11 min read

Pivot #15: College hockey to golf marketing with Caroline

Pivot #15: College hockey to golf marketing with Caroline

Waggle Golf is one of the rising stars in the golf apparel industry. I sat down for an interview with Waggle’s Head of Marketing, Caroline Ponessa. The interview is insightful on a couple fronts. One, Caroline was a hockey player herself, having spent her high school career playing for Totino-Grace and continuing her hockey career at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. Caroline shares her own experience transitioning from the game while taking us down her winding career path that’s landed her as a leader in one of golf’s rising apparel brands. Second, Caroline lets us behind the curtain for a look at how Waggle’s waded into their hockey cross-promotion and launched their marketing campaign with some of hockey’s brightest stars including Brock Faber, Logan Cooley, Isaac Howard, and Cole Eiserman.  

Caroline’s Story 

The Challenge is real: Taking us back to the spring semester of her senior year at St. Olaf, Caroline recalls the fear and finality of everything setting in. Her last games are already behind her, but springtime was the first instance of something different. Underclassmen were starting to train again after taking a few weeks off after the season’s conclusion, but Caroline and her fellow seniors did not participate. There was no next season to prepare for.  

Caroline describes jostling with identity questions. “What do I do next? Do I workout? What’s next? How do I channel my energy?” The end of her hockey career came as no surprise. As a Division III women’s hockey player, the prospects of continuing her athletic career were dismal. She'd be kidding herself if she didn’t plan for things to come. However, dealing with the change in real time can be equally challenging for everyone. Whether you're an NHL star or a college hockey player, the alarm clock of your career is waiting to go off. There is no snooze button. It’s a challenge to deal with.  

Between her graduation at St. Olaf and her current position at Waggle, Caroline’s career took several stops. With strong writing skills, propensity for creativity, and a preference for team-based work, Caroline figured sales & marketing was a viable path to start down. Immediately out of school, Ponessa took a sales job with Jack Links (yes, the beef jerky), followed by a social media position withVisit Saint. Paul[1] , and then adding one more pit stop in the form of a marketing role with industrial safety company, Ergodyne. What appears to be a smattering of random job stops is actually a compounding of unique experiences that helped build her skillset today. Caroline reflected on each stop, flagging the specific tools she gained with each experience:

  • Jack Links – Caroline recognized that devoting energy to the entry-level sales role was a necessary step to build towards pursuing a creative marketing position she was more passionate about. She honed grit and perseverance while building client sales skills. 
  • Visit Saint Paul –Ponessa dives into social media marketing as a professional for the first time, while getting her first real taste of product responsibility and ownership. She becomes a leader on the small marketing team. The experiences and skills learned are an obvious carryover to her current role.
  • Ergodyne - In Caroline’s words, “Ironically I learned a lot about creative writing and copy at the industrial company.” I concur, you have to be pretty creative to make industrial safety manuals compelling. She also flags her former boss at Ergodyne as an influential teacher and mentor.

Whether the exact skills and experiences gained were intentional or not is not really the point. Some of the benefits of each position likely came subliminally and in hindsight to Caroline, I’m sure. Careers are not a straight line. Be prepared for a hilly path, but be like Caroline and choose a path, especially one where you collect diverse experiences and skills that can propel you to an even better career position. 


In previous newsletters, I’ve often cited the concept of ‘Breadcrumbs’-- a trail of work that people can follow to get a better understanding of you. Develop breadcrumbs to demonstrate interests, depth of thinking, and how you think. It’s beneficial for other people to better handicap you and your value-add, but also instructive for yourself to sharpen skills and explore interests. Caroline fits the concept perfectly. 

Senior Year Video - Hyper aware of the finality of hockey, during her senior year Caroline created a documentary, Endgame. The documentary explores the experience of DIII athletes, especially when you know the end is lurking. First, who knew the documentary Caroline created 8 years ago would align so well with Pivot? More importantly, Caroline was creating a breadcrumb, a pretty vulnerable one at that. Hypothetically, the end product was something that she could show any prospective employer. Would you prefer the job candidate who wrote, edited, and produced an entire documentary under their own volition or the other person? It’s something tangible to bring to the table, when maybe you are light on direct professional experience. Additionally, she was sharpening her creative skills and learning about her own interests along the way.

