Building a League and Fans from Scratch: Inside Fan Development with the Premier Lacrosse League

Every sports team and league has its diehards. But every team and league also knows they can’t thrive at scale on diehards alone. That’s why so many are perpetually chasing the casual fan. The curious observer that can one day turn into a diehard. And even the biggest, most established leagues in the world still don’t have 100% penetration, there is always room to grow.

If cultivating more fans is a challenge for the longstanding major pro sports leagues, imagine an upstart league with an emerging sport. This was what the Premier Lacrosse League and its founders Paul and Mike Rabil were and remain up against. Lacrosse participation is growing, sure, but the viability of the PLL rests on its ability to bring its sport, teams, and players to the masses — whether they’re lifelong players and fans or just discovering it for the first time.

But it’s happening. They’re doing it. The PLL is still just getting started, but RJ Kaminski, the league’s Director of Brand who has been there from the start, sees fans being borne. His charge and his efforts are a big part of it. Kaminski recognizes that fans aren’t built in a day. There are steps along the way as the fan goes from just noticing the PLL to consuming more to the point where they’re buying swag and making plans to go to a game. For Kaminski, to see the process in action is so gratifying.

Kaminski described it: “The most satisfying part has been watching the fan who really doesn’t have an interest in the sport of lacrosse, but something along the way — a campaign that we did — sparked their interest enough to follow along, which led them a little bit further down the fan funnel to potentially watch a game with us, and then they’re really in it. And then they’re potentially picking a team and then they’re potentially appearing in person.

“Watching some of those fan journeys just on Twitter as you can see when someone follows along or when you see someone start to engage and then see them actually come to a game — watching that probably has been the best part.”

There is no one way, no magic pill campaign that can create fans. But the path to fandom involves emotion, getting fans to care. For the PLL, playing a sport with which the majority of people are not familiar, this means highlighting plays and players to inspire awe, empathy, and exhilaration.  Kaminski talked about bringing out the stories of their players, citing an example of Redwoods star Myles Jones recounting his dreams as a kid playing lacrosse. Those human stories can ignite the initial intrigue.

“[The Jones story] was an inspirational bit [and makes them ask] ‘What is the PLL? Who is Myles Jones?’” Kaminski explained. “And then they follow along and whether it’s just from a passive capacity and they’re just keeping an eye on what we’re doing or whether they’re ready to come to a game or turn on the TV to see a Redwoods game, whatever it may be — there’s an interest sparked.”

Once fans have a reason to care, Kaminski and the league can watch them dive in, while showcasing what makes the PLL so great. Start by making fans care, then connect, and then fall in love or find someone or something to latch onto. Clearing this pathway is why Kaminski and his colleagues mix the slick shots and moves with scenes that show the human side of the players.

“So you’re sitting at home and you’re watching someone like Myles Jones barrel someone over and put it in the back of the net from two and then you see him in the locker room with his shirt off drinking a beer, celebrating with his teammates, making jokes, and singing along to his favorite Drake album,” he said. “Those are the moments that humanize our players and really deepen the fandom that already exists there and potentially attracts a new fan to follow along with someone like Myles.”

So there you go, right? Drive fans to find players they can love and who can make them go wow in highlights. That’s not the finish line, though. Such fandom may play well on social media and stories off the field, but the most invested and engaged fans care about the final score, too, and not just who scored the sickest goals. The PLL has had fans of its players from the earliest days of the league, but creating fans of the teams is more challenging because of the nature of the team.

The eight Premier Lacrosse League teams don’t represent a city or state like most of the PLL’s pro sports counterparts. They’re relatively arbitrary. But the PLL knows the best fan experience involves them cheering on a favorite team to win the game, bringing an intensity that only rooting on one side and against an opposing side can deliver. Kaminski talked about why getting fans to pick a team is an important objective for the PLL.

“It’s [about] building rivalries, man,” said Kaminski, who can be seen hosting a lot of the PLL social media content. “It’s getting the opportunity to have competing fan sections at games. It’s what you see in the more traditional sports media landscape.

“It’s being able to attend a Redwoods-Whipsnakes game, and have one part of the stadium cheer when a ball goes in one net, and then the same for the other side. That’s happening and we’re progressing there, but there’s a lot of work that goes into actually getting a fan to pick a side, to pick a team or pick two teams or just follow a superstar.”

