On episode 233 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Cody Sharrett, Social Media Manager for US Soccer and the World Cup social media strategy. We also discuss Cody’s work with multiple NBA teams, the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, and the Columbus Crew (MLS).
What was your favorite team growing up? Regardless of sport or league, which team captured the heart of your 9-year-old self?
It’s likely that that favorite team came from a parent or sibling passing it on and/or from the local team that everybody favored in your town. But here’s the thing about soccer in the US — millennials and the generations preceding them didn’t really have much of a favorite American soccer club (Major League Soccer will turn 30 years old in 2023). So if you’re a soccer fan growing up in the States, particularly pre or early-world wide web, your favorite team was kind of random. It’s no wonder MLS has been battling uphill to win lifelong fans and broad relevancy. Kyle Sheldon, who has spent years working in pro soccer in the US, including stints with four MLS clubs, recognizes the challenge pro soccer clubs in the US face.
“I’ve seen data over my career that soccer fans in the US are more likely to have multiple teams that they follow than just about anywhere else in the world, which makes sense when you think about it,” said Sheldon, who is founder and CEO of soccer-specific marketing and creative agency NAME & NUMBER. “It’s a dynamic country with people from all different backgrounds, and you’ve got really kind of first-generation soccer fans in a lot of cases who are discovering the sport and their attachment to a particular team varies pretty wildly.”
Without such inherent or inherited fandom, MLS clubs had to act a bit more like minor league teams in the earlier days, focusing on affordable family entertainment than a beacon of the collective will and inborn identity of the community. But as younger millennials grew up and Gen Z came along, MLS teams have, for the first time for many of them, been able to aspire to more coveted demographics. They could earn a spot in the local zeitgeist alongside the other most popular, more deeply rooted teams for American sports fans. Sheldon noticed this evolution for soccer marketing in the States, especially with the newest clubs borne in the last few years. It’s a watershed development and one that many MLS clubs can follow.
“You started to see a different type of person attend those games and there was a different connection in the city, in the community that just indicated a different opportunity,” said Sheldon, describing the new type of fan being marketed to and won over in MLS that newer clubs targeted. “I think those were really eye-opening moments for people around the league, and a lot of teams are still frankly trying to capture it…
“Then as you sort of fast forward and you look at — I think it’s a more subtle shift, but you see Atlanta and Minnesota and LAFC and more recently Austin FC have come into the league and these teams are very culture-focused, they’re value-focused, they’re community-focused…”
Sheldon double-clicked into the importance of penetrating community and culture, alluding to LAFC’s success in doing so. “‘Plug into culture before you plug into soccer,’” said Sheldon, quoting LAFC’s Chief Brand Officer Richard Orosco. “I think that’s a good recipe for anyone. You’re a team and a club that’s representative of a very specific place, and that very specific place has cultural connection points. It has its own creative, community, it has music and design, and just a lifestyle that’s really specific to that space.”
It is a tall task to earn acceptance, let alone embrace, into the community. To try and be universally beloved in year one is a foolhardy task. And soccer is different, anyway. The most ardent soccer fandoms are just that: fervent, passionate, whatever intense emotion you want to insert. That’s what markets the product (games to attend and watch) better than any messaging about affordable family entertainment — and, as Sheldon called out — MLS clubs mostly can’t market that their league displays the best soccer players in the world, because they don’t. The experience has to sell, Sheldon told me, and clubs need to build that into their overall strategy.
“MLS has never really had the ability to say come watch the best soccer players in the world, so the experience and the supporters experience in particular is the differentiator for sports viewing or attendance in this country. [But that experience] just doesn’t exist [Sheldon did name a few MLS clubs that are exceptions…
“There’s nothing like [the European experience]. There’s nothing like the 90 minutes of singing, chanting, drum beating, just raucous atmosphere…I think it has to start with growing supporters culture because that’s the differentiator,” said Sheldon, describing the superfan clubs that do all that chanting and drum beating. “And naturally, if you create something that is experiential, that is raucous, that is interesting to watch, that is enjoyable to participate in, then other people will come, I think, because of that experience.”
So all you need is a sizable group of die-hard fans that love the club so much that they’ll sing and cheer for 90 minutes straight at every home match. Sounds easy, eh? Creating and building upon such a fan base cannot happen overnight, kind of by design. Teams have to build credibility and consistency; fans can’t wrap their arms and hearts around something unfamiliar. Sheldon spoke first and foremost about teams committing to a north star identity, and then ingratiating that brand into the community. Not every potential fan will respond to the same approach, but that’s okay (consider your own personality and how you activate it differently around different people).
