Keeping your values in a murky world
How a global sports marketer survives with ethics intact
They call it the Beautiful Game, but the image of international soccer has taken some nasty hits. Lurid headlines allege scandal, like pay- ing bribes to fix a game, sway a vote on where to host a championship match, or corner the market on uni- forms and footwear.
Sports marketer Pat Vendrely (a MEDA board member) lives in this swirling world. His Chicago-based company, TGI Systems, is a global leader in sports signage, decor and branding. If you watch a soccer match you’ll see his bright electronic graphics and dazzling perimeter signs. In hockey, it might be the sponsor ads on the dasher boards. In baseball it could be the outfield walls.
There’s little about the world of professional sports he doesn’t see.
Even its corruption. He knows what it’s like to lose a contract because someone beat him out with an under-the-table payment. He knows people who have “worn wires” or now “wear ankle bracelets.”
He also understands — though does not condone — why the stakes are so tempting. The money is eye-popping. Global soccer sponsor- ships can go for $50 million to $500 million; television rights for $1.7 billion. Total global sports marketing revenue? $150 billion a year.
When he started out Vendrely’s goals were modest. Planning to teach in athletics, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in education from Goshen College and a master’s from Indiana University. Then he was drawn to the organizational side and worked for national amateur bodies who oversaw U.S. teams in inter- national competitions. He also got involved with the Federation International Football Associations, known as FIFA.
He became commercial director of the U.S. Soccer Federation, work- ing on event production in areas like sponsorship, television, licensing and contract review.
In 1997 he left to start TGI Systems, which would specialize in producing, installing and managing large-format graphics and advertising systems for sports.
“In my way-out dreams, I wanted to provide the signage for the world’s greatest sporting event, the FIFA World Cup,” he says.
He got the contract for Major League Soccer’s expansion team, the Chicago Fire. Then he won a four- year contract for project management, design and logistics for FIFA’s perimeter sponsorship ad boards.
TGI Systems grew into one of the most wide-reaching marketing and event signage companies in the sporting world, including English Premier League soccer, the NCAA and the FIFA World Cups (2006, 2010 and 2014).
In arranging a thousand or so international sporting events he has traveled to 175 cities in 60 countries on five continents. He downplays the global glamour. “It’s like a vacation, work and a Goshen College Study-Service Term (SST) all rolled into one,” he says, referring fondly to cross-cultural lessons from his under- grad semester in Central America.
As he landed one solid contract after another, a good friend from international football said, “You are probably the only guy ever to win a FIFA contract who didn’t have to pay someone.”
“I was naïve,” Vendrely says. “The thought had never entered my mind. At that point I had not been exposed to any kind of corruption or illegal payments. It was not part of my mindset. I was taught to play fair and square and the best team wins, right?”
He would learn otherwise.
Like the time he bid $12 million on a contract and the next lowest bid was $22 million. It seemed like a sure thing, but then suddenly the other guys were down to $14 million.
“Something smells funny here,” Vendrely told a soccer official. “I was pretty sure we were $10 million apart; now suddenly it’s only $2 million.”
In the end, “somebody’s relative” got the contract.
“Economic influences are always part of a decision,” Vendrely says. “There is always some relatedness to decisions that don’t seem logical!”
This spring Vendrely ad- dressed the Lancaster, Pa., MEDA chapter about how he strives to stay true to his values while growing his business in a murky moral climate. He cited MEDA’s international policy framework as a positive example. He noted that its definition of fraud and corruption covers intentional deception, theft or misappropriation of MEDA assets, false claims for pay- ments or reimbursement, accepting or offering a bribe or accepting gifts or other favors that could influence an employee’s decision-making. Values of integrity, transparency and accountability were well articulated.
“MEDA promotes an organiza- tional culture which encourages the prevention of fraud and corruption by raising awareness of the need for the highest standards of personal conduct,” he said.
He noted the value of having a clearly articulated written policy. “I bet every employee in any of the many countries where MEDA works knows this policy exists,” he said.
This wouldn’t guarantee immunity from corruption (as MEDA has found, despite its vigilance), but “naming it and talking about it is the best place to start.”
Vendrely said this was missing in the culture in which he works. “The stories about my business circles are a result of not having policies, not having stated policies with written procedures,” he said. Instead, his world had a shady underside, unaddressed by written policies, which could lead to “envelope deals.”
In the chapter presentation and in a subsequent interview Vendrely spoke further about the roots and results of corruption.
Is it as bad as the media suggest?
Some discrepancies are a product of different ways of doing business, says Vendrely. Checks and balances can vary from region to region. In some countries, unlike in the U.S., money is taxed the moment it flows into a bank account. Shrewd operators can find ways to avoid paying such tax, such as by having a U.S. account. “A lot of my friends use U.S. credit cards for all their transactions. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s different. Some are afraid their government will nationalize the banks and take their money.”