So how does the PLL go about differentiating the teams, such that being a fan of one and not another really means something? Social media plays a big role here. It’s where, through the content shared, the tone, the personality, the sights and sounds — where all that can create a vibe and, eventually, a unique brand for fans to choose to wrap their arms around and identify with. That’s easier said than done, of course, because it has to fit. A team shouldn’t have a jokey brand if its players exude intensity. So Kaminski and his colleagues take care in building these team brands.

“It’s largely driven by the culture that’s developed from the head coach and the players of those clubs,” he said.

“For example, I think Chaos is one that we can start with — a team that quite literally is incredibly chaotic in the locker room. Pregame speeches, and for those that don’t know who are listening, the Chaos are led by Andy Towers, who’s an incredible head coach. He’s about six foot five, he’s bald and you can hear him from a mile away. [He] gives incredible pump-up speeches, usually has an incredible anecdote to get his guys fired up, and it usually goes viral the next day for how he got his guys going in the locker room. “

All the best marketing, human stories, and entertainment wouldn’t get the PLL all the way there. They’re a professional lacrosse league, their primary product is the game its players are paid to play. But Kaminski is confident that once fans get in the door, they’re not leaving. The PLL has a winning product, so, while conceding that it’s not easy or a given to keep fans in the fold, that he’ll bet that fans who sample it will stick around for the long run.

“Retention can be one of the hardest things to succeed in for a sports league,” he said. “But when the product’s there and the product’s the best out there that combines [with] what we’re doing in the broadcast side and the talent in the booth, to me it’s gonna be tough for them to flip the channel.”

LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH RJ KAMINSKI

Inside US Soccer’s Social Media Strategy as the USMNT Competes in the World Cup

    When Giannis Antetokounmpo won his NBA championship, his multiple countries of origin (Greece and Nigeria) celebrated along with him. And the Greek Freak’s achievements in basketball no doubt seeded more dreams of kids to be the next Giannis, driving interest and participation in the sport at all levels. Likewise when kids in China saw Yao Ming become perhaps the most recognizable athlete in the world. A sport rose even as those athletes left to join more elite leagues abroad.

    This is part of the soccer story in the US. The best soccer leagues in the world are now more accessible than ever in a number of ways for Americans, and the status of soccer in this country is ripe for continued growth. We can watch every game, we can see Americans succeeding at the highest levels of the sport, and we can see US sports culture wrap its arms around the globe’s most popular sport. Because even if Major League Soccer (MLS) isn’t about to match the NFL or NBA in viewership and popularity in the near future, the growth of soccer isn’t solely tied to our mid-tier (though ascending) domestic league.

    “It’s not necessarily about what’s happening here, but the interest [level],” explained Cody Sharrett, Social Media Manager for US Soccer, referring to the growing interest of Americans’ in the top European soccer leagues. “I think about being in high school, the access to professional soccer was so limited…The access to watching soccer has changed so much just in the last 10 to 15 years.”

    And there’s nothing quite like an international tournament to introduce and endear the best soccer plays the United States has produced to burgeoning and existing US soccer fans. Even if many ply their trade thousands of miles away, fans can still fall in love with them and the sport they play. Son Heung-min may only be visible to South Korean fans through telecast or screen, but there is little doubt the Tottenham star is among the most famous individuals in the country. Part of the goal coming into and out of the 2022 World Cup for Sharrett and US Soccer is to likewise elevate American soccer stars into transcendent household names, no matter which league for which they compete in club soccer.

    “We break [fans] down into avids, casuals, and emerging fan bases,” explained Sharrett, who is with the US Men’s National Team in Qatar for the World Cup, managing the social channels. “The avids are gonna care no matter what. Our goal for this upcoming World Cup is to make the casuals and the emerging fan base know who Matt Turner is, know who Weston McKennie is; even Christian Pulisic playing at one of the biggest clubs in the world and you see him on TV all the time right now in the VW commercial — making his face just as recognizable as a LeBron James or a Patrick Mahomes or a Serena Williams.

    “I think that that plays into our goal of making soccer the most preeminent sport in America. It’s like, yeah, Messi and Ronaldo are popular here, but we want an American player to be just as recognizable in our own country as those two…”

    Sharrett noted that some of the country’s most famous athletes are already soccer players — primarily from the women’s team. The next challenge he said, about which Sharrett is hopeful, is to ensure the string of Mia Hamm to Abby Wambach to Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe continues on for the ensuing generations. Of course, it helps that the USWNT has been so successful in international competition this century and that women’s club soccer worldwide has really only grown in prominence in the past decade, giving the US’s domestic league a fighting chance. A fan of Alex Morgan can latch onto the San Diego Wave FC of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) or a Rapinoe supporter can watch her play for the OL Reign. The best men’s players, right now, play overseas. So US Soccer can’t necessarily be concerned with creating more MLS fans — if American fans watching the World Cup decide to check out more Lille games to see Timothy Weah or watch Leeds United matches to see more of Brendan Aaronson — they’re consuming more soccer and soccer is consuming more of them.