“I believe in ultimately kind of segmenting your fan base in different ways so that you’re creating content for each. The number of entry points to fandom is vast,” said Sheldon, whose NAME & NUMBER works to help brands and teams in soccer with marketing and creative. “There are a lot of ways people get connected to a club and to an experience. You can’t do it all, especially in a league where there still are limited resources. But to be thoughtful about that and ultimately to ensure you have the right guiding principles as to who you say you are and what your brand is and what you stand for is really what’s most important.”
Sheldon spoke further of earning credibility as a member of the community. Because MLS teams have to succeed locally, first, he said. It’s great to have fans in Panama that love your club’s Panamanian player, but they’re a luxury; the hundreds or thousands of fans chanting at your games and evangelizing your team are the essential.
“I think the starting point has to be hyper-local,” he explained. “It comes back to how do you plug into civic pride? How do you plug into the local culture? How do you plug into the local creative community? What’s the hole-in-the-wall taco joint down the street that everybody in the neighborhood knows? How do you connect to them?…
“How do you connect to culture in such a way that it communicates ‘We know this place and we are a part of this place?’…I think that’s the starting point for sports marketing today. But yes, you have to be relevant locally before you can be globally.”
Domestic professional soccer continues to face those generational challenges, but it’s already growing year-to-year and the much-anticipated World Cup in 2026 promises to throw rocket fuel into that growth. The vision of hordes of casual fans coming is seductive, to be sure, but don’t forget that the most important part of building anything lasting is establishing the foundation.
On episode 232 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Kyle Sheldon, Founder and CEO of NAME & NUMBER, soccer-specific marketing and creative agency, and former brand and marketing senior exec for the Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire, to go with experience we discuss at DC United and NASCAR.
Listen to episode 232 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Kyle Sheldon, Founder and CEO of NAME & NUMBER, soccer-specific marketing and creative agency, and former brand and marketing senior exec for the Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire, to go with experience we discuss at DC United and NASCAR.
Take a close look at the fans in the stands at the next NFL game in the UK. Or the next exhibition match of Premier League teams in the US. Or when there’s an NBA game in Mexico. What you’ll notice is a virtual rainbow of team jerseys—fans representing a variety of teams from the league or even the sport at large.
They may not be watching their favorite team, but they look to their left and right and recognize they’re in a special club, and they finally have an opportunity to congregate with fellow club members. They may not cheer for the same team, but there’s a sense of unity, still, as fans of the league or sport in a country where such fans are in the minority for now. These are revelations that Harry McIntire has witnessed throughout his career, building up fan bases where they largely didn’t exist before. And yet something magical happens when fans recognize a familiar peer, even if they’re wearing a different club’s crest.
“There is this natural commonality and this bond of being a fan of the sport or the league in particular,” said McIntire, who is the Director of Digital and renowned agency SPORTFIVE. “I think the perfect representation of what this is in America is the Premier League Fan Fest…
“There is this interesting bond that forms as a soccer fan (in the US) because you’re a fan of the same sport that is a bit niche still, and you can have this kind of a natural commonality of having to search hard to find all the best information on your favorite team or see what all the transfer rumors are because…you’re not getting it on all these traditional outlets in the same way you’re getting after the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and so on…”
But cultivating a fanbase of a minority sport isn’t just about connecting existing fans, it’s about developing new ones to join the fold, too. The goal is not to have the sport or team or league remain underground, but to find ways to bring more fans in and foster an ever-growing fanbase to blossom. And just like there are these intersections of commonality among the existing ‘punk rock’ fans, there are points of intersection where future potential fans can find their way onto the path to fandom.
McIntire gave a poignant example of US Soccer star — who plays for Premier League team, Chelsea — Christian Pulisic, who also happens to be a New York Jets fan.
“So when [SPORTFIVE] helps the New York Jets internationalize to the UK market, as they were one of the winners of the [NFL’s international marketing rights for the UK], one of the first things we tried to do was work with Christian [Pulisic],” McIntire explained.
“It was a no-brainer…Now we can work with him to try and communicate the message of the NFL game of what the Jets are in that market and have this soft entry in to potential fans.”
Pulisic is not just a potential familiar face to drive fans to sample the NFL, he represents an opportunity for American sports fans to find a familiar face, a point of intersection with the English Premier League and the sport of footba — I mean, soccer, at large. International players are a meaningful entry point for sports fans in countries abroad to fall in love with the team, the sport or both.
