Filling Qualcomm seats, selling sizzle part of job

Team’s chief marketing officer key

By Arthur Lightbourn


He laughed when we asked him if it was any advantage being tall in the competitive business world.

After all, Ken Derrett is 6-foot-5 and probably towers over many of his colleagues in the board room of the San Diego Chargers.

But, no, he says.

“It’s only helpful when you’re playing against your son on the street in pickup basketball.”

For the last nine years, Derrett has been the key player in building the Chargers’ revenue base through marketing and sales, and last month he was promoted from vice president to senior vice president while retaining his title as chief marketing officer.

Derrett, 53, was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, the second eldest of four children. His parents separated and divorced when he was a youngster. His mother later remarried semi-pro hockey player Bryan Derrett of the St. Paul Fighting Saints and they had two more children, “So then we were all one big family (of six kids),” Derrett said.

Naturally, Derrett was into sports early. When he was 6 or 7, like many Canadian kids, he was playing hockey in sub-zero temperatures on neighborhood outdoor ice rinks

“It was cold,” he recalled, “sometimes 20 and 30 below. And I remember days when we’d go in that old shack and huddle around the wood stove to get our feet thawed out.”

In addition to sports, being of a practical nature, Derrett nurtured a desire to somehow be involved in business. While figuring out how he might do that, he initially enrolled in general studies courses at the University of Winnipeg. Toward the end of his freshman year, while cramming for exams, he read an item in a sports column in the Winnipeg Tribune about a small Ontario university that was graduating its first class of students in sports administration.

“It was only program of its kind in Canada,” Derrett learned.

So, after researching as much as he could about the university and its unique combination of courses in sports and business, he applied to and was accepted by Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario.

“I was kind of shocked,” he admitted. “Am I going to leave Winnipeg and go to a school 1,500 miles away? I had never been east of Kenora, Lake of the Woods, in my life. That’s how it all started. If I hadn’t read that newspaper column, who knows where I would have been.”

While at Laurentian, he also met his future wife, Denise, who at the time was studying to become a translator. She speaks French and German. They have been married for 25 years and have two children.

Derrett graduated from Laurentian in 1978 with his bachelor of commerce degree in sports administration. Thirty years later, in 2008, he returned to his alma mater to accept an honorary doctorate.

Immediately after graduating, a young and eager Derrett landed a job as administrative assistant with the Canadian Football League in Toronto. He worked in various capacities, from public relations and media relations to contract negotiations. As director of administration, he developed an annual business and operations plan for the Grey Cup Championship, Canada’s equivalent to the Super Bowl.

In 1988, he “went down the street” to Labatt Breweries of Canada. As manager of sports properties and entertainment, Derrett managed Labatt’s interests in the television rights and sponsorship of the National Football League (NFL) in Canada and sponsorship of the Canadian Olympic Association, Hockey Canada, the Canadian Curling Association, the Commonwealth Games, and ownership of the Blue Jays baseball team.

“The other thing that was kind of fun with Labatt’s, not only did we own a baseball team, we ended up owning the Toronto Argonauts football team and became part owner of the SkyDome and owner of a concert company ... so I got exposed to the entertainment side of the business.”

In 1995, switching his focus to basketball, he joined America’s National Basketball Association. He set up the NBA’s regional office in Toronto and a year later was named managing director of NBA Canada; and in 1999 he accepted the position of senior vice president of the NBA’s global marketing partnerships in New York City.

In addition to plenty of traveling as part of his global responsibilities and a daily three-hour round-trip commute to his home in Connecticut and not being able to spend more time with his children, in 2001, he resigned his NBA job, moved back to a less hectic life in Toronto and was contemplating his next move when he heard from the Chargers.

He always wanted to work for a team and experience the highs and lows of winning and, yes, even losing (occasionally, but not too often).

He joined the Chargers in the fall of 2001 and has been with the team ever since.

Back then the Chargers were going through rough times, both on and off the field.

Plans were in place to improve the team’s performance on the field.

“On the business side, winning helps tremendously. There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “You have to have a good, solid product on the field. But you’ve also got to be there for the peaks and valleys of those years when not everybody can win. And we spent a lot of time with (Chargers’ President and CEO) Dean (Spanos) and his son, A.G., and the rest of our business team and talked about how do we get better.”

The Chargers were in the process of taking over Qualcomm Stadium, which they used to share with the Padres baseball team before the Padres moved to Petco Park.

“We looked at new innovative ways to manage that asset, the asset being the building, signage, seats, creating new hospitality options, building a store, and then you have to get the right people around you. Fortunately, we hired very successfully. The people we brought in after me came from a broad background of selling and sports ... They were all different. They had different perspectives on sports. But they all had one common thread, and that was, they knew how to sell and they were passionate about selling.

“I think the thing about working in professional sports and entertainment is that it’s about building your brand; it’s about building your association with the customer and with the corporate partners (sponsors).

“You need the support of corporations to help you not just fill the building, but, you’re trying to compete against a lot of teams in this league and how you compete is by putting the best product on the field which means you need the resources and the resources come in the form of financial resources, human resources, training resources.”

The Chargers, because they continually filled all of Qualcomm’s 70,000 seats, have not had one television blackout in its last 47 regular home season and playoff games since 2004. TV blackouts in the Chargers coverage area of San Diego, Orange County and L.A. are imposed if the Chargers don’t attract essentially a full house. From a marketing viewpoint, TV becomes a powerful infomercial.

“If you have 70,000 people at Qualcomm,” Derrett explained, “that game can be aired to hundreds of thousands of people in Southern California.”

As a marketer, you sell what the Chargers and the NFL are all about. “When you come to Qualcomm and you spend a day with us, it’s an event: the ambiance of the NFL, the tailgating, the pre-game and half-time, the fun, the excitement, the energy. You have the winning piece over here, but you can never predict that. So you sell based on what the Chargers and the NFL are all about. And it’s a Sunday event. Everyone in North America (enjoys NFL football).

“We have work to do, though,” he said. “Obviously, you have attrition every year with your suite-holders, your partners, your ticket-holders.

“Right now, we’re doing well on the ticket-selling side, but we’ve got to work extremely hard to maintain that (47-game sold-out) streak.”