Personal Blog - Stuck inside with not much going on, like the rest of us, Caroline continued penning her blog on Medium during the pandemic. The success of the blog is not the point. Writing is like shooting pucks. If you want to get better at it, you need reps. Caroline was getting better, even if it was just something to pass the time during Covid. As someone who is writing more now, I can imagine she gained clarity of thought and improved her critical thinking along the way. If you want to be a writer go write. The blog is totally something Caroline could show to a prospective employer demonstrating tangibly how she thinks, what kind of person she is, and interests she holds. 

Blade Hockey Social Media - Caroline’s cousin, Travis Baker, started a hockey stick company.He needed someone to run the social media. While working at Jack Links full-time, Caroline knew she needed side hustles to build a marketing portfolio, so she approached Baker about running the account. Caroline took the social media reins for several months. Regardless of the viability of the entity, Caroline got the reps of running an entire social media account, which could only help her at the Visit Saint Paul experience and eventually Waggle. It’s easily a bullet point on the resume, a display of proof of work, and a breadcrumb she is leaving down her professional trail. The Blade Hockey experience is more interesting though. The same cousin that started Blade started Waggle. Caroline teamed up with Baker years later becoming the 4th Waggle hire and eventually the head of their marketing efforts. The social media endeavors at Blade were very real breadcrumbs parlayed into her position today. 


That brings us to Waggle. Waggle’s founder, Travis Baker, who is also a hockey player, having skated for the University of Thomas, was working a corporate job when he attended a Jimmy Buffett concert with friends. If you attended a Buffett concert, you were likely dressed like the other Parrotheads in bright Hawaiian shirts, funky patterns, and tropical wear. “Why isn’t this same vibe brought to the golf course?” Baker thought. And the idea for Waggle spawned.  

Today, Waggle represents the rise of new age golf attire. Less white lace, country club appeal and more of a unique, fun, “I’m here to have a good time” approach. Aptly named for the golfer's pre-swing club head routine, Waggle continues to grow, building off its online presence with one retail store in Dallas, Texas. Underpinning the golf company are its deep roots in hockey. Being a Minnesota company, much of the team has direct experience in the game, Baker and Ponessa as prime examples.

 Catching my eye recently was Waggle’s crossover marketing campaign with some of the NHL’s current and future young stars that was spearheaded by Caroline. Waggle wanted to partner with athletes in other sports to build a crossover following. The original pursuit of an athlete started with big name Minnesota Vikings players in mind. Ponessa got a crash course in athlete sponsorships, including cost, contract structures, and the agent world. With this being Waggle’s first endeavor down the athlete path, Ponessa opted to scale down the athlete spectrum for budding stars, as opposed to proven veterans.  

That’s when Caroline fell back on her hockey roots, randomly contacting hockey agents, taking inventory of potential partners. Caroline found a partner in Bartlett Hockey, linking up with Brian and Steve Bartlett, and originally targeting NHL clients that would fit the golf/hockey crossover that Waggle aimed to appeal to. Without a concrete concept for the marketing campaign fleshed out yet, Bartlett suggested trialing the concept with some of his young star clients– Brock Faber, Logan Cooley, Isaac Howard, and Cole Eiserman.  

Caroline heeded Bartlett’s advice, at least knowing the campaign would be successful in Minnesota given the connections. Brock Faber, after a stellar career with the Minnesota Gophers was set to jump to the NHL with the Minnesota Wild. Logan Cooley, the third overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft, was slated to return to the University of Minnesota to chase down a national championship. Lightning prospect, Isaac Howard, was returning for his sophomore campaign in Duluth with the Bulldogs. Cole Eiserman, who is one of the top prospects for the 2024 draft, was committed to join the Gophers in Minneapolis next season. Then over one summer, the Minnesota-centric campaign blew up with Cooley jumping to the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes, Howard transferring to Michigan State, and Eiserman opting to change his commitment to Boston University, leaving Faber as the last man standing in Minnesota.  