Think about how many South Korean sports fans love Tottenham and the EPL because native son Son Heung-min is among their top players. Or why so many sports fans in China started watching the NBA when Yao Ming burst onto the scene, many of them becoming Houston Rockets fans (though the passion of Chinese fans for Kobe Bryant is incredible, too). For teams hoping to build an international fan base, activating around a native son can be a powerful arrow in the quiver. But it can’t be everything; it’s a foot in the door, but the goal is to develop fans that fall in love with the entire team.
“Fans are smart. They do research on their own because they’re just excited and interested in the club,” said McIntire, discussing SPORTFIVE’s work with German top-tier club Borussia Dortmund (aka BVB). “If we were marketing to the US market by just putting (American player) Gio Reyna in every single place possible, we’d be missing the boat because there are people who became fans of the club because of Gio or because of [former Borussia Dortmund player] Christian [Pulisic]. But at the same time, they’re now BVB fans…
“So yes, the player might be a vehicle at the beginning to try and get someone excited about a club, but it’s not the end goal. The end goal is how you turn into a fan of the club itself.”
Look, it is different for fans that live in the club’s home area. They are surrounded by a town full of fans of the same team, they can go to the historic grounds and see the team in person, and they can see the organization and its activity in the surrounding community. But just because it’s different that doesn’t mean fans around the world aren’t significant and can’t be just as passionate and dedicated. It’s just different.
But there’s something that’s common to pretty much any and all sports fans — they want to know the club sees them. That they matter and that the club will engage and serve them just as they do for those back home.
“[Making] a fan feel appreciated is always the goal. Because people wanna be heard…” McIntire said, discussing his work developing international fans through a localization strategy. “[These teams] are cultural representations of the local identity.”
There’s a magical point on the fandom path at which the team or league becomes part of one’s identity. It doesn’t happen overnight, nothing truly significant does, but each impression, feeling, touch, and tweet accumulates. There is no magic pill that makes a fan a fan, let alone a fan for life. It’s all of what was discussed in this article — and then some. The way McIntire put it, the strategy is like stacking a lot of pebbles, with the occasional boulder of a tentpole event or mass-gathering, to construct fandom.
“When I think about social, it’s like that daily grind, that pebble, if you will, that’s just building up and you just gotta keep doing it day after day after day,” said McIntire. “You know, you’re looking six months from now, you’re gonna be so impressed that you built a mountain of pebbles, but you shouldn’t forget you can have those tentpole moments where you can build a mountain purely by doing something amazing and massive…
“So just creating those tentpole moments that can collaborate with those pebble ones, so pebbles vs. boulders in a way, allows it all to synchronize together.”
There are reasons that sports fandom conjures up some of the most intense emotions humans can feel. There’s a sense of identity, unity, family, and appreciation. And there’s a powerful synergy when that all comes together, an everlasting flame of fandom alights, burning for generations to come.
On episode 231 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Harry McIntire, Director of Digital for SPORTFIVE (agency that works with the biggest sports teams and brands in the world helping with globalization, fan engagement, sponsorship, and more).
We’re in the remix era of social media. Trends, memes, duets, reactions — a powerful seed of content begets a tree, which can turn into a forest. Content snowballs, with creators from across the world, in different communities, and from various subcultures, with original POVs, adding their unique take. No snowflake is alike, to complete the analogy, and AI-infused feeds seek to deliver the precise snowflake that’s perfect for you, the content that seems targeted to an audience of one — you.
So what’s a media behemoth, a decades-old brand like ESPN to do in this space, where they’re one of many voices on social, working with the same sports content and stories everybody else is? There’s no easy answer, but in many ways ESPN is spreading and discovering seeds, helping plant the trees across an array of diverse sports fan communities. I loved the way ESPN’s Senior Vice President, Original Content & ESPN Films Brian Lockhart put it on a panel at the ESPN Edge Conference [click to watch] in October 2022.
“How do we open source [a] story,?” he said. “Maybe deliver this to a different partner that has an authentic voice on a different platform. “That same piece of IP can have new life breathed into it and hit different for different audiences.”
For much of social media, user-generated content provides a lot of seeds. Whether it’s home videos, serendipitous discoveries of content, memes, and everything in between — fans are planting seeds all over. ESPN Vice President of Social Media Kaitee Daley applied a perspective related to Lockhart’s ‘open source’ idea in describing how they activate user-generated content and inviting diverse voices to put their spin on it.
“Nearly half of all media consumed is user-generated media,” Daley said. “This notion of someone down the street from me went and filmed their kid doing something incredible in the backyard and that’s going to perform as well on our channels as a really well-done highlight. When you think about how we approach that, sometimes I think people go ’Well that’s not innovative at all because anyone can do it.
