Episode 246: Alex Kopilow with Practical Real-Life Insight on Sponsor Integration with Digital and Social in Sports

Listen to episode 246 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Alex Kopilow, Senior Manager, Business Solutions (Digital), Madison Square Garden Sports (New York Knicks, New York Rangers, Madison Square Garden, more!).

72 minute duration. Listen on AppleSpotify and Stitcher.

Posted by Neil Horowitz Follow me on Twitter @njh287   Connect on LinkedIn

What Marketing Niche Sports Teaches about Sports and Social Strategy

What was the last sport you became a fan of? Not the sport that captured your heart as a 9-year-old, but one that came along later and, for whatever reason, hooked you in?

After decades of relative status quo in the major pro sports landscape, there are more fans than ever finding themselves gravitating to sports they never thought they would. Social media has made highlights, storylines, and community more accessible; infinite streams and channels largely eliminate barriers to entry for fans to watch any sport; and the proliferation of content allows for broad exposure giving potential new fans a taste of a sport they never knew they wanted and could grow to love.

Karen Ramming wasn’t facing a lack of familiarity as an issue for potential new track and field fans as she took on her role with TrackTown USA. The majority of the world can recognize a race, a jump, or a throw, and many have participated in such pursuits with varying degrees of competitiveness. But that doesn’t mean they’re all fans, who will tune into major competitions and follow the athletes and stories that surround the sport. So the challenge she is faced with in her role setting the digital strategy for TrackTown is pulling in new fans, but not at the expense of serving the fans that are already there.

“With niche sports in general, you want to make sure that you’re serving the existing fan base because they’re the ones that are going to keep you alive online,” said Ramming, who was in social media roles with the Golden State Warriors and Pac-12 Networks before joining TrackTown. “But you also want to make sure that your coverage is appealing so that way, yeah, you can break through that bubble of whatever sport it is and reach a potential new audience…

“So how can you balance those two things of still serving the existing fan base and creating content in a way that’s accessible to potential new audiences?”

So about that sport you, dear reader, came to enjoy later in life — what first pulled you in? Not necessarily what made you a fan, but the clip or friend or athlete or story that first caught your attention. Ramming had years of experience promoting dozens of sports across the Pac-12 Conference, some with broad, well-established fan bases and others more in the ‘niche’ category.

The encouraging opportunity is that the entry points for new fandom are near-infinite. An amusing or incredible TikTok highlight can drive initial interest for some, a photo finish can draw in others, or an inspirational athlete can ignite another group of fans. They’re all sparks that can fuel the growth of a future fire, creating fans from the embers of even the most esoteric or eccentric elements.

“Let’s say a mascot race or like a baby race or whatever, those things are helping tell the story of the brand and the experience and the athletes,” said Ramming, who is TrackTown USA’s Senior Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation. “And I think that especially when you’re looking at growing an audience of a sport, the stories are what grows the sport, especially for new audiences…

“They’re going to become a fan initially because they found somebody in the sport that appeals to them and that makes them want to come back and root for them and learn the sport on their behalf.”

As Ramming noted, a common element shared by every sport is the athlete. They may be manipulating a different apparatus, if they even have a stick or ball, but it’s the people that make up the ecosystem of sports that most often form the foundation of emotional investment and fandom. Athletes recognize they’re the talent in the program, the stars of the show. But as sports become more and more like entertainment, showcasing the powerful stories and personalities is just as important as the competition. For Ramming, especially when she was surrounded by global superstars like the Golden State Warriors players, collaborating effectively with players meant earning trust at all levels, and treating them not like talent, but like, well, humans.

“Before we even touch on building trust with the players, a lot of it is a step back and building trust with operations and with public relations — they’re the ones who are the gatekeepers essentially to player access on a lot of the teams…,” explained Ramming, who was with the Warriors from late 2018 – 2021. “So that was the approach that I took and just being really proactive with my communications with them, overexplaining everything that we were doing, showing them the results of what we were doing and that was how we earned that internal trust…”

About working with the players, Ramming described that “It’s kind of a balance of being really professional, knowing exactly what you need from them so that way you don’t waste their time while also being just a normal human and talking to them in a way that shows that you respect them as a person and not just as an athlete who will bring a million new followers or whatever it is to the channels.”

But there’s another factor when it comes to marketing a sport through its athletes. Or, as Ramming faced both at Pac-12 and now at TrackTown, putting muscle behind the content, sports, and athletes that will more predictably perform versus telling more complete stories that better serve the team, conference, or sport [and fans] going forward. The NBA, for example, is accurately cited as a superstar-driven sport. It’s Jimmy Butler and the Heat, LeBron James alongside Anthony Davis and the Lakers, and, of course, Steph Curry and the Warriors. The social media metrics may dictate that focusing all content on Curry would deliver the highest numbers, but that may be missing the forest for the giant, all-time shooting tree.

