the part of these athletes across all age groups.  It’s an extraordinary thing.  We are going to attempt to “bottle” this “esteem” and translate it into a marketing campaign.

  3. For the past 4 years, USAWP membership has been pacified with buzz words.  As a marketing person, my teeth grind every time someone tells me that “We must increase the value proposition” of USAWP membership.    To date, this has been done at the ODP level only. How do you propose to create utility in the recreational market (i.e. age group and masters) that effectively sells the benefits of membership?

    It’s not entirely my place to answer this question. In a lot of ways, it is a question for Director of Sport Development, Scott Tanner.  But, I do want to mention that I also don’t believe it’s about “increasing the value proposition,” since I already believe there’s tremendous value in participating in this sport and being a member of an organization that strives to achieve the highest ideals of the Olympic movement.  From my consultative review, I found that substantial progress has been made within the organization overall, over the past few years: National teams have been strengthened.  JO’s has been overhauled and the members love the new format.  Insurance benefits have tripled.  A new program of recreational leagues has been created. Membership is up.  A large debt is being aggressively retired.  And you can chart this progress with transparent financial documents, as well as through Twitter and Facebook.  So, I do not believe it is just about buzz words.  Additionally, our federation fields teams that in the last two years have collectively placed us #1 in the world, ahead of traditional powers like Spain, Hungary, Russia and Italy.  Our coaches and athletes set a tremendous example.  Where we need to do better is “communicating the incredible value of USA Water Polo membership.”  You will see some new initiatives in this area from Scott and myself that will, I hope, provide useful information and perhaps over time add another dimension to belonging to USA Water Polo.

  4. What do you see as the parallels and differences between marketing water polo as opposed to marketing soccer?

    The largest, obvious, difference is the relative size of the participation base of the two sports: over 16 million versus less than half a million.  Another obvious difference is the access to facilities: you don’t even need a field to start a soccer team; you can play in your backyard or in a cul de sac.  For water polo, obviously, you need pools.  But I see a number of similarities in promoting a sport that is, perhaps, more popular internationally (particularly in Europe) than it is in the US.  We need to break through the clutter in the domestic sports scene; we need to leverage the strength of our participant community; and we need to focus on the accomplishments of our elite athletes.  I am going to work with Scott and Guy to make sure that they are getting the marketing support that they need to reach into the grassroots across the country.  I think it will by necessity be a progressive effort, where we have successes in certain regions initially and expand as those regions reach critical mass.

  5. You said,” “Water Polo has proven to be a sport filled with athletes, coaches, and referees of the highest commitment and integrity - it's a marketer's dream.”  Can you be more specific and tell WPP why you believe water polo is a “marketer's dream”?

    For the very reason I stated.  We have National / Olympic Teams that achieve at the highest level. They are exceptional role models – both in and out of the pool - for youth and adult athletes.  And, we have a participant base that is incredibly enthusiastic: players who love their sport; family members who love and support them; administrators, coaches, and referees who are passionate about this sport.  I have also had a chance to meet with the board of directors, who are an incredibly smart, committed group of people.  And I can promise you they are not pacified with buzz words—they are impatient for success.  Really, we just need to harness all of this positive energy and make sure that everyone is moving in the same direction: growing the sport as a whole.

  6. The last two people that held your job didn’t do too well marketing water polo. What makes you think you can do a better job of marketing water polo than they did?

    Marketing is a vast mandate, and many positive things were done that may not have been immediately apparent, including developing new sponsors and a strong basic brand.  Past marketers had limited resources because of the organization’s accumulated debt, and our teams’ Olympic success coincided with the recession, when no one has had a lot of success selling sponsorships or advertising.  Look at the USOC—after one of the most successful performances by Team USA in history, they lost sponsor after sponsor.  So I certainly would not judge my predecessors too harshly, and I don’t think others should be too quick to do so either.  I can tell you that I am excited to do the best job I possibly can.  I want to serve not only the membership, but the water polo community as a whole, with professionalism, creativity, and a commitment to success.  We’ll see how it turns out, but for now, all I can say is…stay tuned…

  7. Many people in this country think of water polo as being a California sport and not a national sport. What are some of the things you can do through marketing to change this perception.

    I am not sure it’s about changing the perception.  It’s a sport that can be played anywhere (any state, any country), as long as you have a pool.  Some of our biggest growth regions this past year have been outside California.  And some great water polo athletes have come from outside the golden state, including Betsy Armstrong, Brad Schumacher, Wolf Wigo, and Elsie Windes.  So, it’s up to us to let folks outside of California know the sport is accessible.  On the other hand, I don’t necessarily believe it’s a negative to be associated with the “California Lifestyle,” something that has served beach volleyball, skateboarding, surfing, and a host of other sports quite well.  In fact, I think we might look into whether this is a positioning that’s better exploited, rather than subordinated.

  8. In the past the people in your position in particular and the USAWP staff in general have not solicited suggestions and ideas about how to sell our sport from the water polo community. Are you planning to capitalize on that very important and capable resource?

    I think this might be a misperception. I know that the USA Water Polo staff, at least under the tenure of Chris Ramsey, has been very interactive with the water polo community – the town halls conducted earlier this year being just one example.  But, from my own perspective, as I mentioned, during my time consulting with USA Water Polo, I spent a significant amount of time soliciting input from players, coaches and parents.  I obtained wonderful feedback.  And, I look forward to continuing that dialogue on a one-to-one basis.  At the same time, I am working with Scott Tanner on developing a number of online member survey programs that will help us collect significant information on a regular basis from all constituents.  We have limited resources and we cannot do everything at once—that’s a recipe for failure.  Believe me, however, we want good ideas and we have a group of people who listen, learn and work hard to improve.  Send those ideas along!

Water Polo Planet welcomes Ms Rottenberg to our community. We wish her well in her new position and look forward to a new and exciting new future as the end users of her creativity and professionalism.