However, Ponessa rolled with it, working hand-and-hand with Bartlett on arranging the campaign. Drawing inspiration from Spittin ChicletsSandbagger videos, the original marketing campaign agreement was for a full day of shooting video content on the golf course and additional social media posts, in exchange for a financial payment, split into an upfront and a final payment.  

Caroline quickly pivoted though. Coordinating a small group in various cities across the country was different than working with a single player. She started to worry the campaign could come across as clunky or unauthentic. To brainstorm new golf hat designs, Waggle held employee design contests. That’s when Caroline thought she could bring the same design concept to the young players, in replace of the current arrangement.  

Ponessa told the players to think of two concepts for a hat idea–images, ideas, colors, anything. Waggle gave them access to a shared drive with color schemes and images to use as inspiration and jumped on video calls with the players to help them iron out each of their designed hats. Growing up with golden retrievers, Faber opted for the dog on his hat. Cooley knew he wanted something Irish on the front of his cap. Howard was the most specific of the bunch, knowing the exact colors and an ice cream cone logo for his nickname “Iceman.”Eiserman had a few solid ideas and ideated with Brian and Steve to land on the red and black goal light concept[7] . The four hat designs combined for Waggle’s Limited-Edition Hockey Hats that are marketed across social media platforms and the Waggle website

The campaign is a huge success. Despite the shake-up over summer, sticking with the young stars paid dividends for Waggle. Isaac “the Iceman” Howard’s hat sold out first on the back of his huge World Junior tournament, helping Team USA win gold. There’s no doubt Howard has the game and the personality to be a great brand partner. The first glimpse I got of his spunk was his interview after being selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the 31st overall pick. Flare, confidence, some snark, and an equally impressive hockey skill set. That will attract fans and eyeballs, ultimately getting you paid off the ice. To see confidence out of a young player like this is refreshing and often is beaten out of them by the game. The sprinkle of personality clearly translates into hat sales for Waggle. 

Brock Faber is having a Calder Trophy worthy campaign on defense for the Minnesota Wild and is already playing his way into Team USA conversations for future best-on-best international tournaments. His on-ice success directly translated into fan appeal with his golden retriever hat selling out on Waggle shelves. Ponessa still believes they have some star power left with Cooley, who is a future NHL highlight reel waiting to happen and the young Eiserman, who hasn’t even played a game of college hockey yet. 

Based on Waggle’s social media analytics, the marketing campaign is particularly successful among the young male demographic, high school boys, in particular. This is no surprise as teenage boys already idolize the slightly older hockey stars and consume their hockey content on social media. Caroline knows the company needs to spread their marketing wings beyond hockey, but the overlap with hockey and the partnership created with the young players was a resounding success for a first-time athlete marketing campaign. 

Ponessa points to a couple other factors leading to the successful campaign. One, it’s super important to have good partners that are willing to work together. Waggle found that with Bartlett Hockey. Caroline suggests that if the partnering agency operated in a rigid, abrasive manner, she likely would not have been able to pivot the campaign and original agreement. Instead, Bartlett was willing to work to achieve success for all parties, along with provide the contractual expertise to guide the negotiations. Ponessa and Waggle feel fortunate to find Bartlett Hockey and believe they have a direct pipeline to future partnerships with their stable of clients. 

Second, Caroline knew successful marketing campaigns have to be authentic. The death of marketing is a forced, stuffy, marketing effort. Through experiences at prior positions and her creative talent, she was able to bring an original marketing concept that promoted player participation and shared glimpses of player personalities with fans. 

It’s no surprise Caroline finds herself leading a growing sports apparel brand, but the end goal was anything but clear along the journey. Even in her current position, Caroline wears many hats (no pun intended!). She’s played the part of lawyer, learning legalese and contract structure, while also playing project manager and now managing a team of people. All skills that will continue to compound her career. 

Caroline Ponessa - Waggle Golf | LinkedIn

We thank Caroline for sharing insight on her personal journey and her experience at Waggle. She’s an example of a successful pivot out of the game that anyone can learn from, while also detailing a real example of how hockey players can partner with brands successfully.

Game Notes

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