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Interview with Doug Sanders of Sanders Sports & Entertainment

Currently residing in Los Angeles, Doug Sanders is a seasoned-veteran in the sports and entertainment industry. About four years ago, he went on to start his own company, Sanders Sports & Entertainment (SSE), a brand marketing firm that manages the top NBA and NFL athletes along with entertainers. As a graduate from the University of Arizona, he has been the genius behind cultivating many athletes’ brands and growing them into international stars. Recently, Doug took the time to sit down and speak to SAB to talk about his background, brand strategies and much more.

SAB: Doug, tell me about your background and what you did leading up to Sanders Sports & Entertainment.

Doug: I originally went to the University of Arizona, where I was lucky enough to make some great connections. I befriended NBA Champion and recent retiree, Channing Frye, and when he got drafted in the lottery by the New York Knicks, I would visit him all the time while I was still in school. Being around Channing, I quickly learned the ins and outs of the industry and was immediately drawn to it. I did my research and actually found out I had a couple connections to the sports industry. During school, I worked hard to grow my network and once I graduated, I landed my first job at a boutique sports marketing agency where I handled player relations. Some of our clientele I got to work with on a daily basis were Reggie Bush, Terrell Owens, Marcus Allen and Shannon Sharpe.

From there, I decided to jump into the big agency life and took on a position at CAA in the lifestyle department working across their entire roster of talent, including sports and entertainment. It was great to learn from one of the leading agencies, but I realized that I enjoyed the feel of a boutique agency a lot more. I decided to go down the entertainment route and took a position at The Chamber Group, a PR and marketing firm in New York. At The Chamber Group, I oversaw the sports division. We focused on the lifestyle aspect of an athlete and entertainer where building a brand and having accessibility from a PR perspective was the most important part.

SAB: Why did you start up your own company in Sanders Sports & Entertainment? What was the process like in signing your first client?

Doug: I just felt like it was the right time. I always knew I wanted to start my own company and I felt that throughout my past experiences, I had many different perspectives that could bring something new to the industry. I was able to take everything I learned and use that to start SSE.

It was really an interesting process getting my first SSE client. I actually signed Nick Young to The Chamber Group and when I decided to go my separate route, he had the confidence in me and bought into my vision. When I left, he decided to come with me.

SAB: What would you say is the core mission or culture of your business?

Doug: I would say brand strategy is the main thing. Our focus is to build our client’s brands as an extension of who they are off the court/field. Obviously, the athlete needs to keep performing up to his potential, but I believe you still can create a legacy with your brand, especially with all the tools available today. Athletes have a great opportunity to make an impact at such an early age and at the end of the day, the average professional career isn’t that long, but you can still create longevity if you have a strong recognizable brand.

SAB: Nick Young is not a Hall of Fame player on the court, but definitely has that recognizable brand you were mentioning earlier. Tell me about your branding strategy behind Nick.

Doug: I have to give him a lot of credit here. Nick has a lot of charm and an affectious personality. With someone like this, it was really about developing where and what we wanted to do to refine his brand and keep it authentic. For example, Nick grew up loving fashion, so that became a core mission of ours. I think we’ve done a great job making sure that whenever there’s a conversation around an athlete in fashion, Nick’s name is always at the top. We’ve taken him to Milan, New York and Paris fashion weeks, partnered with numerous fashion brands, and placed him in many top-tier fashion media outlets. We even helped him start his own clothing line, Most Hated, which was the first independent fashion brand started by an athlete, and can be seen worn by many athletes and entertainers. With Most Hated, we have really taken advantage of our relationships with GQ and others to help us present Most Hated to the world. We have enjoyed spreading the message about what Most Hated means to him. At the end of the day, everything he does is organic, real, and true to himself. Building out the Swaggy P persona and the legend of Swaggy P was really about letting Nick be Nick off the court, and finding the right partners and media to allow for true authenticity. This has led to many commercials, appearances, and TV shows, but it’s really all about building and staying true to who you are from the beginning.

SAB: What have been some of your guys’ most influential partnerships between brands and your clients?

Doug: Focusing on what is organic and true to our guys, we have built a great partnership between our client DeAndre Hopkins and Beyond Meat. As you might’ve seen Beyond Meat recently IPO’d, and they have been great partners to us. What many do not know is that, DeAndre likes to play with his diet and switch things up time to time to maximize his nutrition and energy levels and that includes going vegan for a period of time. To tap into his eating habits, we reached out to Beyond Meat, as we were seeking partners that fit that mold. Being a cutting-edge company that values not only health and wellness, but also environmental sustainability, made Beyond Meat a perfect partner, as their values closely aligned with DeAndre’s. Another partnership that has been great to work on has been Terrell Owens and P&G’s Febreze. Terrell Owens is super into scents, so it made perfect sense to partner with Febreze and see how we can activate together. For Super Bowl LII, we did a fully integrated national campaign called #BleepDontStink, which included a spot during the game along with a digital, social, and PR component. With both sides happy about how the campaign performed, we were able to cultivate a long-term partnership and align again at this year’s, Super Bowl VIII, where Terrell appeared in another national campaign for Febreze.

SAB: What do you think is the best way to prepare athletes for their lives after their playing careers?

Doug: You have to start early. Your career can be cut short at any point, so it’s important for the athletes to explore their passions while still playing. For instance, our client Chad Johnson has always been a gamer. Once retired, Chad would often tweet out when he was in a new city, so he would pull up to random people’s houses and play them in FIFA. Naturally, it made sense to align him with EA Sports and build on his love for FIFA. They immediately fell in love with the idea and the legend of the #FIFAKING was born. With EA, we’ve done some incredible things. We were able to create a series called FIFA King, where Chad traveled and played other athletes and celebrities. Recently, to promote the launch of FIFA 19, EA hosted Chad and Waka Flocka along with a few eMLS players and streamed them playing against each other.

SAB: Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring young men and women who want to get involved in the sports business industry?

Doug: As you can imagine, it is a hyper-competitive industry because so many people are fascinated by sports. You need to gain as much experience as possible and build your contacts. There are so many outlets and opportunities to jump into the sports business industry such as PR, working on a collegiate team or pro team, sports marketing, or sales, but really more than anything, it is about putting in the work. You have to have the grind as things won’t just be handed to you. There are so many opportunities out there, never be discouraged!

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By Amador Nazarov

Amador is a recent graduate of the University of Oregon, based out of the San Francisco Bay Area.