    The nature of fandom is also necessarily different in this framing, too, because it often isn’t backed by local identity and culture. Sharrett sought to sum all this up, bringing together the ideas of US Soccer representing a sport and the country’s best athletes and driving fans to be fans of it, wherever that takes them.

    “I think if you can entice somebody to become a Weston McKennie fan, then they’re gonna end up supporting Juventus, and then they’re gonna support the national team as well,” said Sharrett, who also spent time with teams in the NBA (Trail Blazers and Timberwolves), WNBA (Lynx), and MLS (Crew). “I think they go hand in hand. But as you talked about, we are a national team.

    “I was talking with somebody about this the other day, and I kind of miss the locality of it all. Like being in Portland, being in Minnesota, you could rely on some regional flavors and nuances, and we don’t necessarily have that on the national team level because we are a huge country, and the cultural diversity of the regions of the country and backgrounds of the country — not to be cliche, but it is a melting pot…”

    The national nature — literally posting on behalf of an entire nation — presents many challenges, as Sharrett alluded to above. You can’t rely on local identity, you have to try to meld this incredibly diverse nation of ours. Beyond that, too, Sharrett pointed out another unique consideration when it comes to US Soccer’s social strategy during the World Cup. Shockingly (or perhaps not, depending on your frame of reference), you can cross match highlights and footage off the list of content. It’s not easy to accomplish all of the objectives we’ve discussed in this article given the constraints. But Sharrett and his team focus on what they can give fans, and how powerful that can be to propel the endearment of these elite players to potential and existing soccer fans in the States.

    “We’re gonna have access to the team that none of those other outlets have, so that’s a huge responsibility is showing that behind the scenes,” he explained. “One of our themes is brotherhood on the team and that’s always showing that it’s a young group of hungry players that are near the same age group, and they all just kind of vibe together. It’s showing that it’s a family.”

    This is how it all comes together. How fans get emotionally invested in all of it — the players, the team, the sport. The sport is the north star for US Soccer, the remit for everybody in the organization. Sharrett talked about the vast room for growth soccer still has, potential growth that really no other sport can match because others have largely reached maturity. There are more soccer fans in the country than ever before, yet the ceiling is far higher.

    Sharrett told me: “You’ll see it in every job posting that we have — our goal and our role is to grow the sport and to make soccer the most preeminent sport in America.”

    LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH CODY SHARRETT

    Where Major League Soccer Fandom Has Been and Where It’s Going as the US Enters a Critical Period for Football ⚽️

      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.

      LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH KYLE SHELDON

      How to Develop Fans of Your Team from Scratch

        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.

        LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH HARRY MCINTIRE

        How the Savannah Bananas are Crushing TikTok and Inspiring a New Generation of Baseball Fans and Beyond

          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.

          ************

          BonusBecause 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.”

          LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH SAVANAH ALANIZ

          How an NHL Team Built and Executed its Brand: ‘You need to have a vision and a north star’​

          I remember my first social media job in major pro sports. I was an entry-level, one-man content band for social, among other platforms. And nobody told me what content to create.

          Early on that often meant piggybacking off the beat writer stories until I got more comfortable talking to players and coaches. And, looking back, I had some strategy in my head — stories to tell, events to amplify, and my interpretation of the ‘brand’ of the team on the marketing side and how that should manifest on social media.

          Social media has grown up since then. One-man bands in major professional sports are no more; social channels are powerful and they command more resources and efforts now. Strategy is now table stakes. The best teams have social media leaders collaborating with the rest of the organization, carrying out a thoughtful, cohesive brand through content and social media activity.

          The content and social strategy starts with the brand, not the other way around. That’s an important distinction that can be the difference between engagement and connection, short-term results that can set up long-term wins. A strategy built out from a strong brand foundation stands the test of time. I recently spoke to the New Jersey Devils’s Senior Manager of Content Strategy Chris Wescott about the team’s success in building a distinct, relatable, objectively successful cross-platform content practice that effectively activates the team’s brand.

          “You need to have a vision and a north star for your brand,” said Wescott, who has been with the Devils since 2019, the third National Hockey League (NHL) team with which he’s worked. “And then you kind of build your content plan around that, build your marketing around that, and you kind of build your voice around that.”

