The John Elway Sweepstakes
Having the right C-Level relationship puts you ahead of the competition

By Matthew Herman

You may be asking yourself, what does John Elway have to do with sales, entrepreneurship or business? Well, let me tell you a story that I wasn’t aware of until I watched an ESPN special on the 1983 NFL draft class, “Elway to Marino”(Ken Rodgers/NFL Films).

Even the most casual NFL fans recall the1983 draft as epic, largely because five quarterbacks were selected in the first round; four would play in the Super Bowl and three would go on to become hall of famers. Months prior to the draft, Elway was already the number-one prospect in the minds of almost every NFL general manager. The strike-shortened 1982 season wasn’t a pleasant one for the Baltimore Colts, as they were coming off their worse season in franchise history. Their 1982 woes afforded them the number one pick in the 1983 draft. Questions about the Colts long-term stability were questioned by many, including rumors regarding a possible franchise move out of Baltimore. In conversations with Colts management, Elway told them if he were drafted by the Colts, he would play professional baseball and forgo his promising NFL Career. As draft day approached, the Colts had a significant decision to make.

Weeks prior to the draft, Colts owner Robert Irsay appointed Ernie Accorsi as his new general manager. Accorsi had limited experience and was immediately thrown into a hornets nest; trade offers were rampant. No trade would be made prior to the draft, which gave Accorsi no option other than to select Elway as the number one pick. Accorsi’s price tag for Elway was three first round picks and two second round picks. By some accounts, over a dozen teams were trying to acquire Elway, including the Raiders, Charges, Broncos, Cowboys and even the 49ers. Accorsi declined all trade offers. The asking price was just too high. No draft day trade was made. Part of the challenge many teams faced included who they were working with. Most of the teams were communicating directly with Accorsi or the Colts head coach, Frank Kush. Dallas Cowboys were among the teams pining after Elway, which happened to be the coveted player’s favorite team growing up as a child. Some accounts say Dallas offered three starting players and draft picks as well. Many teams questioned if either Kush or Accorsi truly had the final authority in trading Elway.

But there was one man had a distinct advantage in acquiring Elway, and that Man was Edger Kaiser, owner of the Denver Broncos. Kaiser had a long standing relationship with Colts owner Robert Irsay. Days after the draft, the two men met in Las Vegas to hash out the terms and conditions of the Elway trade. In the end, Denver acquired hall of fame quarterback John Elway for their 1983 first round choice, Chris Hinton (a late first round pick in the 1984 draft) and back-up quarterback Mark Herrmann who only appeared in 40 games during his 11-year career. Clearly, Denver acquired Elway for far less than offers from other teams. So, why is that? Denver owner Edger Kaiser was working directly with the owner of the Colts. Others were not.

Other teams were proposing offers to the team’s general manager Accorsi, and head coach Frak Kush. In the end, these two men, although key players, were not the decision makers in a high stakes game for a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Irsay was the man behind the final say and the rest is history.

In any business dealing, the decision makers always make the final call, no matter how important the other players around the table might be.

There is no question that other teams had far better offers for Elway than the Denver Broncos; however, at the end of the day, those teams lost. Their critical mistake was never engaging the true man in charge - Colts owner, Robert Irsay.

Now let’s switch gears and make a correlation to sales…

It has been my observation that the majority of business to business sales professionals propose solutions to non-decision makers. A sales professional can do everything right in the sales process, but if you miss this crucial step of engaging a true decision maker, you’re still at a significant disadvantage regardless of quality of the overall solution or price. Sales professionals must build relationships with C-Level executives. If we build strategic relationships with those in power (those who actually make decisions), we will win our sales just like Denver’s owner Edger Kaiser did in 1983.

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