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She’s Got Next: Courtney Jeffries

March 14, 2024

Technology can move quickly, and change dramatically, over the course of a career. When Courtney Jeffries graduated from the University of Washington in 2004, social media wasn’t even part of the conversation for most sports organizations. Building on her own curiosity toward emerging business trends and her resume of experience – including VP of Business Operations for the New York Rangers – she now serves as CEO of VRTL, a digital platform that is easily scalable to connect brands, teams, and fans around the world in creative and meaningful ways.

The following conversation is edited for space and clarity:

Walk me through your company and the cutting-edge ideas that VRTL is bringing to sports marketing, sponsorship, and fans.

VRTL is changing how brands connect with their global fan base. As of late, there’s an over-indexing of focus on putting butts in seats – for selling tickets and driving fans to games, concerts, or events. We’re not going to suggest there isn’t value in that, but it greatly limits exposure to the majority of your fan base. Part of that is because there aren’t any tools to meaningfully engage fans globally.

Social media is really a content distribution channel at this point. There aren’t fan engagement platforms flexible enough for an entire brand to execute across the whole consumer funnel. We set out to build a platform that trends on behaviors we recognize as best practices – things like live autograph sessions, panel discussions, community group experiences – and deliver them on a platform that gives a brand ultimate flexibility.

Traditionally, you might have a basic standard 8×10 table and pipe-and-drape, in-person meet and greet. That’s the way it’s always been done – and that’s the challenge. There are legacy best practices that don’t account for new technologies. We’re trying to be that technology at the intersection of best practice engagement and fan base. It sounds very altruistic because sporting events are becoming less and less economical for many fans to attend live. But really, brands are leaving money on the table. If you’re not properly executing against your business model for the global fan base, you are leaving the lifetime value of most of your fans on the table while also failing to generate future fans since the people who can physically get there are only a small piece of the pie.

How would you describe the current climate for women in leadership positions in the sports industry? And how’s that changed over your career?

It’s better than when I started. I had the benefit of working for the Oakland Raiders in the early 2000s under Amy Trask. She was very rare in her field as a CEO leading a sports team. So, it has absolutely improved in the sense that you can look around and see other female executives, not only in C-Suite positions but also in presidential roles. Even the Raiders have carried on the legacy with their new president, Sandra Douglass Morgan. But we’re still not where we could be.

 What’s encouraging is the greater female representation in revenue-generating roles, as opposed to the typical assumption of women in marketing or customer service roles. These are real strategic business development and business intelligence roles, which is encouraging, but we have a long way to go.

I certainly benefited from the generation that came before me and I’m grateful for those female executives who changed how things were done. I think the landscape now lends itself to including more females at the top levels. It doesn’t feel like, “Hey, there’s only one seat here. So, it’s going to be me.” I’m not going to call it female-on-female hate in the office, but there was something to be said for feeling that this was my spot and I want to make sure I don’t lose it. I think that’s changed quite a bit. It’s no longer about having a woman in the room for the sake of checking a box. It’s having people with experience, who have demonstrated loyalty, and who are trying to bring innovation to the company. We can make more space for women in the room.

Starting with the Raiders and then with the New York Rangers and MSG, what are some of the things that you learned from those experiences that you carried into your own company?

I really undervalued the power of diplomacy; I didn’t really have it. I have to work very hard at being diplomatic. That’s not because it’s not the right thing to do, but I just see a clear path and want to say let’s go do it. What I learned along the way is leveraging graceful and effective diplomacy makes things go so much quicker.

I played softball in college, and I played for some baseball players who explained to me they were trying to put together a winning hand. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to have face cards every time. A winning hand can be made up of a mix of cards. It’s your job as a leader to put together a winning hand with what you have. So, diplomacy isn’t “rah-rah” and “you’ve got to be better than what you have.” It’s more like, “I know that you’re gonna give me X amount. I need to make sure that I get all of that. And I’m going to put that into this into this larger machine and make the whole thing work.”

That was a huge skill set I learned andI think it’s really shaped how I lead a team. It makes room for different types of talent, and different types of experience. It makes it much more of a “we’re in this together” atmosphere as opposed to a table of cool kids or all alphas. It’s a collective effort that everybody can be proud of, which is important.

The more tactical things I learned are how different departments have overlapping goals and they aren’t necessarily congruent with the company’s goals. That can be driven by bonuses and different incentives, and that was a challenge for me to understand. Not everybody sees or wants to see the big picture. It goes back to diplomacy and how I’m going to get you on board.

Here’s a great example. At the time I worked for Madison Square Garden in the sports division, there were three different teams – the Knicks, the Rangers, and the Liberty. I was the vice president of retention for all three of them. It’s the same company, and yet all three teams within the same company had their own culture, style, and individual goals. Anybody who worked across all three units had to morph and adjust. If you’re not into that, it’s probably going to be a short tenure, so to speak.

I’m curious about the virtual experience for fans as it pertains specifically to fans of women’s sports.

