Getting in the Game
Two former SEC execs and partners from sales and advertising pioneer a new event management and sports marketing company — Knight Eady Sports Group.
The team at Birmingham-based Knight Eady includes (from left): CEO David Knight; Michael Eady, chief marketing officer; Chris Nix, chief development officer, and Mark Whitworth, chief operating officer.
It is easy to spot a fantastic finish in the world of sports. The Hail Mary touchdown pass. The 3-pointer at the buzzer. The walk-off home run. The birdie on the 18th hole. These are the wondrous moments that transform the wide world of sports from casual pastime to fervent obsession.
Not so noticeable are the businesslike beginnings that lead to all these exciting endings. The months of behind-the-scenes planning and preparation that take place well in advance of the final few seconds of action. From event promotion to game-day operations, there are thousands of T’s to cross and I’s to dot before anybody can sink a game-winning J.
In June of 2013, Birmingham natives and former college classmates David Knight and Michael Eady decided to leave their jobs and dive into this world of sports management and marketing with the formation of the Knight Eady Sports Group. Knight had spent nine years working in the offices of the Southeastern Conference, while Eady had spent the same amount of time with Martin Advertising and the Colonnade Group. And while both men say they enjoyed their previous jobs, they wanted a way to do something more with their shared love of sports.
“We believe that sports can unify people and change lives. That’s why we started this company,” Eady says. “For us to have a small role in those types of journeys for people is essentially why we do what we do.”
So with lofty ambitions and much enthusiasm Knight Eady hit the ground ready to run, then spent a year trying to gain some traction. “We had very little business in the first 12 months,” Knight says. “We had to learn some patience and humility really quickly.
“When we started the company, all we had were our résumés. Knight Eady meant nothing to anybody. But we stuck with our process and spent those 12 months creating and cultivating relationships.”
Their perseverance finally paid off in July of 2014 when Knight Eady was awarded the rights to market and manage the two premier high school athletic events in Alabama — the Super 7 state football championships in Auburn and Tuscaloosa and the boys and girls state basketball finals in Birmingham. These annual Alabama High School Athletic Association events previously were handled by the Alabama Sport Foundation through the Bruno Event Team, which has been a major player in sports management in the state for the past 20 years.
“Knight Eady just really appealed to us,” says Denise Ainsworth, the AHSAA director of special programs. “They came across as young and hungry and innovative and high-energy. With our clientele and our member schools being primarily youth, it seemed like a great fit.”
In terms of event management, Knight compares the company’s role to that of the general contractor on a construction site. Knight Eady is responsible for every aspect of an event, even though other companies will be hired to directly handle some of the tasks, such as security and concessions. In addition, Knight Eady is in charge of securing sponsorships and selling tickets, as well as dealing with logistical details, such as securing hotel accommodations for the teams. It is the type of all-encompassing task that Ainsworth said simply would be too much for the AHSAA to handle alone.
“Those two events are huge projects, and our staff is very small,” Ainsworth says. “We just do not have the time it takes to go out and work for corporate partners and put together the event. So this is a good investment for us to make to ensure that our student-athletes have a memorable championship experience.”
The team at Birmingham-based Knight Eady includes (clockwise from above left): CEO David Knight; Michael Eady, chief marketing officer; Chris Nix, chief development officer, and Mark Whitworth, chief operating officer.
Knight Eady’s portfolio has grown steadily over the past two years, most notably as event manager for the 2015 and 2016 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas. The company also was hired to handle marketing and branding for the Lutzie 43 Foundation, which was founded to honor former Auburn football player Philip Lutzenkirchen after his death in 2014.
In addition, Knight Eady is creating its own events, including the 12-team Steel City Invitational high school basketball tournament and the Elevate the Stage gymnastics competition between Alabama and Auburn, which attracted a crowd of 6,000 people last year.
“What that does is blend the marketing and event sides, because we have to get corporate sponsorship,” says Knight Eady Chief Development Officer Chris Nix. “This company was started with the intent to create platforms and experiences for athletes, fans and coaches. Now it’s morphed into a marketing agency that creates experiences in sports for companies as well.”
Among those monitoring Knight Eady’s progress was Southeastern Conference executive Mark Whitworth. After spending nearly 30 years with the SEC, Whitworth decided he was ready for a change. So this past April he announced he was leaving the conference to become the COO at Knight Eady, a move he says surprised many of his friends and colleagues.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me what I was thinking,” Whitworth says with a smile. “I’ve known David for a long time, back when he was still in high school, and then we worked together at the SEC. So when he and Michael branched out to do this, I paid really close attention. I had a good idea of the quality and talent of those guys.
“It was never my intent to ride it out in the SEC. I wasn’t sure what was next for me, but I’m kind of a builder and creator by nature. So the opportunity to work alongside some guys who really have a vision and a passion for what they are doing was something I just couldn’t resist. It was a bit of a risk, but fortunately for me I’m at a point in my career and my life where I can take that risk.”
Whitworth’s hiring is another sign that, after a slow start, Knight Eady is picking up steam. On the horizon for the company is the National Senior Games, an Olympics-style competition for athletes age 50 and older that will be held in Birmingham next June.
“That event will bring 10,000 athletes to Birmingham. That’s 10,000 people who have probably never been to Birmingham,” Knight says. “So we have an opportunity to tell Birmingham’s story while they’re in town and to represent Birmingham in a positive light, and that’s very important to us — because this is home.
“We place importance on Birmingham and the state of Alabama and what we can do here. We certainly want to grow our company and do stuff throughout the country. But the state of Alabama is a priority to us. We want to help take sports to a pretty high level in this state.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.