“But what we’ve started to do on TikTok in particular is bring voices like Omar Raja to those moments. So we’re storytelling user-generated content in a different way and it’s made for that audience. They consume and they think ‘this is for me’ And that speaks to that inclusivity as well.”
So, yes, create your content and serve your fans. But also invite others to build off the content you produce or curate. When platforms like TikTok strive to deliver the exact right content to the tiny, exact cohort of users for which that video is a perfect match — trying to be everything to everyone is a losing battle by design. There are too many segments and sub-segments, communities, and sub-cultures — the forest is appreciated for its trees.
That’s one of my own key takeaways from hearing the insightful conversation on the ESPN Edge Conference panel.
Listen to episode 231 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Harry McIntire, Director, Digital for SPORTFIVE (global agency working with sports teams, media, brands, and a leader in helping sports organizations and partners globalize their brand).
TikTok has disrupted social media strategy for everybody.
Because anybody can go viral, every account is on a treadmill chasing that next big hit. The next video that’ll rack up hundreds of thousands or millions of views and engagements and capture the attention of lots of…people. It may not be entirely clear what it means when a post goes viral on TikTok, but the most strategically savvy brands, teams, and organizations have a strategic foundation for all their content — ensuring that virality has value.
The millions of fans that discover The Savannah Bananas on TikTok may not have a favorite MLB team, let alone know much about baseball at all. But with over 3.5 million followers on the platform, the Bananas know that every encounter is a chance to execute against their core mission to proselytize the sport; in brief, to spread the joy and the game of baseball.
“We have the sole goal to make baseball fun,” said Savanah Alaniz, Marketing Coordinator for The Savannah Bananas. “So anything that we do or post, we think how is this going to show making baseball fun?
“When I post something on TikTok, I hope that whenever anyone sees it that they think it’s so intriguing that they have to do exactly what I did the first time I saw the Bananas — they have to go to the account and see more and all the other things they see make them laugh and then make them wanna show their roommate or their sister or brother, dad — like, ‘Oh my gosh, look what this baseball team did.’…
“My hope is that we post something that just pulls you in, even if it’s not all the way, but pulls you in just enough to where you have to [wonder] what the heck is this?”
TikTok may be that first touchpoint for many fans. That first engagement or encounter may not lead to a purchase, let alone a lifetime of fandom — that shouldn’t be the goal, really. As Alaniz noted, it’s to pique that curiosity, get them to want to see and learn more. And the more they see, the closer the Bananas get to accomplishing their goals of propagating the joy of baseball and positioning the Bananas as the beacon for that message.
Social media was never about driving a sale. A ‘conversion’ on social media can mean a lot of things. And as exciting as it can be for Instagram Stories to add swipe-up links or for TikTok to try and sell tickets, we know better. Rather than chase the fraction of a percent that may click through, let alone complete a purchase, focus on the most powerful part of social media — giving friends or a community something to talk about. When content cuts through, the fans become the marketers, and the invaluable pathways of dark social take over — and the brand comes along for the ride as the purveyor of that social capital. In the global ecosystem of social media and digital-first (or even digital-only) fandom, being a ‘fan’ can mean a lot of things. It becomes even more clear to hear Alaniz tell it.
“We want the Bananas to be global,” she said. “We want every single person to know the brand. So whenever you’re walking on the street and you see an LA Dodgers cap, like you’re gonna recognize the logo immediately. [We want the Bananas] to be like that…just to be super popular. [Fans] may not be able to attend the game, yes, but they can share the video online with their TikTok or online with their friend. Then maybe that person is in a city that we’re touring to and then they can go attend a game where they like the team, they can buy merchandise…”
What’s the ROI of a smile? It’s difficult to say, of course, but we know a smile is a win on social. Smiles add up and smiles can help form a positive relationship with a brand or a sport or a person. The Bananas know that every smile conjured by baseball gets those viewers closer to recognizing the joy that baseball brings. So, in many ways, the Bananas are building fans and celebrating metrics, sure, but they’re also just chasing smiles.
“How can we reach a new audience of not only ticket buyers, but just people in general, baseball fans and non-baseball fans to be like, ‘Hey, baseball is cool, baseball is fun’,” said Alaniz, who has been with the Bananas since 2020. “We love the sport, we want it to keep growing, and bringing joy to people and reaching people that baseball wasn’t able to reach before.
“So I think that’s the big goal is to continue making baseball fun and then obviously we want everybody to know about the Bananas. They should. It brings a smile to your face.”