“We knew when I was there that we could post a clip of Steph [Curry] hitting a halfcourt shot once a day and nobody would get tired of it and it would hit a million views every single time,” Ramming explained. “But that would be doing a disservice to our players, our team, and our fans by not showcasing the other players. So it wasn’t even just the social team that was keeping that in check and making sure that there were faces getting on the feeds, it was our entire marketing department…”

Ramming and her team face a similar challenge in showcasing the various disciplines that make up the track and field competitions put on by TrackTown USA. Many casual fans can recall seeing Usain Bolt win the 100-meter dash or Michael Johnson set records in the 400, but trying to develop fans of every competition within track and field is not necessarily the right way to go about fan development. If someone loves the long jump, but couldn’t care less about hurdles, that’s okay, and it may not be a good use of resources to try.

But Ramming notes that perhaps that’s not the right question. These days, quality content is what cuts through, and getting the content and storytelling right — can render everything else, if not moot less of the main point.

“There are a lot of people who are throws fans and they care about the throwers and discus, shot, javelin, hammer — that’s what they care about and that’s great. How can we serve them? How can we create content for that specific audience? Same thing for sprints, jumps, distance,” she said…

“I don’t think that I have an opinion right now in terms of segmenting [social accounts] for jumps, throws, sprints, and distance, necessarily, but instead looking at how we structure actual content packaging…”

Ramming cited the recent example of TrackTown’s docuseries ‘Road to TrackTown,’ hosted on their YouTube channel, which follows athletes in their preparation and lifestyle leading up to their major competitions. It wasn’t necessarily that Netflix’s Drive to Survive made us all realize what a cool sport Formula One is, it’s that the level of storytelling gave us a reason to care and to learn more. So, for ‘Road to TrackTown,’ Ramming said that within the phenomenal storytelling and packaging, they were able to produce narratives across track and field disciplines.

“We intentionally chose one runner, one jumper, one thrower and one multi-event athlete, so that way it could appeal to those specific fanbases while still all living on our larger TrackTown USA Channel,” she described. 

In the end, they’re all athletes showcasing passion, dedication, triumphs, failures, hard work, and humanity.

Said Ramming: “Being able to experience that kind of raw emotion from athletes directly when you tune into a track meet, whether it’s online, on TV or in person, I think is what makes the sport really special. And even outside of those moments, obviously, these athletes are humans. They have hobbies and interests and they have other stuff going on. So understanding how we can better tell those stories to make them more relatable and potentially find new audiences through them and who they are as people is really valuable.”

It’s incredible to think that there have been sports and sports fans for thousands of years. The games and the mediums evolved, but those same undying principles that made fans cheer and jeer centuries ago, the stories that captured our imagination still do so today.


Episode 245 Snippets: Creating Stories that Will Make Fans Care

On episode 245 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Karen Ramming, Senior Director, Digital Innovation and Communications for TrackTown USA, previously with the Golden State Warriors and Pac-12 Network.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe to the podcast via Apple or listen on Spotify or Stitcher.

Episode 245: Karen Ramming on Crafting and Executing a Digital and Social Strategy with Intent

Listen to episode 245 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Karen Ramming, Senior Director, Digital Innovation and Communications for TrackTown USA, previously with the Golden State Warriors and Pac-12 Network.

69 minute duration. Listen on AppleSpotify and Stitcher.

Posted by Neil Horowitz Follow me on Twitter @njh287   Connect on LinkedIn

How FIBA 3×3 Constructs and Executes its Social Media Strategy to Build and Engage a Global Fan Base

