5 Lessons from Coby Rich on his time running SMSports for the Arizona Cardinals

The National Football League (NFL) has some of the strongest brand power among all business in the US. With that, there is great opportunity for individual teams to reach millions of fans, with frequency, and, even more, to engage and activate them.

But change, in any industry, can be tough and gradual. The first step, naturally, is to be open to innovation and evaluate where processes and outcomes, and…whatever KPI’s can be improved. And a little pressure from peers never hurts, either. When Coby Rich arrived with the Arizona Cardinals, their position with digital and social engagement in the NFL rankings was on the lower end.

Rich helped oversee a vast improvement and enhancement in growing a bigger and more engaged fan community. Here are a few lessons from my chat with him on how they did it.


  1. It starts with content

    If reach and engagement isn’t consistent, or where it could or should be, the first thing to evaluate is the content. The presentation of it, the data behind it, and the proportion of payoff to investment of time and resources. If there is any unease in the importance of driving good content, there’s nothing like some data and FOMO and ego.

    “I knew I could immediately change the content side of things,” said Rich of one of the first steps taken with the team. “So we started doing things differently after those [NFL rankings] numbers were flashed on the screen that first year.”

  2. Getting effective and efficient with content 

    The NFL teams have new games just once per week, which makes for a unique array of content delivery and fan segments. It came down to studying and noting the different types of content fans want to consume and the varied manners of consumption among groups of fans.“Our video content was about ‘Let’s segment these and give fans more…’,” said Rich.

    A Sunday binge is no good no matter what you’re binge-ing on. So, while Cardinals fans indeed feasted on NFL Sundays, Rich and his team saw fit to keep them fed with snacks every day. Fans go through dozens or hundreds of micro-engagements every day, so keeping a frequent, endless scroll and ample supply of quality content is key.

  3. Build Relationships 

    In any pro, major, or minor league sport, forming genuine relationships with the athletes is integral to creating good content. Sure, it’s easier said than done, but transparency is the place to start. Help tell their stories and build their brand, celebrate with them, share the fan love with them, and gain trust. Earn the access and relationships, the kind of which may not be available to the beat reporters.

“Our digital broadcast team has a great rapport with several of the players,” described Rich. “There is a great comfortability we have (with the players)…we know who our superstars are, so we definitely utilize those guys.”

Personalities can be cultivated as the extroverts and proactive players come out, while stories can be told fans never knew about. The end result is better content, more emotionally involved and connected fans, and a better experience for all.


4. Mind the Mobile Fan

The biggest lesson here is to think like a fan. They’re constantly interacting with their mobile device, whether answering messages, searching for primary or secondary content, or perusing social networks and apps. Most teams and brands, nowadays, err on the side of mobile, knowing that delivering a good experience on the medium that is growing more and more is paramount.

“You have to think mobile first. Your video should be short, quick-hitting, thought-provoking, engaging…but definitely mobile-first.”

There is the additional insight into mobile – the quick consumption. Enjoy, move on to the next piece of content or, boom, your Starbucks order is ready. The mobile fan likes content they can enjoy on the small screen and, likely, share it if it is great! Think like a fan and always mind mobile, first.


5. Earn the right to market to fans

I borrowed the phrase “earn the right to market to fans” from former Direct or of Digital or the Tampa Bay Lightning James Royer, who now leads the digital efforts for the Kansas City Chiefs (yeah, the guy knows what he’s doing). It’s A Vaynerchuk-ian philosophy, but it’s even more powerful in sports.

The content isn’t about solving business problems or answering major, significant questions. It’s delivering upon our favorites pastimes, the things we choose to consume and follow and discuss in our so-called leisure time. When you start to look forward to messaging and interactions with the team, anything marketing or branded can and does feel that much more genuine, accepted, and effective.

“If the content is strong and the copy around it, you can balance (organic and promotional…,” explained Rich. “I’m going to (put in) the marketing stuff you have to do, but keep it engaging.'”

If your social media starts to look like just a billboard of the latest and greatest promotions and news, it’s not exactly cultivating a community.


The principles embraced by the Arizona Cardinals in their digital and social transformation and enhancement each hold significance in this world of social and interactive communication and delivery of (all kinds) of content. The more ans feel connected and delighted, the better for everyone and everything. When that becomes actionable and not just abstract, that’s a touchdown all the way.

Reminder, you can listen to my interview with Coby Rich here and see the summary deck here.

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