7 Lessons from the Sports Business Journal Intersport Brand Engagement Summit

The first week of June culminated with the Sports Business Journal Intersport Brand Engagement Summit. Several leaders and corporate partners in the sports industry spoke on several areas in the world of fan engagement, discussing authenticity, content, strategy, and more. Here are 7 lessons I gleaned from this year’s summit (see the full recap here).

  1. The Value of Audience and Data

Particularly in sports, as KORE Software’s Russell Scibetti pointed, fans are more willing to give their data for experiences, offers, and content. Now more than ever the value of  consumer data is taking higher priority in all organizations. The better the collecting and analysis of the data, the better one can know and target their audience.

Marketers are out to learn more about fans, to segment and personalize communication with them. And, increasingly so, segment and personalize the content provided to them.

“Premium content has shifted to being defined by performance and audience,” said Shannon Dan, of Intersport.

The talk at the summit was about moving away from eyeballs and moving more toward audience and engagement. This is a very much a concern for corporate partners, too, who want to know they’re spending to reach current and potential customers. All that is a long-winded way of saying, data is the new oil (to paraphrase a quote from Kevin Plank, CEO and founder of Under Armour).”

Higinio O. Maycotte, CEO of Umbel, echoed that sentiment, declaring: “There is no question that in five to ten years, data will be your most valuable asset.”

Sports teams, and their frequent and passion-infused engagement with fans, delivers data in droves. But it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality and useability.

2) Winning with audience, small data

“Analytics is driving better decisions. The days of going a mile wide and an inch deep are past.” – David Wright, MiLB

No one brags about who has the most terabytes store in the data warehouse (at least, I don’t think so) and sports business leaders tended to agree that successful decisions campaigns from efficient use of data were more exciting than a sea of info with no insights. Analytics isn’t just data, it’s data that can be analyzed to become actionable.

I loved the fair warning from Scibetti, who works with several sports clients for KORE Software: “Big data can get you in trouble – you don’t need to use all your data just because you have it.”

Small data, small segments, and small solutions can add up to big, more predictable, more efficient results. We talk all the time about using data to identify problems and to find answers. This was a sentiment echoed at the summit, but in the most pragmatic of terms.

“If data is telling you one thing, but your gut is telling you another, that’s an insight.” said Matthew McCarthy, of Unilever.

This is how big business leaders are embracing analytics to make they are steering the ship in the right direction. It operates even better when each cog of the organization utilizes small data that scale to bigger success.

3) Audience-focused strategies

Marketers in sports are always looking to reach those few hundred or thousand fans to fill up the arena or stadium, often at the expense of those fans already dedicated. There was a stunning stat shared from Starwood Resorts:2% of their guests generate 30% of their profit.


By focusing strategy on driving deep loyalty, on growing the number of super-fans like those that comprise that 2%, they’re putting time and resources into augmenting a winning formula.

That doesn’t mean you forget about the fringe fans. It just means you take more care to not treat all fans the same — in communication, in marketing, and with content. The concept of finding various “ports in the storm” was a nice analogy to underscore the value of finding a micro-strategy that works with a given audience or platform segment. The content strategy should be cohesive, but the presentation more granular.

NASCAR has driven (yep, I went there) some good success, growth, and engagement with such a multi-faceted approach. Their Senior Director of Social Media and Communication Scott Warfield described NASCAR’s social media analytics as two-fold: Engagement with their true and existing fans and Reach with potential fans. Watering the garden while planting seeds.

4) Maximize events and access

Those in the sports industry know that we are always planning to maximize every game. Looking at getting the most out of the next event. This principle is magnified for corporate partners looking to engage in this space. Sure, they’re spending money for the long-term brand association, but in a day when content is currency and engagement the objective, brands can’t afford to go down like Casey at the bat when the big moment arrives

The CMO of industrial brand Constellation EG talked about how their team “coalesces around big events and puts brackets around them for investment.” It doesn’t mean you half-ass the day-to-day, but when it comes to prioritizing, hitting a home run for the big events can matter more.

This event strategy can also apply to opportunities for access and content. Teams may get access to players and content readily every day, but brands must milk all they can from their piece of the pie.

“We go into a (video) shoot looking to get as much as content as possible,” said Ed Gold of State Farm on their strategic planning in advance of shoots with their sports partners. It’s more than just a s30-second spot, it’s a chance to get as much content currency in the time you have to use across platforms and in stories.

BMO Harris Bank takes a similar calculated approach, as one of their executives described how they go into shoots with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks with a digital focus, planning and assuring they get extras and outtakes specifically for social media platforms.