How about paying bribes to “fix” the outcome of a game?
“I know guys who had conversations with referees. It’s so easy to throw a game. It just takes one or two guys to slip or dive. When a critical match ends up seven to one, when last time they played it was zero-zero, something smells funny. Yeah, teams sometimes just fall apart, but when you realize that a star player didn’t play because he was mysteriously sick, you start to wonder.”
He names another key player who was out with a serious ailment, then suddenly recovered.
“You look at this and you think, maybe there’s threats on their lives.”
Vendrely knows of companies managing to control the value chain, such as benefitting from the construction and/or transportation contracts. He names one executive who was indicted for being an exclusive provider controlling tickets and travel packages (basically what we call a monopoly and have laws prohibiting, but in that particular country not unreal).
Is it true that countries will offer incentives to win the location for a major event? “Absolutely,” says Vendrely.
Lower on the star spectrum, payments might be made to give an up- and-coming player a fleeting moment in the sun.
“I know for a fact that agents will beg and plead with national team coaches — ‘please try my player for the national team. I’ll give you a third of whatever I make on it.’ What does the coach do? He thinks, ‘Well, this is easy. I just call him into training camp and put him in a game for seven minutes and I make a couple of hundred grand.’ All of a sudden this young guy goes from a $200,000 player to a million-dollar player because he’s played twice for his national team.
“It happens more often than you realize.”
Have you lost jobs because other guys paid bribes?
“I wouldn’t say often. It’s probably happened to me five or 10 times.
“In one case there was a guy, a friend, who would never give me any work. Why? I really think he was get- ting a kickback from one of my competitors. In another case, a company that was competing with us offered a key decision maker a week’s vacation in the Cayman Islands with his family. That relatively small incentive can make a difference as to who gets the contract.”
Is soccer more vulnerable to corruption than other sports?
“No, I don’t think so. It’s in every sport,” he says, pointing to “deflategate” and stolen play calling signs in the National Football League.
Even Major League Baseball? “Why,” Vendrely asks rhetorically, “does the pitcher cover his face with his glove during the mound meeting? Because he knows some competitors employ lip readers to see if they can pick up and relay a clue to what’s coming next. I’m serious. When there’s so much money on the line, winning is everything.”
How should we respond?
“How should we work with, or around, corruption? Turn tail and flee? I have chosen to work in and around this ‘crucible,’ sometimes knowing, sometimes being very, very naïve.
“I struggle with our ‘passive response,’ how we interpret turning the other cheek. I’m not advocating that we allow ourselves to be taken advantage of but ‘being the quiet in the land’ is easily interpreted as avoidance. I think we should never be afraid to associate with others, even if they may be corrupt.
“I believe we are called, as Christians, to work with everyone. We cannot always pick and choose. My view is, don’t run from it; it is an opportunity to be a change agent. After all, the Great Commission in Matthew 28 calls us to go into all the world.
“So run your ethical business, even in a corrupt world. Be that agent, that witness, in your church, in your community, wherever that may be. That is your marketplace, the place you are called to serve.
“We are called to be different, called to be radical in our marketplace.”
How can we be different?
“A month or two after the first hailstorm of arrests I reached out to one of the indicted guys to see how he was doing. He worked with an agency that participated in payments to predict outcomes. When this all went down he had to wear an ankle bracelet and stay home. I always thought he was a very successful professional; now I found out why — he was buying the results. And he is forever tainted in the industry that he worked in for 20+ years.
“I did not distance myself from him, but picked up the phone and called him. One of the first things he said was ‘Pat, you really know who your friends are as you go through a situation like this. I’m surprised how many people unfriended me on Facebook.’
“It had never entered my mind to completely drop someone because they’ve been arrested. Here’s an opportunity for ministry. Not that I am one of his best friends, but I think we have a responsibility to show compassion to everyone. We may not agree with their behavior and business practices, but when the guy was down, he just needed to talk to someone.”
Low and outside
“I am a competitor. I really love challenges. I like the thrill of compe- tition. I was in grad school when In Search of Excellence was big. I truly want to be the best at what I do, whether it’s cash flow, a contract, or a more efficient process. I just want to show everybody that we’re smarter at TGI Systems. I can hit the fastball low and outside,” he says, referring to one of baseball’s toughest pitches.
That said, he has been called a softie who will go the second mile with an employee. “I never give up on anybody. I never burn a bridge.
“I think I can be a difference, a witness. Maybe we’re called to interject our values into these situations rather than run from them. What would Jesus do?”
Vendrely doesn’t usually bring evangelism into a sales pitch, “but in every situation I try to apply my faith values so that every interaction I have with people glorifies God. It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a while the people sitting on the other side of the meeting room say, ‘There’s something different about you. We trust you.’ And that’s when I know I’m do- ing my job well.” ◆