          One reason that’s so key for social media, too, Wescott explained, is because the voice should not be the voice of the person on the keys. It’s the voice of the team and it should remain so even as key pushers change.

          “The whole point of having a brand identity and voice is so that you can survive turnover at the creative level, too…,” he said. “You have to invest in [social and creative] positions. So that’s where you’re going to get a little helter-skelter in terms of brand voice and then you’re gonna see things that don’t necessarily make sense coming from that team.”

          It’s just as integral to realize that a brand is more than the copy and memes on the team’s social media channels. It represents and manifests from the organization as a whole. And because brand is always the first brick laid, upon which the strategies and tactics are built, it’s vital that everybody works together and works out from the same foundation. That everyone has the same north star. Wescott talked about how this process played out for the Devils as they sought to reinvigorate and define the team’s brand in recent years.

          “Our social media team does not operate in a bubble; we operate alongside marketing brand strategy…,” said Wescott, who previously worked with the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers before joining the Devils. “We all kind of sat in a room and started [asking] what are the Devils? Who are the Devils? Who are we gonna be five years from now? Who are we gonna be 10 years from now?

          “There were a lot of meetings and discussions that went on with this evolution of our brand and how the voice should not only complement who the brand is, but really work in tandem with it to grow brand affinity.”

          Think about one of your own favorite teams or athletes. How would you define their brand? Then consider how the content they post, what they talk about, how they talk about it, how they interact, and whether it all lines up with this overarching ‘brand.’ The word brand gets a lot of play nowadays (I hope you’re not playing a drinking game for use of the word ‘brand’ in this article), but less discussed is how you go from the strategy to tactics, how you put into practice what is put down on paper. As Wescott and his colleagues defined the brand of the New Jersey Devils, it was up to him and his team to activate the brand through their social media.

          “We are Jersey’s team and there’s a certain pride and toughness that comes with New Jersey…,” said Wescott, describing a bit of the team’s brand. “We wanted to reflect that pride, that toughness, that roll off your shoulders kind of mentality in our voice. There’s kind of an attitude and a bit of a swagger with it…if you come at us, we’ll swing back. We’re not gonna take it from anybody, we’re gonna dish it back.

          “And I think that plus a little bit of irreverent humor really kind of blends together with that attitude and toughness to create who the Devils are on social media.”

          One of the best parts about social media, too, is that it offers both quantitative and qualitative feedback on whether the brand, strategy, and tactics are working. Wescott noted that the team has seen largely positive results since they adopted the more ‘Jersey’ brand. And what’s cool is that it’s not just social media. That brand north star really permeates throughout the rest of the organization in a lot of ways.

          “There are certain times where you kind of hold off on integrating it,” Wescott cautioned but also noted, “But I think for the most part, like game presentation (for example) — everything should have that tone to it because you’re the Devils and everything that you do should have that tone to it.”

          Tone, voice, and personality are important parts of a brand. But they’re not the only parts. Particularly in recent years, what a brand values — and how they actively demonstrate they hold those values — is of utmost importance. Remember, the Devils are ‘Jersey’ and that means not just representing the personality and tone of New Jersey, but showing that they really do love and support the Garden State. Wescott discussed how that well-rounded brand plays out through the team’s content — the team and the brand are more than their tone and voice.

          “I think that there are some people [that] just think ‘Oh, the Devils are rude or they’re always roasting [people]’ or something like that,” he said. “But if you see what we do in the community and the amount of social justice initiatives, the amount of helping different underserved parts of our community and what we do for [the] ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ [program] and all those initiatives; it’s also welcoming people into our family, and once you’re in our family, you’re family…”

          A significant part of forming an emotional connection is getting to know someone. It’s hard to form a relationship with someone inconsistent, to understand a disparate collection of interactions. The same challenge persists when sports teams don’t know who they are and who they want to be — if they don’t know, their fans certainly don’t know. The end result is often weaker connections, perpetually chasing short-term engagement day-to-day. A brand north star changes that. It creates a gravitational pull around which everything else orbits. Things just make sense and fans can get to know you, to appreciate you, and to fall in love with you. That’s how relationships form that will stand the test of time.

          LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS WESCOTT

          Measure Everything. But Also Don’t Measure Everything

          We’ve gotten really good at measuring things in sports business. But some of the most powerful elements that comprise sports fandom simply cannot be measured. And that’s okay.

