What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.
Listen to episode 176 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Paul Dewhurst of the San Jose Earthquakes [full episode], Jessica Kleinschmidt of NBC Sports Bay Area / then with Cut4 [full episode], Brandon Costa of Sports Video Group [full episode], Tyler Moorehead of TikTok / then with FOX Sports [full episode], Jeff Eisenband – freelance broadcaster and NBA 2K League / then with The Post Game [full episode], and Ryan McGee of ESPN [full episode]
Listen to episode 175 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Kenny Pordon, Sports Marketing Executive, formerly with the NFL and XFL.
The circumstances brought on by the pandemic has caused evolution in a lot of industries to happen more rapidly than anyone could have imagined.
When athletes were stuck sheltering with the rest of us, and certainly as many entered their respective league bubbles, the sports world witnessed the rise of the athlete journalist. This may not be exactly what Derek Jeter had in mind for athlete journalism when he founded the Players Tribune back in 2014, but no one can deny the power and scale of athlete-produced content now, ushered by social media.
But here’s the thing — as cool as it is to see athletes giving us the pictures, the reactions, and feel of things, this development in sports media perhaps helps fans appreciate sports journalists. The storytellers, the objective eyes and ears, the ones who can put to words the emotion and novelty of the moment. It’s hard not to consider this unique value reflecting on my recent interview with Brent Gambill, now the Director of Communications for NASCAR, Mid-Atlantic region and formerly a longtime producer with XM (and later Sirius XM) radio and their show ‘Baseball Beat.’ Their show was different because they didn’t chase down players, they wanted the writers instead.
“(Baseball Beat host and current LA Dodgers broadcasts) Charley (Steiner) used to describe as the show as ‘I didn’t want to start a show with players, I wanted to talk to the people that were actually in the room, who are actually covering everything,'” said Gambill. “Who can tell you what they ate and what the feeling of the crowd was and know how to report and put cohesive sentences together and really paint the picture o the sports universe and what’s happening on the baseball diamond…
“He goes: It’s the romanticism…'”
That mindset of embracing the writer perspective continued to carry the show for Gambill and Steiner. Their cumulative sensory knowledge and intuition of the stories playing out in front of them were invaluable. Fans have, and likely always will, want to relate to the players. To try to put themselves in the shoes of these aspirational super heroes and experience what it’s like to be a pro athlete. But it’s the journalists who are the flies on the wall, taking in the sights, sounds, and storylines. And the story of the storytellers emerged just as intriguing as the stories themselves, oftentimes.
“I can still remember Game of Shadows [book detailing BALCO and steroid usage in MLB], getting an advanced copy because we had worked so closely with Mark Fainaru-Wada and the rest of the team working on that…,” Gambill recalled. “All those guys for the New York Post that were writing all these amazing stories covering the scandals, we were talking to those guys…We tried to tell it from the perspective of the writers who were doing it. It was such a unique time to be a part of it.”
But while the reporters brought great intrigue and interest to the show, Gambill also knew that much of sports radio — and that’s what he and Steiner were doing, even as their content began showing up online, too — is driven by engaging with fans: listener calls. A lot of the Baseball Beat listeners, however, were listening passively often at their desk at work. Previous attempts at caller segments were mostly mediocre. But when social media arrived, new avenues for interaction opened. Gambill explained it:
“What happened was – radio was driven a lot of times by callers and you have an audience who’s listening. They’re passive listeners, but they can’t pick up the phone and talk…We said ‘let’s start finding a way to (engage them).’ So we started doing a question of the day…”
Nowadays fans want to, and can, engage directly with players. But, realistically, only a select few will get a like, let alone a comment or reply from their favorite player. The writers are more accessible and the two-way relationships developing between fans and journalists are nearing a golden age.
As more bubble games begin and most fans remain confined at home, there is more demand than ever for the stories and more options to find them. The players are giving their unfiltered view of experiences through their lens. Media is curating many of those stories. Reporters are consuming it all, giving their objective firsthand view, leveraging their sources, and having on and off the record conversations. There’s a place for both and the fans are the winners.
Something happened when the sports stopped. Players realized that fans were eager to engage even when there were no games. Fans still cared what they had to say. The PSA’s for COVID and the response to social justice that came weeks later empowered generations of players that were already increasingly social media savvy. Meanwhile, reporters are bigger brands themselves, whether it’s Woj becoming an institution or The Athletic’s writers bringing hordes of subscribers with them when they joined the publication.
The stories will always reign supreme. But there is a renaissance for great storytellers, each with their own unique perspectives, points of view, and personality.
What makes for an effective brand activation in sports?
Is it that fans hear and see the name of a brand hundreds or thousands of times? That fans know and remember that ‘x’ brand is the ‘official’ whatever product or service of the league?
