As an ex-college quarterback who sits atop a business empire with more successful verticals than a Donovan Mitchell workout, Matt Kaulig gets approached with lots (and lots and lots) of opportunities.
Business. Philanthropy. Entertainment.
And, yes, sports.
For example, there was a little outfit that just got sold called the Washington Commanders. At $6.05 billion, they were a little out of Kaulig’s price range, at least as a majority owner. But he was asked if he wanted to be part of an investment group making a run at the team.
“We didn’t have any interest in that,” he said. “But I understand it. The value of all these franchises are going up so much and there’s only so many of them. If you talk about Major League Baseball and the NFL and NASCAR and the NBA, maybe one team — maybe — becomes available. And I’d actually love to be part of an NFL franchise.”
“I’d like to be the majority owner,” he said, “not the minority.”
OK, how about a sponsorship? There’s about to be some nice advertising space available on Cleveland’s lakefront. Any interest in, say, Kaulig Cos. Stadium?
“Nope, not doing that,” he said.
Still, when it comes to Kaulig, it doesn’t hurt to ask. When the former University of Akron quarterback started LeafFilter in his basement in 2005, it had been a decade since he had played competitive football.
But he wasn’t done competing. He just changed fields.
“I’m very competitive in business,” he said. “I look at businesses as sports, you know what I mean? There’s always a scoreboard.”
Case in point: In Kaulig’s first year, LeafFilter grossed $350,000. The second year, it was more than $700,000. The third year, it was $1.7 million. Now, LeafFilter has more than 150 offices in the U.S. and Canada and is expected to gross $1.8 billion in 2023.
“So there’s a definite scoreboard incentive,” he said. “Just like sports, there’s a score. And you do have competitors, so you try to beat competitors, whether it’s selling against them directly as consumers or battling out however and whatever you do.”
And while there’s a certain amount of satisfaction that comes from selling the most gutter filters — or the most walk-in bathtubs from Leaf Home Safety Solutions, or the most micro-filtration systems from Leaf Home Water Solutions — there’s one key difference between a business scoreboard and the one that comes from, say, owning a NASCAR team.
“With NASCAR, they actually hand out trophies,” he said.
So, in 2016, Kaulig founded Kaulig Racing, entering NASCAR first as an Xfinity Series team and eventually adding two Cup Series charters. Then, last year, Hudson-based Kaulig Cos. moved into two other sports, first as the title sponsor of the Senior Players championship at Firestone Country Club, then as a local investor in the David Blitzer-led group that bought a minority stake in the Cleveland Guardians.
“What’s more fun than sports?” Kaulig said. “Winning and being on TV and having fans that just love it and love you and love the sport and the teams. It’s really, really cool.”
And he’s just getting started. Kaulig has big plans for all three sports brands in Northeast Ohio, both competitively with NASCAR and philanthropically with the Guardians and the Kaulig Companies Championship.
Here’s a look at his plans for all three.
While Kaulig’s main goal is to compete for championships in both the Cup Series and Xfinity Series, he also wants to bring a NASCAR race to Burke Lakefront Airport. Burke hasn’t hosted an auto race since 2007, the final year of the Champ Car Grand Prix.
“I wouldn’t call it a goal,” said Kaulig, who has spoken to both NASCAR officials and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission about the possibility. “It’s just an idea, a hope. I think it would be a really cool thing.”
Northeast Ohio is home to major NASCAR sponsors including Goodyear (which supplies all the racing tires) and Sherwin-Williams (the series’ official paint), but there are no Cup Series or Xfinity Series races in the Buckeye State. Ohio lost its only Xfinity Series race after the 2021 season, when the B&L Transport 170 at Mid-Ohio Speedway moved to Portland, Oregon, and was replaced by a Camping World Truck Series race.
Consequently, the closest race to Cleveland is three hours away, at Michigan International Speedway.
“To have something like that in Cleveland would be fun, and we would be a major contributor to that,” he said. “I’d love it for our community and, selfishly, for our team.”
Kaulig and CEO/president Tim Clepper also want to build the company’s business and sponsorship relationships through NASCAR, believing the sport offers something unique when it comes to entertaining customers and employees.
“I’ve been in every sporting venue from The Masters to the Super Bowl to U.S. Open tennis and golf, and nothing compares to going to a massive NASCAR race with clients and customers and employees,” Clepper said. “There are so many opportunities for people to build their brands. … We’re able to show them something outside the box. It’s something where people fall asleep at night saying, ‘That was the coolest thing we’ve ever done.'”
Major League Baseball
While Blitzer’s ownership will help the Guardians maintain (or even boost) their competitiveness in MLB, Kaulig Cos.’ involvement is primarily on the philanthropic side.
Kaulig Cos. partnered with Cleveland Guardians Charities in 2019 and the company heads up the annual Giveathon, which has raised more than $1 million over the past five years. Much of that money has gone toward upgrading youth baseball and softball fields in Cleveland.
“We help raise hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in support of male and female athletes who want to play the game of baseball, but don’t have the facilities,” Clepper said. “We go in there and take over the fields, fill them with coaches, dress the kids and get them into the game.”
Clepper said the company’s goal is to eventually raise $500,000 a year through the Giveathon, $200,000 more than last year’s event.
“It’s going to take a little bit of work and a lot of community partners, but we’re the ones who are doing that,” he said. “It costs a lot of money to put kids on baseball and softball fields. We want to make sure every kid has the opportunity to play.”
In 2022, Kaulig Cos. signed a four-year deal to replace Bridgestone as the title sponsor of the Senior Players Championship. The event — renamed the Kaulig Companies Championship — is one of five major tournaments on the senior tour.
Clepper said the most attractive part of the sponsorship was getting the opportunity to give back to charities across Northeast Ohio, not just ones based in Akron.
“We don’t want to be seen as regionalized,” he said. “We really want to grow it.”
To that end, Kaulig and Clepper want to raise $2 million each year for charity, more than double the $950,000 raised at last year’s event.
“How do you do that?” Clepper said. “The only way to do that is through lots of great relationships with businesses that come together to, No. 1, build their brand and network with other like-minded businesses. And No. 2, to entertain their customers and employees.
“It’s the oldest of old-school recipes, and it literally boils down to entertainment and relationships.”
Bridgestone had been the title sponsor since 2006, when it was still a PGA Tour event. While Bridgestone will remain as a “founding partner” of the event, the company had gotten a little stale in the title role.
“I agree, they agree and so does Bridgestone,” Kaulig said. “You do something for 16 years and it goes from being a PGA event that Tiger Woods is winning every year to feeling like they lost something when it went to the Champions Tour.
“It’s a refresher for the community, and a refresher for the PGA and Firestone Country Club to have us involved. We’re going to do a really great job. We’ve got a lot more Northeast Ohio people involved, like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so there’s going to be a lot more entertainment. And we’re going to raise a whole lot more money than in the past for the community.”
That approach, Clepper said, is built into Kaulig Cos.’ DNA. Whenever it get involves in anything, it uses its resources and its people to make it better.
When it comes to sports, the key is jumping on the good opportunities that come along and, well, filtering out the bad ones.
“We believe the more money we can make through our businesses, the more money we can give back,” he said. “That’s why we love sports and we love sports investments. We love that it brings people together for all kinds of reasons.”
Joe Scalzo: firstname.lastname@example.org, (216) 771-5256, @JoeScalzo01