You spend all that time in school learning proper English and how to write an academic paper — only to realize proper punctuation can be triggering and you can say more with a timely meme than anything too intellectually inspiring.In the world of social media, fluency doesn’t mean knowing the correct verb tense, it’s more important to know the slang that your target audience uses, the colloquialisms that are part of their culture.So when Esteban González was handed the reins to the digital and social strategy for FIBA‘s upstart 3×3 competition, he knew he had to school himself on mastering the language of basketball on social media. Not far removed from learning English, González studied the esoteric language of basketball on social. But it was more than that. FIBA, which governs the sport of basketball globally, has an international audience that spans countries, cultures, and communities all over the world, so the challenge transcended language and culture. González looked to other media outlets that seek to engage global audiences for inspiration, appreciating the challenge that lay before him. He cited the sports media brand Overtime as an outlet worthy of emulation.”[They have] Overtime Spain, Overtime France, and Overtime India — and every one of them has a different tone of voice to be identified with the audience from that country,” said González, who was born and raised in Spain. “Because at the end there are tons of jokes that some people could make in Spain that you would never understand because you don’t have that background or you are not following the most popular streamer in the country and in the end, they are the ones dictating this new vocabulary or these new ways of communicating with the audience.”González emphasized how vital it is to study each country where they seek to engage the fans. When you’re publishing for a fan base in a different country and language, it’s instructive to understand and appreciate the difference between translation and localization. Translating copy is easy enough, sure, but translation falls short for social media. Localization means understanding what resonates, what’s happening in pop culture there, and the slang that’s peppering the language — all of which Google Translate can’t give you. González cites an example of creating content about the South Korean team for fans concentrated in the country thousands of miles away from where González lives and works in Europe.”Before every event, we also try to look at what are the different trends in the part of the world that we are going to,” he explained. “For example, if we have a team in South Korea, we have a nice South Korean team, I need to go and check, okay, what are the best K-pop bands? So then I can make some references in the captions and these kinds of things.”González and his colleagues at FIBA aren’t just thinking about their audience and fans in terms of language and culture, there is also context to consider. The different experiences for local vs. remote fans is something any sports team or league can understand; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver often cites how 99% of fans won’t ever attend a game (as is the case for most pro sports leagues). So while FIBA 3×3 takes great pride in its dynamic, fun-filled live event experience, González recognizes that the gameday experience for the 99% of fans taking it in at home is different. They seek to deliver a meaningful, fun experience for fans in both contexts, whether they’re chatting with fans in the seats next to them or chatting in the rapid stream of messages on YouTube. And these fans are different, González described.”We are convinced that the people who would follow the event online might not be the same person that would like to go to an event on-site because the experience might not be the same for them,” he said. “They are not listening to the commentator, they are not interacting on the YouTube chat, they are not putting a comment on Instagram. And this is something that is really important for us is the community aspect of 3×3.”The community aspect is part of the 3×3 narrative and experience that transcends platform and context. FIBA 3×3 is building something special that fans and players and staff feel a part of, so it’s important that that comes across at all touchpoints, whether in the feed or on the floor. This is where attention to detail and adherence to a cohesive, cross-platform strategy comes into play, when talking the talk turns into walking the walk. It’s great to make fans feel at home when you welcome them to an exciting onsite experience filled with music, food, fun, and 3×3 basketball — but it’s just as valuable to activate those values on social media platforms, too. González described how this plays out for FIBA 3×3 on social, ensuring fans everywhere understand that FIBA 3×3 is a ‘family.'”This family aspect of 3X3 is really important for us and we will even go and trash talk to the comments on social media,” said González, who has been with FIBA 3×3 since 2015. “If we see that someone is criticizing our players or they said ‘Oh I could do this,’ we would say ‘Okay, it’s open to everyone, why don’t you go and try to qualify?’”So, if you come to social media also to try to embarrass our players, we got their backs and we are going to also fight for them and try to protect them on social media to build this family atmosphere.”There’s an intimate feel cultivated along with that familial brand. But the bar for fandom doesn’t mean FIBA 3×3 wants to keep that family small and insular, the goal is to grow the sport and the engagement and awareness around its competitions and content. FIBA 3×3 certainly loves sharing its awesome highlights that capture the attention of fans, casual and avid, across its digital platforms. But there is an emotional connection fans can make with such a global sport, a pride that fans feel when a top player from their country is thriving with FIBA 3×3 or a team representing the country is competing for a 3×3 World Cup title.This is the fun part where the strategy and the study come together. González and his colleagues recognize the opportunity brought forth when the spotlight is shining on a given player and/or country. They can step back and appreciate these opportune times to tap into a given country and spike growth and engagement among fans there.”For example, if we see that we have a lot of or we have the Serbian team is winning a lot of events, we are like okay, let’s think how can we try to boost more people from Serbia,” González said. “If the team from the United States is winning? Okay, how can we amplify the noise in the US? This is the thinking process there is behind this side of the strategy and I think it happens a lot when you have this global sport.”The international nature of the sport means those opportunities do come along when a national team is winning. It also extends more granularly, and more powerfully, through the players. Every player brings along with them a local, and often regional or even national fan base (and social media follower base) that FIBA 3×3 can tap into. So while one of FIBA 3×3’s strategic mandates is to maximize its own channels, it is just as important and valuable to build up player profiles and help individual players grow their reach and engagement.FIBA 3×3 is scrappy compared to its giant basketball counterparts like the NBA, so earned media and external engagement via its players is an important part of the picture. But so is, well, everything. Each piece of content, every minute spent must be done with purpose. It’s why attention to detail like knowing the right memes is worth spending time on, hitting the right spot can make a big difference in fan growth and engagement. This thoughtful mindset extends to everything González does in his role and he described the framework FIBA 3×3 uses to ensure they always have the right focus, citing three strategic pillars.”The first [pillar] is to develop stars and help the players build their own profiles,” he explained. “The second one is to get new fans and the maximum reach so that we can bring new fans to the sport. And the third one, of course, is making the partners happy because they are also the ones that are helping us to be where we are right now.”So every post that we put out there has to at least fulfill one of the three key pillars that we have identified for the strategy. If it’s not bringing value to the partners, if it’s not helping us to bring new fans, or if it’s not helping to boost the profile of one of the players, why are we posting this? So it has at least to be in one of those categories for us to create that piece of content and put it out there.”Okay, so I lied in the introduction of this article. Proper punctuation does matter. Proper, according to the platform and audience, that is. Every detail matters. We gotta sweat the small stuff and study the platforms, verbiage, memes, trends, and communities like we’re cramming for a final. Everyone that works in social media is a lifelong student and it’s the most studious that will ace the test on every selected platform, every day, with every post.


