“Every Sport Was a Crazy-Ass Idea at One Point”
Written By: Joe Lemire
Beach soccer, corn hole, axe throwing, breakdancing, ultimate frisbee, flag football, rugby, and curling may seem like obscure additions to the elite sports landscape in the U.S., but their professionalization is anything but random. There’s a methodology behind their ascension.
Helping shepherd these offerings is Gabby Roe, the president at Maestroe Sports & Entertainment, which specializes in the development of what it calls “high-growth sports.” Roe was a scholarship lacrosse player at the powerhouse University of Virginia program, and he later played professionally for the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League, an indoor version of the sport.
In his 20s, Roe was president of the Beach Soccer Company, helping turn the sand-and-surf version of the sport into a billion-dollar business. He later served as executive director of Major League Lacrosse at its launch in 1999, and became GM of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour from 2002-08. Roe then switched to the sponsorship and event planning side of the business, working in action sports and, since 2012, has led Maestroe. The Philadelphia-area company offers a wide array of services in sports, specializing in the development of emerging sports.
What’s the secret to growing niche sports?
It would almost be the same thing with the secret to growing any business, really, which is the people. The people behind it need to have equal amounts of intelligence and passion, and they’ve got to be hard working. And they’ve got to be smarter. And if you have those four attributes, you’re really going to have a step up on anything else that is out there. Some of the sports that I had a lot less excitement about or didn’t quite check the boxes—the non-personnel-related boxes—grew just because people were either super passionate or super smart or super hard working, or they just had such relationships and people skills that they were able to navigate the marketplace.
Some really random ideas can do really well. Now, pause: money, right? It’s always there. And one of my favorite expressions is, ‘It’s not the money, it’s the money.’ Because it’s always the money. The money is always there. You can have all the passion and brains but it won’t work unless you have at least some element of money, or the ability to raise money, or the ability to convince someone else to put up their money as a partnership with you.
Third in line, besides the people and the money, really is the idea. The ideas come in all shapes and sizes, but I think, first and foremost, they’ve got to fill some void in the sports landscape, even if they are an offshoot of something else. You have soccer. We created beach soccer, right? It’s an offshoot: beach volleyball already existed. So, OK, we can follow a little bit of what beach volleyball did. But then you had to have the people, and you had to have the money in your relationship with the contacts to really drive it forward.
Each one of the sports properties that we look at ,we do a full SWAT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats about them. But really at the get-go is, is this idea solid? Are the people behind it solid? And what void is this filling that currently the sports marketplace is missing? And, again, that comes in all shapes and sizes.
How do you find, educate and develop fans?
Thankfully, nowadays with digital, it is a lot easier. I joke that, in many ways we’re like Hitch, you know that movie with Will Smith. We’re just matchmaking. OK, we got this sport, let’s switch to talking about cornhole. This is kind of like what NASCAR fans do in their backyard. Not to overgeneralize, but it’s kind of like that southeast, casual NASCAR fan demographic. Who are they trying to appeal to? Well, where are those people? And how can we access them in a digital way to create a really cool marketing message around what professional cornhole is all about and then make sure that we’re speaking to that audience?
We have to find the audience and speak to that audience in a way that this sport helps to fill whatever void we believe that audience doesn’t have in their current sports plate. So it’s a lot of matchmaking. When it comes to sponsorship or it comes to our television deals, we’re matchmaking. Really about the core demographic that this sport appeals to, where are those people and how can we approach them usually through a digital way—and make a compelling argument as to why they should care about what we’re offering to them?
Could a company like Maestroe have succeeded 10 or 20 years ago before this digital proliferation?
Sure, yeah, because every sport was new at one point in time. Every sport was a crazy-ass idea at one point in time. Whether it’s a guy throwing peaches into the peach basket—I don’t know how basketball started or whatever that might be—people thought that guy was out of his mind, right? Who’s going to want to do that? The digital world has sped it up. It made it faster. It made your ability to find your audience and reach your audience quicker, less expensive. But it could have happened. It just would have been a much slower process. Really, one of the only things that the digital world has brought us is just increased speed for scalability.
So how did your own experience playing lacrosse at a time when it was in that secondary or tertiary category help inform your work now?
Not so much in high school and in college because I was too young to even think about it. When I was playing for the Philadelphia Wings in the Indoor Lacrosse League, I really got to see how contrarian we were to the world of sports and even within the world of lacrosse. The indoor lacrosse fan at that time was much different than the outdoor lacrosse fan. In fact, they were almost alienating one another.
I got to understand how you can take a sport of lacrosse, put a different spin on it, pitch it to a different audience—which is primarily hockey fans in a hockey crazy city, Philadelphia, and most of the more successful initial indoor lacrosse teams were ones that were in hockey markets, owned by the hockey teams. It gave the younger, less wealthy 20-somethings that were young professionals, something they could really sink into. That was the void that was missing: hockey was the most expensive ticket of the Big Four—I think they still might be; they certainly were at the time—and it gave them a way to, instead of spending $45, they could get in for 15 bucks and see a very exciting, different version of [the sport].
So I was like, ‘Wow, you can take a sport and make some moderate alterations to it, and appeal to a whole new audience.’ We were selling more tickets than the Flyers and the Sixers for the several years that I played for the Wings—not because of me, I was far from a star player. I was way down on the talent totem pole. But, being a member of the team, I saw it firsthand. While I was playing, we were developing beach soccer. We took a lot of indoor lacrosse and put it back into the beach soccer thinking.