Just watch any Savannah Bananas video or even the ESPN+ series ‘Welcome to Bananaland’ and you’ll see the fun and novelty of the team. But TikTok is a heck of a beast to tame and once you think you understand it, something unexpected takes off while the thing you expected to perform well falls flat instead. Video trends or trending sounds can feel like the way to go, oftentimes, but it’s what you do with the trends that determines whether it leaves a lasting impact on the viewer. Something resonates beyond just another iteration of the trend they’ve seen throughout the scroll. I love the way Alaniz put it when describing how the Bananas approach TikTok trends, inventing the word ‘Bananafy.’
“We have a meeting every single day at 4:00 where we talk about what are two trends that we saw last night while we were scrolling TikTok in bed and how can we ‘Bananafy’ those trends?…”I think if you scroll our content, you’ll find a way that, yes, we completely gave in to a TikTok trend and we did it on the mound or something. Like, we just did the trend because we knew it needed to be done; the people wanted it so we gave it to them…”
But Alaniz continued, talking about what it means for the Bananas to ‘create’ a trend. The success of said trend is not necessarily going viral on TikTok with hundreds or thousands of imitators. Sometimes the best sign of success is videos of Little League parents showing off their kids having fun on the baseball field recreating something they saw the Bananas do.
“[We try] these weird things that have never been seen before in a baseball field [and] Little Leaguers are trying to do it. I think that’s pretty cool,” said Alaniz, who is still a kid herself, almost, having just graduated from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in 2022. “Will we ever start a super crazy viral trend like Charli D’ Amelio and Addison Rae? Probably not. But the Little Leaguers see it and that’s pretty cool.
“I think that’s more important than the masses.”
The Bananas are reaching generations of fans that didn’t know you could have so much fun by breaking the rules. Or creating new rules. If spreading the joy of baseball is the Bananas’ core belief, a key tenet of the doctrine is to err on the side of trying something new. Call it defiant innovation, naive exuberance, and not so much a rejection of the status quo but the absence of unconditional reverence for it — that is what has helped guide the Bananas to such massive success on the field, in business, and on social media. Alaniz feels that encouragement to take swings (to borrow baseball parlance) and it comes directly from the top in Bananas owner Jesse Cole.
“Typically you don’t have owners of teams telling you ‘Hey, break the rules, do this crazy thing. You see the line, now go a mile past it,’” she said. “You don’t have team owners selling you that. But Jesse gives you the confidence that you can do that, and it’s okay to fail at the Bananas because if you don’t fail a couple of times how are you gonna know what works and what doesn’t?”
It’s time to redefine what success means in social media strategy. To chase goals bigger than virality. To reframe failure as a pit stop and not a dead end. And to focus on the feelings and storytelling we want to inspire more than the metric. Because if you’re having fun along the way and leaving every fan with a smile, nobody will even care to remember the score anyway.
Bonus: Because Savanah and the Bananas have crushed it so much on TikTok, I wanted to include her going into detail about their TikTok and social media ideation and execution strategy:
“[It’s] definitely a lot of scrolling. I call that my research. I do spend a certain amount, anywhere from like 15 to 20 minutes [or more] depending on what I have for the day. Just minutes of my day scrolling, seeing what people are saying on Twitter about certain things, or TikTok — what are the sounds that people are using? Or Facebook even, like, what are the PTA moms up to these days?
“So then I kind of figure out, alright, this is what the people are talking about. So I have a long-running list; I have a note in my phone and then I also have an Excel sheet, and then also I bookmark a lot of tweets. I bookmark a lot of TikToks to go back to, but I typically add links in my notes, and then I’ll add like a little note under there of just what I’m thinking of. Normally when I see a trend, I think in that moment, like, ‘Oh, this is what I wanna do.’ So like I said earlier, Caitlin and I have this 4:00 meeting every single day where we talk about what are two trends that we saw yesterday. That way we constantly know that we’re growing and learning new things. And half of these, more than half of these — 75% of them will never see the light of day. It’s just we wanna keep that creative muscle in our brains working and thinking of ways to Banana-fy trends or think of new trends.
“There have been times where I’ve just like sat and stared at the wall and kind of hoped that an idea would come to me and, like, it doesn’t really work. I would rather scroll. But yeah, there have been a couple times where I’ve just had to like sit and look at the sky and kind of wait for something to come to me. We also have ideas sessions. So that is where our team gets together, we’re told topics beforehand and we think in these buckets and these categories of trying to think of, like, hitter walkups that are unique or run celebrations, for example.
“So we’re constantly around here thinking of new ideas and working that idea muscle.”