The NCAA has a yearly commercial campaign that runs during March Madness. It features NCAA athletes who excel on and off the field, and culminates in the line "there are over 400,000 NCAA student-athletes, and most of us will go pro in something other than sports."
That message reminds us that while we view every game as life and death, and hang on the emotion of every play, we're still watching young men and women who are playing for the love of the game and the opportunity to go to school on scholarship. This is not professional sports, and these athletes aren't millionaires.
With that in mind, this article is the first of what will hopefully be many Sun Devil retrospectives. Throughout the years, there have been many ASU athletes who have excelled in the business world, and Gary Knudson is no exception.
Mr. Knudson is the CEO of AdSport, a Phoenix-based sports marketing agency that is "dedicated to helping corporations navigate team sponsorships and relationships."
He was kind enough to speak with me this past week regarding his playing days at Arizona State, the difficulties in making a team in the NFL, and his opinions on the current state of Sun Devil athletics.
Knudson was Arizona State's starting tight end going into the 1988 season. He was considered a prospect for the NFL by many, and was focused on playing a large role in the team's success. During the season opener against Illinois, however, Knudson broke his ankle and would never play for ASU again.
Despite this setback, Knudson, who is originally from Seattle, worked hard and was back at 100% by the following May. He was signed as a free agent by the Los Angeles Rams and was able to travel the world, playing exhibition games in Tokyo and Berlin.
Unfortunately, injuries continued to play the villain to Knudson's NFL aspirations. "After getting injured and released my second year, I attempted to get into acting while living in Los Angeles and did a Light Beer from Miller commercial," Knudson said. "That turned out to be the only acting gig I landed in 6 months of auditioning."
After deciding that he didn't want to be an aspiring actor any longer, Knudson returned to the Pacific Northwest. He spent two years selling sponsorships for the Seattle SuperSonics.
Upon returning to Phoenix, Knudson sold billboards for Outdoor Systems. "I learned a great deal about media and being a business professional from guys like Arte Moreno (owner of the [Los Angeles] Angels) and Wally Kelly," Knudson said.
Putting that knowledge to use, Knudson founded AdSport in 1994. AdSport is an agency that allows companies to effectively ply their wares in a variety of ways in front of a packed stadium.
AdSport has worked with a variety of sponsors, but one AdSport creation that many Sun Devil fans can recognize is the Chevron Toy Car Challenge, where fans can be found cheering for Pax Power and Sam Sedan to finish in first place.
Unfortunately for fans of that sponsorship, Chevron will not be adorning the stands and video scoreboards of Sun Devil Stadium this season due to cost restrictions. However, it is one clear-cut example of an effective marketing strategy employed by Knudson and AdSport.
Knudson is also proud of his work with State Farm, particularly the Territorial Cup Series platform that was launched for the 2009-2010 school year. Rather than focusing solely on wins and losses, the competition takes note of both "on and off the field excellence," Knudson added.
AdSport was able to enlist Reed and Barton, the designers of the original Territorial Cup trophy, to build an updated award for State Farm that will be awarded to the winning school. For 2009-2010, the University of Arizona won the competition and will proudly display the trophy.
Perhaps Knudson's favorite part of the Territorial Cup Series is the Food Fight between ASU and U of A, where canned food drives are staged throughout the year. Most notably, the Food Fight was part of the football game between the Sun Devils and Wildcats in late November last season, benefitting both Tucson and Phoenix-area food banks in the process.
Knudson is clearly a huge fan of Arizona State athletics, and was more than happy to discuss the current state of Sun Devil sports. He acknowledges that success at ASU has been fleeting in recent decades, with coaching departures causing issues with recruiting.
"I believe President Crow and his New American University model are making huge strides in bringing ASU to national relevance," Knudson added. "ASU teams need to perform with excellent consistently. I believe we have the right person to get us there in Lisa Love.
"I am a huge fan of Vontaze Burfict and the way he plays the game. It's been a long time since the Sun Devils have had a legitimate game changer wearing the maroon and gold," Knudson said. When asked about Burfict's penchant for drawing penalties, Knudson said "all Vontaze needs to do is play within the rules and he will be just fine. I'm not sure it's a temper thing with him, so much as it's a maturity thing. I expect huge things from him this season."
Knudson graduated from ASU in 2003 with a degree in Organizational Communications, and as a result has both the knowledge and experience to effectively manage his marketing business. "I am excited to get into the office every day," he said, "so many things in athletics transcend to real life and the business world."
By the end of our conversation, Knudson had a lot of praise for Aaron Cox, the former Sun Devil wideout who was recently inducted into the ASU Hall of Fame. "Cox was a heck of a player," Knudson said about his former teammate. "He was a phenomenal receiver, and such a humble guy."
With his parting words, Knudson had some advice for ASU's student athletes: "Network. As a student athlete, you have access to some amazing people. Ask for a card and stay in touch. After you're done playing, you'll wish you had." This is good advice for us all to consider.