          We’re in the age of digital and social media, backed by data-driven strategy and analysis — and yet there is, and always will be, so much fan engagement to which we’re blind. And that’s the engagement that creates super fans, fangelists, and individuals who have their heart invested even more than their wallet.

          Just because we’re relatively blind doesn’t mean we’re powerless to drive that fervent fandom that gets expressed in more subtle or off-platform ways. There are so many opportunities to capture fans at a deeper level; it’s time to start thinking about visceral fan engagement…

          % Identity

          You meet somebody new or maybe come across an acquaintance’s Instagram profile or you meet up with coworkers outside of work or, heck, just randomly chill and people-watch at a Starbucks — how much are you, or the people you encounter, identifiable as a fan of the team? 

          So much of people’s time, thoughts, and effort go into creating and expressing an identity. Run through just a few ways and it quickly becomes clear how powerful these little pieces of a fan’s identity can be: what’s in their social media bio, how they or their friends describe them, the clothes they wear, their social media avatars, stickers on a laptop, dog collars on their pups, popsockets on their phone, a welcome mat at their door [everybody’s got a door!], a poster on their wall at home, a magnet on their refrigerator, a license plate frame, the towel they take to the beach or pool, the keychain their house and car keys are on — this long list can keep going! Fans pay for this stuff, but maybe we should be paying them.

          If the team can inhabit just a few of these aspects for fans, that’s a good indication their fandom is part of their identity. And such visual display not only serves as a message to others about their fandom, but also serves as a constant reminder about the team, every time they grab their keys or look at their fridge or see their Insta avatar.

          % Heart

          We all know some fans (perhaps even ourselves) whose mood is affected by their team’s performance. They exude joy when the team wins and sulk in gloom after a loss. (Of course, others mostly boil with anger, as well) While there’s something to be said for letting one’s team affect their mood and days excessively, this is the type of emotional investment that remains immeasurable but clearly identifies an avid fan.

          So how can teams build such a depth of connection with fans? It starts with exhibiting that emotional investment on the team’s platforms. Amplify the feelings of the fans and the team, convey joy or frustration, excitement and nervousness — and don’t detract from it with stale language or silence. 

          And help fans connect emotionally with the players. Let them see the players dance in exultation, but also grimace and groan when times aren’t as great. When fans know the players feel it, too, that not only validates but strengthens their own feelings of unconditional emotional investment — love.

          Finally, help fans connect more intimately with each other. Foster that sense of community, commiseration, and celebration. When fans are engaging with each other when the team’s not “around,” that’s a sign of an engaged fanbase, amplifying their connection to the team through each other.

          % Communication

          Communication is universal. We all communicate in some form or another just about every day and, for most, we communicate a ton every day. Think about how much communication has transformed in the past decade — an emoji can say a thousand words, a GIF can often capture a sentiment more than anything one can type, and many people often just speak in memes.

          Help your fans by helping them communicate. Empower them with the communication they need for any occasion. That could be GIFs for every common ‘feeling’ in the book, memes that carry a message, and e-cards or videos for every holiday and special occasion fans may have. Or help them make their own by providing the raw templates for memes or content that allow them to unleash their creativity or customize it for their needs.

          Your fans want to find creative and original ways to communicate, whether publicly or on dark social channels and beyond. It’s a significant thing when fans want to, and are able to, weave their fandom into their communication. Help and encourage them to do so.

          % Conversation

          One of our most basic needs as social animals is something to talk about. Something to talk about gives you a reason to text your friends or something to break the silence at the dinner table. Don’t underestimate the value of conversations — sure, in keeping the team top of mind, but, more importantly, for the ability of conversations about the team to form the backbone of genuine relationships.

          There are friendships for which chatting about the team and the league serves as the glue of their connection, the kindling that helps friendships flourish. Your team can help enable those relationships and foster conversation and community. Give them something to talk about and a forum on which to do it. Build smaller, more intimate communities of fans, maybe on Discord. Connect some pen pals across the globe united by their fandom, have fans register to be placed in small WhatsApp groups to talk to during a big game — the team can get them talking and friendships can often form from there.

          This happens without the effort of the team, and without the team’s knowledge about how many relationships and chit-chats are full of talk about the team. But we know it does happen. Amplify the examples that do come out and remind fans that they can text the college friends group chat for the first time in months after the team clinches a playoff berth; or they should replace small talk about the weather with small talk about the team. Think about what it means the next time a big piece of sports news drops and you feel excited to message a buddy or two about it.