Depending on the goals of the sponsor, those can be laudable objectives. But the best partner activations in sports? They, well, activate the brand. Fans don’t just know what brand ‘x’ does or sells, they know what makes that brand preferable to others and therefore the one fans should consume and give their loyalty.
That’s why my favorite brand to watch do their thing in sports is Bud Light.
Bud Light latches onto the exciting moments in sports, the times when fans are most likely to stand up and high-five their friends. That’s what Bud Light wants fans to think of when they think of the Bud Light brand.
How Bud Light Activates their Brand in Sports
This first example is cheating – it’s Budweiser, not Bud Light – but it’s too good not to mention. Budweiser looked at hockey and thought about those moments when fans burst out of their seats (or couches) and cheer. There is the final buzzer at a win, opening faceoff, big hits, amazing saves, hat tricks — but Budweiser went after something scalable and universal: goals. And, in hockey, goals means the red light going off. So what did they do? They came out with the Bluetooth-powered red light for fans to have at home. The light worked to go off when the fan’s team scored. The brand is part of the celebration, enhancing it.
How do you know it’s Bud O’Clock? Just wait for the light. 🚨
Watching hockey at home will never be the same. Introducing the Budweiser Red Light, a Bluetooth-connected celebration for every time your favorite team scores a goal. Pre-order yours: https://t.co/eiyuu8elKT
— Budweiser (@budweiserusa) October 13, 2019
Bud Light found another low-hanging fruit that was part of the excitement of scoring goals — the goal celebration. Goal celebrations are a special part of hockey and, again, part of the moments when fans are cheering and high-fiving. Enter the #BudLightCelly. The NHL league account, in addition to team accounts, used the hashtag when posting goals/celebrations on social media.
— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) March 7, 2020
It’s not just hockey. Bud Light found the same moment that fit the brand actuation in other sports. In football, the #BudLightCelly happens with every touchdown. When hockey fans think of the excitement of goals being scored, they could think of Bud Light. Now it could be the same with football upon every touchdown scored.
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) February 7, 2020
Bud Light owned the goals and the touchdowns and – with their XFL activation – became the brand of celebrating after wins. After victories, team social channels were full of #BudLightCelly videos showing players in the locker room spraying and drinking Bud Light. Bud Light was able to associate their brand with celebratory moments in yet another unique but relevant and organic way.
— Houston Roughnecks (@XFLRoughnecks) February 22, 2020
And now, introduced recently as of this writing, Bud Light has seized the repeatable, high five-worthy moments in baseball: home runs. You can see the details below. And this time they’re adapting to the unique circumstances of the 2020 Major League Baseball season. They’re engaging fans — 100% of whom can only take in the games remotely — and using the carrot of home run balls to fuel a social media sweepstakes. Bud Light is owns the moment of celebration (well, at least for some fans watching).
Bud Light is giving you a chance to take home an authentic 2020 home run ball! Tweet using #BudLightHomers, #Sweepstakes, and tag your favorite team for your chance to win. When fans can catch homers from home, there’s a Bud Light there. pic.twitter.com/8RFwwkqKZh
— Bud Light (@budlight) July 23, 2020
There is no shortage of gameday brand activations in sports. But it’s instructive to analyze what makes Bud Light’s effective and how it can be replicated for other brands. Not every brand can own those celebratory moments like goals, touchdowns, and homers. But to be associated with ‘get off the couch and cheer’ moments isn’t right for every brand.
For years, a lot of sports sponsorships have been reliant on puns. It’s the Honda Keys to the Game, the T-Mobile ‘Call to the Pen,’ the ‘XYZ’ Gas and Electric Company Power Play. But, think back to earlier in this piece and which objectives those achieve.
We celebrate a good pun because it’s a way to sneak in a brand mention in a clever way, in hopes that, for example, when fans think of cars, they’ll think of Honda and therefore buy a Honda. What does this convey about the Honda brand, though? I know Honda for their ‘Helpful Honda’ brand promise, because the information booth at the arena was branded as such. Should GMC Trucks sponsor the ‘Drive Summary’ graphic for a football team (drive = cars, get it!?!), or is there a way to activate GMC’s brand with a ‘Toughest Play of the Game” to highlight the toughness they want their cars known for?
Excuse the extemporaneous example above, the goal is not create gold, but to stimulate a thought process to strive for more. To be more than puns and presented by’s. To find the moments to latch on, the emotional ebbs and flows that open fans’ hearts and minds, and the opportunities to insert a brand as a relevant part of the story.
Next time you’re exposed to the Bud Light brand at a moment of screams and cheers -— it won’t take long if you follow sports — appreciate the strength of that activation. That fans come to associate Bud Light with celebration. Achieving that is worthy of a #BudLightCelly.