Our platform creates a much more economical opportunity for teams to engage in any kind of activation. It allows for repeat, serialized, and constant engagement that you otherwise could not execute in person. So when it comes to sports that perhaps don’t have the deep pockets and funding that maybe an NFL team has, we become a very compelling solution for fan engagement that doesn’t sacrifice the event.

For us, and this is true across sports, it allows for a lot more creativity.  If you are paying to present something in person, you are most likely relying on elements that you know will be successful, drive attendance, and yield the expected ROI based on the KPIs you have set for that event. Our platform allows for you to have that event because it’s not as expensive as hosting an in-person event. It’s a much more economical platform.

It’s fun to watch our clients push the boundaries. For example, we’ve launched an autograph experience with a mystery player. Would you do that in person? Maybe, but would you risk people not coming because they don’t know who is going to be there? That risk is dramatically mitigated when it comes to an online platform.

So, explain for a minute how autograph sessions work on a virtual platform.

It’s a very abstract concept until you experience it.  If you were the celebrity on the platform, while we are video chatting, you would use a touchscreen device, such as an iPhone or iPad, and use a stylus to autograph a pre-selected, pre-loaded action shot. The fan on the other end, sees it coming through in real-time.

Not only that, but we can have the signature over a video clip as well, so it’s not just a static moment in time. We know that sports are very emotional and people remember moments. When Brandy Chastain scored the game-winning goal in the 1999 World Cup, that was a very real moment for me as a sports fan, particularly as a woman witnessing her raw reaction to such an exceptional play and her tearing off her jersey and sliding. That video clip could be autographed and I could now have that moment preserved with Brandy’s autograph on it.

From a consumer standpoint, it also seems to lower that barrier of entry to be a fan.

We’ve had 100 different countries represented on our platform. We’ve had our platform translated into nine different languages. We’ve had translators on the platform to facilitate a conversation on behalf of a player that doesn’t speak the same native language as the fans. It really is reducing the physical gap, all in the name of pulling those fans deeper into your consumer fan funnel. How can brands create opportunities that are representative of the brand not just featuring an athlete, but really pulling the curtain back and bringing fans behind the scenes? That drives more loyalty around the organization and creates generational fans.

For teams and brands trying to build that fan base, how do they turn memorable moments into something sustained?

There is a best practice playbook for fan engagement and the majority of those best practices are based around male-dominated sports – like the NFL and NBA. My recommendation would be to have those best practices, but to create your own best practices playbook, too. You want to follow a path that resonates with your fan base.

An example is there used to be this derogatory motto in women’s sports apparel, “shrink it and pink it.” You take the same men’s shirt, make it smaller, and then just put pink and rhinestones on it. Alyssa Milano changed the game after she basically said she didn’t want to wear that. She created her own line of sports fan wear (Touch by Alyssa Milano) and did a great job of changing fan engagement.

What’s your advice to young women who want to work in the sports world?

I typically dispense three pieces of advice. The first one is that you need to understand in a sports organization there are revenue-generating roles and the rest is overhead. So, if you can figure out how to get into a position that is a revenue-generating role, you’re paying for yourself. You’re extending your lifetime at that organization. It also allows you to infiltrate and understand more about the organization to determine which direction you want your career path to go. That doesn’t mean you have to stay in sales. I’m not suggesting a lifetime of indentured servitude inside a sales room, but it does allow you to get your foot in the door. And sales skills are transferable; use that as a springboard to explore the rest of the organization.

The second piece of advice I usually offer to young people is that your job probably doesn’t exist yet. When I worked for the Oakland Raiders, there was no Twitter. There was no strong engagement on social media. There was Facebook, but nobody really understood how to make that into a sports tool. Today, you wouldn’t think of launching any brand without a social media manager or maybe even a social media director, who oversees that entirely. That’s a big deal to consider how these technologies can progress. Understand that the more flexible or transferable your skill sets are will probably tee you up to take advantage of those new jobs and those new positions.

The third thing I would say is to constantly be curious about things. It goes back to what we were saying about falling into old-school best practices – by staying curious and engaged with new trends, you’re going to be ahead of the game when it comes to what is the next job that might come into play. You can start asking how you can create an opportunity for yourself based on the importance of this new trend.

One last thing – if there’s a position that you have in mind that somebody has, and you think, “that’s my dream job”, see if you can get in front of those people and find out what jobs they said yes to and why they said yes to them, as well as what jobs they said no to. It doesn’t mean that’s the exact path you have to follow, but it’s going to help you navigate the opportunities that might be put in front of you. If somebody has this role that you’re into, and that’s the direction you want to take, find out how they got there and start piecing together your path. That doesn’t mean you have to take it, or that it’s the only way to get there, but it can help take some of the guesswork out of where to start. You want to learn from somebody else’s mistakes.

And by the way, I’m happy to be one of those people. If you’d like to talk to me, hit me up. Other people helped me understand the path to take. I’m happy to pass it on.

Amy Moritz

Public Relations Manager

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