Beach soccer was really the catalyst to everything that I’m doing now with Maestroe. That was taking the world’s most popular sport that had this authentic Brazilian history to it—they’ve been playing soccer, barefoot, on the beaches of Brazil forever—giving it California color and marketing appeal, and then exporting that out to Europe, where they had the money and that’s where the marketplace was.
What was the single most pivotal moment of your career?
Probably the most pivotal moment was, in hindsight, potentially a very unintelligent decision: I bought out my partner when I was 27 years old [working] in beach soccer and moved the company to Monte Carlo—which was insane, right?
I remember my father, who was my business adviser, said to me—and I’ve heard other people use this expression, too, but I didn’t realize this was used for business decisions—‘Well, what do you got to lose?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re right’. And he’s like, ‘No, seriously, you have nothing. You have no wife. You have no kids. You don’t own a home. You don’t have any real money. What do you have to lose?’ I’m like, ‘Well, that’s kind of depressing, but kind of true.’ ‘You can’t really go down. You can only go up. So go for it.’
At the time, it was pretty ballsy, but also I just had such belief and passion in what I was doing, I was like, ‘I’m just not going to fail. And if I do, I’m not going to be any worse off than I am right now.’ So yeah, buying a company in your mid to late 20s and moving into a European market, that was pivotal in many ways. But then it just permanently launched me into this high-growth sports marketplace. Beach soccer is a billion dollar global business that was started as an idea.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your business strategy?
A number of our clients just don’t have a season in 2020. So we’ve had to rethink the way in which we structured our deals that were in place. We had to renegotiate. Thankfully most of these sports are what we call a sponsorship economy, as opposed to a ticket sales economy. Ticket sales are a much smaller percentage of the overall revenue—the revenue is really on the sponsorship side. Most of the brands that sponsor high-growth sports are doing it because they have developed a real passion for the sport and the desire to help the sport grow.
The brands respond to the high-growth sports get kind of woven into the fabric of what the sport is all about. When we say, ‘Hey, the American Ultimate Disc League isn’t going to have a season in 2020,’ the sponsors that are behind that—they stayed loyal to the brand and said, ‘We’ll agree to adjust our deal in a way that’s comfortable for you and comfortable for us.’ In some cases, we’re able to even push out longer-term deals with them.
Whether it was the start on beach soccer or the Major League Lacrosse or AVP pro beach volleyball, you’ve led sports on the inside, and now you’re working more on the outside. Which is the better path?
I do like to think that, if you look at it from a horse race standpoint, is it better to have eight horses in the race or one? Now, if your one is the NBA, you might want to have the NBA if you’re looking for just the size and breadth of the sport. The cool part of it is that every single one of our clients benefits from our other clients because we learn. These are really smart and passionate entrepreneurs, whether that’s axe throwing, or curling, or ultimate frisbee, or beach soccer, or breakdancing or any of the sports that we work in, each one of them is super smart and successful for a reason.
We oftentimes—and we tell all of them—we steal really good ideas that might be happening in breakdancing and we bring it to ultimate frisbee. And cool things that happen in beach soccer, we bring it to rugby. So we have eight horses in the race, so to speak, but all of them are getting better every day because of each other. Obviously, I’m doing this now so I’m going to say that it’s better. But I don’t really know if there’s a better or for worse. The word monotony does not ever enter into any discussion. This is so diversified and unique.
Just the other day, I was talking to a non-business friend of mine. He was like, ‘Hey, what’s your day look like tomorrow?’ It was hilarious, he was cracking up [because I replied], ‘Well, I’ve got a breakdancing call, followed by ultimate frisbee, followed by axe-throwing, followed by rugby, and then some of these new ones that we’re working on.’ And we’re talking to probably a dozen other properties, and some of them are way out there.
Whether it’s a sport that didn’t quite make it or a particular decision, have you had any regrets along the way?
It’s typical to say that I learned from the bad experiences, maybe even more so than the good. I think that the one of the biggest regrets that I have—and maybe the only regret that I have—is that I probably should have enjoyed the process more. I’m living in Monte Carlo, working in beach soccer with global television and world-class athletes. And I’m stressed off my ass and can’t even enjoy myself. Like, what the hell, I should have just been able to enjoy the process a lot more. Sometimes, my work-life balance got out of whack. That was mostly in my 30s, I’d say. In the 20s, I didn’t know any better. In the 30s, I was like, ‘Ahhh.’ By the 40s, I kind of figured out, ‘OK, we can do a little better work-life balance here.’
If someone in his or her early 20s is looking to get into the business of sports, what advice do you have to give?
I will tell you exactly: Internships are key. Get internships, kick ass, and let the people you intern with become your megaphones. I tell every young person looking to get into sports to find a way to get internships. Once you do, do really well when you’re there, and then use that experience and the relationships that you make and your employer to help you get further introductions into sports space.
Expressing those same four qualities I talked about with the entrepreneurs, if an intern comes in, and they’re hard-working and they’re smart, they’ve got people skills and they show they got a passion for what they’re doing, I’m going to be recommending them to my friends. I like to joke that there are 1,000 decision makers making hiring decisions in the sports world in the United States. And we all kind of talk to each other. There’s a network of those people, where if a candidate does a great job at an internship or two, a lot of people will be talking about that. If they don’t do a good job, or they haven’t done any internships, it’s really hard to graduate with nothing. And lots of times, the collegiate athletes don’t really have the time or the ability, especially if they’ve got summertime responsibilities. They’ve got to find some way to get some work experience in the sports space with somebody that is willing to go to bat for them. That’s the whole key.