5) Appeal to passion: Goosebumps and stories

One of the most popular presentations came from Kenny Mitchell, Senior Director of Consumer Engagement for Gatorade. He succinctly stated the three underlying keys to the marketing and engagement strategy for the world’s biggest sports drink: 1) Product, 2) Customization, and 3) Innovation in storytelling.

They focus on the education aspect of their product to satisfy that audience, they acknowledge and cater to customized segments of their consumers, and they understand the power of stories around their customers and athletes drive the brand loyalty they need in today’s crowded marketplace.

Seeking to tap into the emotion of sports fans, Mitchell said  that the standard for Gatorade marketing is “goosebumps.” The ability to inspire chills was a sentiment echoed by leaders from TD Ameritrade and Chase Financial in discussing why they wanted to latch onto sports.

It’s not about forcing your product into the conversation with sports fans, but about delivering goosebumps-inducing moments they want to consume and are thankful to the brand for providing. Denise Darkos, CMO of TD Ameritrade, spoke of how their firm uses sports to “lend a halo of personality” to their financial services brand. Similarly, an exec from Chase Financial described examples of partnering with teams in order to enhance the fan experience, not interrupting a game or content to talk about their latest fiscal solutions.

6) Content strategy is key

Content is king, distribution is emperor, etc. etc. We’ve all heard the common refrain in marketing, by now, but, at last, the king is being invited into chambers where the real strategy is built. Partnerships and campaigns are built through content, instead of the other way around.

An executive from Dr. Pepper noted that the bar is higher than ever for brands to create content that fans actually welcome. The charge is to be relevant, and to be relevant requires planning. “No one wants to hear from a brand needlessly,” was overheard on one of the panels.

Such relevance and value is NOT embodied by Oreo’s endlessly referenced “Dunk in the Dark” Super Bowl blackout campaign, but finding places where the brand’s content and inclusion makes sense. That typically doesn’t happen on the fly. And brands are increasingly not going into partnerships blindly; though some still are.

“Social is not a post, it’s a conversation,” said an executive from sports and social influence firm MVPIndex. “Too many brands ask for 8-10 posts and don’t create a campaign.”

I have seen this play out all too often and it neither helps the team or organization with creating content that will deliver ROI for the partner nor the partner in keeping cohesion and consistency with what they’re doing overall. A little thought into the content that will embody a campaign is so key and I welcome that acknowledgement in the marketplace.

One more compelling content conundrum came from a stellar keynote from Chicago Blackhawks CMO John McDonough. The marketing chief of the reigning Stanley Cup champs (for a few more days) blew away the room, overall, but one key insight stuck with me and represents the elephant in the room in which the battle is being waged between the couch and the live event in sports.

“Right now, the least informed consumer of your product is in the arena,” said McDonough of all the video, insights, stats, and facts at the disposal of the fan watching the broadcast at home with their connected device in hand. “We have to change that.”

Your diehard fans are the ones coming to the home games and the ones most emotionally invested into the team and the sport. They’re the ones whose thirst for content is unquenchable. And yet, they miss out on so much being at the game. While the emotion and buzz of the atmosphere of being there live provides tons of value itself, the fact that a note about an injured player, an insight on a tactical adjustment, or a funny meme making the rounds, is unavailable to the fan cheering their brains out in the arena is something of concern to the suits in the luxury suite upstairs.

It’s FOMO – you want to inspire fear-of-missing-out for the fans sitting at home while combating fear-of-missing-out for the fans that paid to attend.

7) The power of partnerships

Lastly, a quick, but excellent note on how to think about brand relationships., As we get further from the paradigm of the shotgun approach, going a mile wide and an inch deep, the case is the same for partnerships.Where consumer segments intersect, and brands and services complement, is the sweet spot for partnerships.

Intersport’s Shannon Dan identified the partnership between Red Bull and GoPro as hitting the bullseye on this concept. If it seems like such a perfect, organic marriage of brands, that’s because it is.The idea, Dan stated, is the opportunity to tap into the others’ audiences. To enhance their experiences and play up their passions. Not every partnership is such a perfect marriage, but this aspiration should be the goal.


Relevance, authenticity, small and scalable successes, planning, goosebumps. This was a Fan Engagement Summit at which genuine, deep engagement really was the key concern. The more brands embrace this, plan for it, and create content to achieve it, the better the result for all parties involved. We all know an inauthentic campaign when we see it, or create it, and it’s past time to stop begrudgingly accepting and doing something about it. Fans are more skeptical than ever of brand intrusion and they’re eager and willing to call the bluff. Start asking the hard questions and seeking the answers.


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