Episode 244 Snippets: The Digital and Social Strategy Behind Growing a Global Sport

On episode 244 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Esteban González, Digital Content Manager for FIBA 3×3.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe to the podcast via Apple or listen on Spotify or Stitcher.

Episode 244: Esteban González on Developing the Global Audience and the Narrative for 3×3 Basketball with FIBA

Listen to episode 244 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Esteban González, Digital Content Manager, FIBA 3×3.

Listen below or on AppleSpotify and Stitcher.

73 minute duration. Listen on AppleSpotify and Stitcher.

Posted by Neil Horowitz Follow me on Twitter @njh287   Connect on LinkedIn

How Putting Fans First Guides Georgia Athletics Social Media Strategy and the Lessons from That Philosophy

At its heart, sports marketing and fan engagement is about the fans. Putting oneself in the fan’s shoes, serving them what they want, and remembering why fans are fans in the first place. The north star doesn’t need to be overcomplicated.

So while sitting at the helm of a historic, beloved institution like the Georgia Bulldogs, the athletic programs covering 21 teams for the University of Georgia, is a daily challenge, Jen Galas keeps the main things the main things — and that’s the fans and student-athletes. It sounds pretty simple listening to Galas explain the program’s social media philosophy.

“From a strictly social side, I think at the heart of it is we want to make sure that we give our student-athletes the best experience that we can and we want to make sure our fans get the best experience that they can get,” said Galas, the Assistant Athletic Director – Social Media and Digital Strategy for The University of Georgia Athletics. “So a lot of the stuff we do is driven to promote our student-athletes and our coaching staff and also make sure that we provide a top-notch experience for our fans. Not only the fans who come to Athens and come to games and are here in person, but also the ones who aren’t or can’t and making sure they know that they are also important to us because they very much are.”

Fans want to feel valued. Student-athletes expect to earn an education while making lifelong memories. But we are a goals-obsessed professional culture, chasing tangible outcomes. In sports that often means revenue — ticket sales, merchandise, donations (for college athletics), and sponsorship. While those are an important part of any sports business (more on that later), all of those revenue streams are fueled by genuine fandom. Without emotional investment, there is no financial investment.

So, for Galas and her colleagues, they know their first objective is to foster the fans. Everything else stems from that.

“Our job is to give somebody a bit of entertainment, a bit of joy when they’re scrolling through their phone or whatever,” said Galas, who has been at Georgia since 2011. “So I don’t know that you can draw a direct line [of fan ascendance] — I think it’s great to say you want somebody to follow you and then come to a game and then buy a mini plan and then buy a season ticket and think that in a dream world, sure, I think everybody would want that track, but that’s not reality. It’s just not. So I hope that happens sometimes.

“But I also think treating our fans very equally and putting ourselves in [fan’s shoes]. You’re like, ‘Well, what would I like to see? What would entertain me? What would make me happy? What do I want to know?’”

The focus on intuiting what fans want doesn’t mean Georgia Athletics doesn’t establish strategic goals that guide their execution. But it’s that focus that serves as the north star, the one unchanging philosophy; virtually everything else is subject to change, evolve, improve, or adjust in service to that powerful proposition. It’s easy to get sucked into pleasing the platforms, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of having the fans at the center of it all. Goals that are too rigid can lead to a chilling effect on creativity and the ability to continue focusing on fans.