          % Headspace

          It’s pretty crazy how otherwise ordinary things become meaningful when you’re an avid sports fan. A number’s not just a number when just seeing it conjures thoughts of the player whose jersey bears that number. When there’s a song that gets played after every goal or win, or the star ballplayer has memorable walk-up music for their at-bat, all of a sudden a song makes fans think of the team, whenever and wherever they hear it played.

          The team can inhabit permanent real estate in fans’ heads, unable to avoid being reminded of their favorite athlete or team when exposed to the right cue. Consider the corners of fans’ days and minds that the team can have permanent residence. Post a highlight of a star player, past or present, that wore #24 on the 24th day of every month, post a happy highlight or image at the same time every day no matter what and own that part of the clock, amplify the rituals that your fans have — build in little reminders, signals, or prompts that gives fans just that momentary thought of the team, a fleeting dopamine hit from their fandom.

          We spend all day with ourselves, countless thoughts and memories passing through our heads. Your favorite team comprises some % of those thoughts if you’re an avid sports fan. We can’t measure it, but there is perhaps no symptom of fandom more significant.

          ***************

          We’re armed with more data than ever about fans. But don’t get so buried in the measurables that you overlook the immeasurables. Because fandom has an intangible essence. It’s a feeling burning deep within, an indelible part of one’s heart, mind, and soul.

          How Esports is Developing the Next Generation of Fans and What it Says about Sports Fandom More Broadly


          What’s the most popular professional sport in the US?

          Don’t think too long and hard about it; your first thought was probably football. What if the question changed to which professional sport do the most people have experience playing? That changes the equation a bit — it might be soccer, maybe baseball, but almost certainly the video games category is the correct answer there. And yet (American) football reigns supreme. Why?

          This isn’t a story about football, though, it’s about all the reasons fans become fans and the different pathways to fandom. Because there is no more accessible sport than esports — a sport that can be played at any age, just about, and by anyone. And yet esports could also be called quite inaccessible — there are so many different gaming titles within esports, with unique communities, culture, jargon, and sometimes even insularity.

          But Kayci Evans and esports organization Evil Geniuses are out to ensure esports welcomes everyone with open arms and, just as importantly, gives potential fans a way to connect to the most accessible sport in the world. Esports is unique, though. Not just because the actual competition takes place beyond the physical world, but because it is a sport comprised of tons of other sports. There is only one baseball, but there are hundreds, thousands, millions of video games.

          So how do you market to fans that may be familiar with video games, in general, but have little to no experience with the specific games in which your teams compete? It’s not easy, but Evil Geniuses are Evans are finding a way. And in doing so are bringing to life universal truths about culture, fandom, and connection.

          “Because you already don’t know how to play the game, or whatever they’re talking about; and then on top of that, there’s a lingo that is matched to that game style or that community,” said Evans, who is the Director of Global Brand Marketing for Evil Geniuses. “So it makes it a challenge on the marketing side to figure out how you’re gonna break down the barrier to entry.”

          One way Evil Geniuses (EG) has brought fans, with vastly different levels of experience and knowledge about the games, together has been through (relatively) universal cultural experiences. Evans talked about how there are countless memes that enter the mainstream (or at least as ‘mainstream’ as anything can be these days), memes that often originate in the Subreddits, Discord servers, and Twitch and Twitter chats of the esports world. And while the hyperspeed and esoteric moves of esports can be intimidating and confusing to casual fans, memes — memes are something anyone can connect with. So EG built an activation around the uber-popular ‘touch grass’ meme.

          “[The touch grass meme] is probably more of a general internet meme versus a League of Legends meme or a VALORANT meme or whatever,” said Evans, who worked for Major League Baseball prior to joining Evil Geniuses. “And so [it’s] tapping into things like that where you can start to seed the language to our audience that we’re trying to reach and get them in.”

          The memes and other universally relatable things can help get potential fans in the door, to capture attention, if even for a brief moment. But how do you move them up the fan spectrum, or down the marketing funnel [if you prefer]? Just like not every football fan is a fan for the same reasons, the fans in esports have different things that may augment their avidity, as well. As Evans thinks about reaching the diehard esports fans that know all the ins and outs of the games, while also engaging those casual fans that don’t know Call of Duty from League of Legends — and all the fans in-between — it’s often about finding things that can span the spectrum. Evans talked about envisioning a future of scale, and segmentation, but also a campaign that can straddle all sides.

