When it came to leading the Tournament of Roses Association, Executive Director and CEO David Eads knew from the get-go his strategy for guiding one of Pasadena’s oldest and most cherished organizations to new heights would have to be more evolutionary than revolutionary.
“Change was never meant to be a revolution,” said Eads, nearly two years into the top spot. “What we do — the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game and all the related events — are already great. They are world renowned. So all we are doing is some updates and improvements around the edges with the goal of improving the entertainment value of the parade.”
So far, it’s working. This year, the TOR will host its 130th Rose Parade, themed “The Melody of the Life,” followed by the 105th Rose Bowl Game, delighting viewers with all the tried-and-true pageantry while also expanding on social media platforms to make the experience more accessible. The tournament will be fine-tuning its free app launched last year to track all the TOR-related events and a live parade program, in both Spanish and English. Its partnership with Funny or Die will return with another production of “Cord and Tish,” whose satirical coverage by fictional news anchors (played by Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon) proved to be wildly popular among younger viewers and YouTubers.
With parade viewership estimated at about 44 million and the game viewership at 28.3 million, both events are heralded as some of the most watched live television to date, garnering more viewers than the Grammys and Oscars, even as live television in general is tending to decline. That in part is due to younger viewers’ habits, including not watching traditional channels at all and preferring eight-second clips and highlights.
But under Eads’ direction, the TOR is working to reach that younger demographic, not only through different platforms, but also with younger performers in the parade to complement the float and pageantry tradition. Bigger opening and closing numbers — led this year by Chaka Khan with Jordan Fisher and British pop sensation Anne-Marie — should also lead to social media highlights and draw in younger viewers.
“The key for us is to reach a whole new market, specifically appealing to this different, younger demographic,” said Eads, noting that when he was at a recent Rotary Club event, more than half of the crowd had seen the Funny or Die coverage of the parade, but mainly because their children had watched it. “We’re working to take the steps necessary to reach that audience and increase those viewership numbers, whether it be Funny or Die or any of our broadcast partners. We want to share the Rose Parade that we produce to bring hope and joy of the new year to people all across our country and the world.”
Sitting down to discuss his experience, having settled in as CEO for nearly two years, Eads explained his goals to ensure the TOR stays relevant in a drastically changing television and information industry. Even the business of football is rapidly evolving, he noted. With the entire football industry facing potential problems regarding concussion-related injuries and some high school teams having trouble filling rosters, the TOR has been part of the national discussion on the safety of football with the National Football Foundation. “That is a very large revenue source for us, so that’s very important: What is the future of football?”
Nonetheless, in the short term he’s confident the “Granddaddy of Them All,” as the Rose Bowl game has been dubbed, will continue to outperform. An ardent college football fan, Eads anticipates the Jan. 1, 2019 Rose Bowl game between Washington and Ohio State will be a huge crowd pleaser (although he’ll be rooting for “whichever team wins,” he wryly noted).
Previously, Eads was executive vice president and COO for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, and brings a wealth of marketing and television operating experience to the tournament. As such, he’s been intent on expanding the TOR brand, not just for viewers but for sponsors, and for those who make it a tradition to visit the parade in person, joining the crowd of up to 1 million along the parade route.
With that goal in mind, the TOR is turning the Rose Parade into a weeklong experience, kicking off a new food and wine event to be paired with float viewing, called “Sip & Savor,” to take place at the Rosemont Pavilion from Dec. 28-30. The three-day event will give visitors a chance — for as little as $15 — to get an up-close tour of the Rose Parade floats in progress and then enjoy food, drink and entertainment throughout the evening. For local families and out-of-towners alike, the event provides easy access for adults and children to see hundreds of volunteers hand-applying millions of florals to the floats that slowly take shape. The event also gives sponsors another opportunity to share their brand, attracting more potential dollars for the New Year’s Day floats.
“It’s not inexpensive to put a float in the parade, and to make one that is dynamic and entertaining for people on the parade route is hard. We spend a lot of time working with our corporate partners, both current and potential, to make sure they’re finding great value in the work we’re doing,” Eads said. “Everyone’s looking for 365 activations, so it’s not just about one day for two hours going down Colorado Boulevard, it’s how does their brand build from that participation and how do they connect with customers.”
TOR officials are excited about “Sip & Savor,” and former tournament President Ron Okum credits Eads with helping to develop another great business opportunity for the city with a TOR-related event.
“By creating this event, if will bring more people to the city and more buzz to the float building,” Okum said. “David is trying to give the tradition a little twist — very carefully and very gently — to give our sponsors a better shot and get more eyeballs on that television on New Year’s Day.”
Another benefit to having Eads on board is his fresh perspective and eagerness to recruit a younger market, said Rich Chinen, a former TOR president. Prior to Eads, the TOR executive position was held by nearly 36 years by the much-respected Bill Flinn.
“It’s important to have that fresh look at what we do in terms of entertainment and merging it with the tradition-rich values we continue to hold true,” Chinen said. “After 130 years our traditions run deep, and we need to hold on to those loosely and be principled about the decisions we make regarding changes … but let’s not forget our commitment to students in collegiate football; let’s not try to be something we’re not.”
Another important part of Eads’ job is guiding some 1,000 tournament volunteers. As a purely volunteer-driven association, the nonprofit always risks the struggle of not getting enough help. With youngsters and parents consistently busier with activities (“People suffer from time poverty,” he quipped), the organization is also preparing for changes in its volunteer base.
“We don’t want to sit on our laurels, we know that change is coming and our goal is to position the organization to be proactive instead of reactive to any changes we might encounter,” he noted. “The longest journey starts with the first step … for us, it’s taking the right steps at the right time to move us on that journey.”
Seconding that notion, Laura Farber, who has worked closely with Eads as the incoming 2020 TOR president, said that Eads has been instrumental in ensuring the tournament remains healthy and prosperous for many years to come.
“David has great vision and he’s a great leader. … He’s getting us to think broadly, realize that we impact not only Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley but also Southern California and then some as an international event,” she said. “We’re so fortunate to have his experience during this time — it’s always healthy for an organization to have a fresh perspective, to find the balance between tradition and innovation.”