“Goals can change in the beginning of and throughout the year,” explained Galas. “They can and they should, especially in a medium that’s new and changes all the time — and when I say new like relatively — but that changes every day and something changes and happens every day, so your goals should change.

“Personally speaking, if I set and said this is the one thing we want to accomplish all year and if that’s the only thing I focus on, that means we’re probably slacking off somewhere else. Something else is suffering because of that.”

There are some things at a generationally important institution like Georgia Athletics for which change and evolution must be treated with care. And the growth of social media, with each of those 21 teams having its own Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, only made looking after the history and brand more challenging and important. Because while the fans and the feel of Georgia baseball, for example, may be different from that of Georgia women’s basketball or Georgia football, they are all their own entity but part of a powerful collective whole that is the Georgia Bulldogs.

If that all sounds a bit complex or even convoluted, that’s because it’s not easy. Fans are multi-generational. Platforms evolve. Programs evolve. And for Galas and her colleagues, the responsibility of keeping Georgia looking like Georgia while allowing for necessary evolution is a tough job.

The big puzzle is the identity of Georgia Athletics, and each one of our sports is a piece of that puzzle. So we have 21 sports, so there are 21 pieces to this puzzle that makes up everything,” said Galas, who oversees the Bulldogs’ ‘digital identity,’ among her other remits. “In an ideal situation, all of those fit perfectly together. So when you look at it as a whole, you’re like, ‘Oh shit, yeah, that’s Georgia.’

“Especially on social graphics, it’s the square with the G in it and that’s pretty much on every single thing that we do, and making sure that we don’t go nuts with every team having 27 fonts that they use…making sure that when we go into a process it’s number one, what’s the reasoning? And number two, how can we make this as Georgia as it can be? And I think especially in the last couple of years we’ve done a really nice job of giving people some identities but also saying we know how far to push it and then we know how to bring it back and I think we’ve done [that]

“I think for a while it was very one size fits all, which I think can work, but I also think there’s a couple of different approaches you can take to it. And we just sort of said ‘Wait a second, let’s have some fun with it, and let’s play around with some things.’”

The way the puzzle pieces, across the board, is starting to become clear, isn’t it? When the north star stays in place, everything else is easier to decipher and execute. That includes the increasingly integral way that sponsorships get activated on digital and social media. Georgia Athletics ensures the fan experience and value prop is at the center of sponsored social, too. It makes sense for all parties — the fans get a great experience (always the primary objective) and the partners see a better performance of their activation.

It all sounds good to say out loud, but what separates the best ideas from the most successful are thoughtful, laid-out plans. For the Bulldogs, that takes the form of a consistent, reliable ‘menu’ of activations — content they can be confident their fans want and will enjoy that can be tailored for sponsors. Galas was articulate in describing their sponsored social strategy, which aligns with the overarching philosophy that has been the motif of this article.

“I think we try to do kind of the menu of [sponsorship opportunities on social] saying, ‘Hey, these are the things that are tried and true that work. Sell these first.’ If somebody has an idea, let’s talk about it. Let’s not just blindly agree to it because sometimes it may not be possible, but I think we try to say like, here’s the menu, pick from the menu, this is available inventory,” Galas explained. “We have an inventory sheet for season-wide things, we save some things for one-offs that we oftentimes don’t sell for like a season-long campaign in case somebody wants to jump in the middle of the year we kind of hold some back for a couple of different reasons.

“But if there’s really great ideas — I mean we’re not opposed to any great idea, but we also want to make sure that — nobody wants to see a million ads on a channel that you like. Nobody wants to see it. 

“So how can we incorporate our partners in something that’s going to resonate with our fans and make them click or make them watch through for the whole thing or make them engage in some way.” 

When every idea starts with the fan at the center, everything else just falls correctly into place. There are often competing incentives and a lot of noise in devising and executing social media strategy, but even as one gazes up at a sky crowded with lights, there’s always that one shines a bit brighter, that always guides the way — that’s the north star, and in sports the north star is the fan.


Episode 243 Snippets: Inside the Championship-Level Strategy and Structure of University of Georgia Athletics

On episode 242 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Jen Galas, Assistant Athletic Director – Social Media and Digital Strategy for the Georgia Bulldogs.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe to the podcast via Apple or listen on Spotify or Stitcher.

Episode 243: Jen Galas on Content Strategy and Covering National Championships with the Georgia Bulldogs

Listen to episode 243 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Jen Galas, Assistant Athletic Director – Social Media and Digital Strategy for the Georgia Bulldogs.

Listen below or on AppleSpotify and Stitcher.

76 minute duration. Listen on AppleSpotify and Stitcher.

Posted by Neil Horowitz Follow me on Twitter @njh287   Connect on LinkedIn