          “I’d love to get to a point where we can host a marketing campaign that is super targeted to certain audiences and [then almost] multiplied,” she said. “So we can have a version of it that’s for our APAC audience, and we can have a version of it that’s for the hardcore gamer and it’s very stat heavy or whatever it might be, and then we can have a version that is for the casual gamer who just happens to like Animal Crossing and playing [Nintendo] Switch. But maybe the tie-in there is — if they play on Switch, they also play Zelda, and if they like Zelda and the lore of Zelda and the world-building, they might like the lore of League of Legends.

          “Where’s the middle and how do we really go all-in on that cross-pollination and the middle line that all of the fans we’re trying to reach can participate and don’t feel left out?”

          Evans and her team are trying to find things that don’t require an esoteric knowledge of gaming or the esports communities and jargon to understand. Because those (more) widely relatable ideas, content pieces, and campaigns are a welcoming introduction to any new fan — the top of the funnel, so to speak. Not every fan’s path to fanaticism is linear, but the paths are connected. “It’s all about connecting dots and trying to think about what would get you to each phase [the fan funnel] diagram?…, Evans explained to me. “How do you get people down the narrow funnel by hitting them with something a little more vague that they can connect with?”

          But what comes next? How can teams and organizations like Evil Geniuses strengthen those fan connections, forming more powerful emotional ties? Fun activations, hilarious memes, and cool gaming tips and highlights can capture interest and tickle the senses of fans, but it’s hard to conjure feelings of love and dedication with those tactics alone. Fans fall in love with human stories — because while their avatars and gameplay may be digital, there are real people competing in front of those screens, living out lifelong dreams and playing a game at the highest of levels under the utmost of pressure. It’s through those players — and their stories — that Evil Geniuses can begin to capture fans’ hearts, deepening their path down the funnel.

          “Where we’re gonna start to kind of separate ourselves in terms of really focusing on the human experience,” said Evans. “And yeah, it sounds difficult, but it’s actually so simple. It’s like what we all know at our core. So I think that’s gonna be big on how we get to fans.”

          All the best content, campaigns, strategies, and tactics can drive fan development in any sport, but there is nothing more powerful than parents passing it on. If kids develop their some of their biggest passions at age 9 or 10 depending on which research you see, it’s not a stretch to say that we’ll know esports has truly ‘made it’ when playing catch or shooting hoops with mom or dad meets gaming. Then you’re building fans for life.

          But guess what? It’s already happening. And as organizations like Evil Geniuses develop more fans and more avid fans of all ages and cohorts, such lifelong and generational fandom will continue to flourish. Evans talked about her own epiphany when, while at a conference and, still early in her tenure with EG, she saw a parent alongside kids pulling a wagon holding their gaming setups — supporting them like any parent supporting their kids in a sport.

          “It was literally like watching a kid’s tee-ball game or something,” she said, the joy evident in her voice as she recounted the story. “And here you have dad wagoning in all their PCs, he’s taking them into the venue, he’s setting up their computers. You have parents who set up their popout chairs to watch their kids play. 

          “I mean, it is the same. It is just, you know, not the same.”

          LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH KAYCI EVANS

          The Thought-Provoking Possibilities for Sports and Social & Digital Media in 2022

          The sports and greater sports business world keeps getting more complex.

          It’s normal for industries to evolve day after day and year after year, but it sure does feel like the sports world gets involved in every new trend capturing people’s attention. It’s the blessing and the challenge of being part of an industry that’s driven by passion, unconditional fandom, and an endless supply of stories, characters, and live events.

          But that’s kinda the point of it all.

          Sports evolves with the mediums because it intertwines with the means to the important ends of connecting with others and feeling part of a community. Sports serves as the keystone upon which conversations, stories, and relationships are built.

          As the universe gives way to the metaverse and gaming (or, at least, interacting in video game environments all day), the sports world already looks to be part of it. Gamers have been buying up ‘skins’ for their avatars to wear for a while now, sports teams have their own esports teams across a number of game titles, and organizations are imagining complex venues inside games, complete with sponsor signage and all. But look closer and those key underlying principles come to light — playing games is a pastime to do while you’re spending time with friends. You wear the skin featuring your favorite team partly because it’s a signal to other gamers to engage if they also like that team, an invitation to connect and interact.

          *********

          The gaming ecosystem has also helped to usher in connection through related communities, backed by an array of diverse Discord servers and through other live audio rooms (like video games without the games) such as Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces. If sports are among the original points of community and social connection, they can now give life to smaller, but highly engaged micro-communities. Just as gamers in Fortnite can come together because of their mutual love for the team, how can sports teams serve a similar platform?

          If fans playing games can come together because of mutual interest in a given team, could sports teams do the vice-versa — help fans of the team connect with each other around additional interests? Fans of the team that play the same video game, or that have young kids, or perhaps those that are also CrossFit adherents, etc. etc.?

          *********

          We’re used to chasing big numbers in sports, but big communities don’t feel quite as special as they once did. And the world of non-fungible tokens — better known by the ubiquitous acronym NFTs — is serving to build these more exclusive, connective communities. In sports, they may become the new loyalty program — tracking/rewarding how fans engage, introducing those with similar passions and avidity levels an opportunity to connect.

          Yes, there is the fiscal side to NFTs, with the community conversation often superseded by aspirations of making big bucks; creating financial assets more than communities. It’s not unlike the promise of gambling’s arrival to US sports. In the short-term it means big-money deals with sponsorships AND, the hope is, more engagement from bettors seeking to get an edge and to watch their wagers play out in real time. The long-term hope is that gambling can be an entry point for fans, as those buoyed by winning bets develop a genuine passion for the players and the team that helped win them money. And, vice-versa perhaps for teams, that existing fans become even more engaged as they learn to gamble.

          *********

          Many fans are learning about money lines and parlays through their favorite teams and team/league partner activations. Fans will likely soon learn about blockchain technology through sports, too, as ticketing evolves in that direction. Other fans are also learning about NFTs, DAOs, OTT, AR, and other new technology (even non-acronyms!) Sports will continue to be a key platform through which consumers try out new technology and learn new ideas that they’ll take with them to other parts of their life.

          *********

          Sports have been aspiring to transcend into lifestyle brands for years now. Look at the sports fan experience today — many will arrive at a game in the Uber or Lyft lot, they can order food [or even merch] to their seats often through a partner like Postmates or Doordash or even GoPuff. They’ll check the weather, make betting-like predictions, and (I’ve even seen) purchase and manage insurance plans all in the team app. For years, many in the west have expected Facebook or Instagram to become more like the super apps of the east such as WeChat and Alipay. Could sports apps start to head in that direction, too, with more of fans’ lives orbiting around their favorite sports? (You can read a good article about ‘super apps’ here if you’re interested)

          The pinnacle is when one’s team becomes part of their identity, such that they wear the brand (in the physical and/or digital worlds) and feel a part of a community. This same feeling is starting to prevail in communities that form and germinate from fans of influencers, be they musicians, YouTubers, TikTokers, etc. In the influencer world, fans show they’re part of the club through buying subscriptions, emoting digital gifts, and, yes, purchasing NFTs. Many NFTs are now laden with experiential benefits, too, such as attending a Gary Vaynerchuk event, getting face time with their favorite influencer, access to exclusive events or merchandise, and more. Which influencer’s NFT will come with tickets to a game or series of games, or access to exclusive team swag and experiences? Influencers could be a viable entry point for fans to further connect and engage with the teams they love or could grow to love, too.

          *********

          Athletes were among the ‘original’ influencers. And they are starting to seize the opportunities presented to them in the increasingly influencer-focused economy. Leagues and college programs are facilitating athlete success on social more than ever now. They want to turn their athletes into influencers with the hopes they’ll reach and cultivate more fans. Many leagues and teams already work with the traditional influencers, but they’re starting to realize there are powerful social and digital influencers who are already on their payroll.

          *********

          The past year has ushered in rapid evolution of new ideas and technologies in sports and beyond. The majority are still wrapping their head around the opportunities that lie with blockchain, NFTs, influencers, web3, metaverse, and super apps and super brands, and the accessory mediums that pop up within and around these areas.

          But, as becomes more clear every year — as things keep changing, the foundations that make the sports business great only get stronger. There’s passion, connection, community, and identity. I don’t know what 2022 will bring for sports, but I have little doubt we’ll all find a way to cheer and take it all in together.

          How to Maximize Resources in Sports Marketing at Any Level

          Not enough time, not enough people, not enough budget and resources.

          No matter the size and scale, pro or college, American or abroad — the next department that says they wouldn’t love to have more time, budget, resources, and people will be the first (okay, there are some exceptions).

          But bigger isn’t always better — except when it is. And smaller and more agile isn’t always better — except when it is. That’s why it was so enlightening to learn from Michael Murtaugh, who has spent time in college athletics marketing at a number of levels, most recently at Iowa (a B1G school with a relatively massive budget and department) and today at Montana (a Big Sky school with a relatively smaller budget and department, compared to its FBS counterparts). Both schools are D-I, both have passionate fanbases, and both have talented student-athletes that achieve in their sport and their studies. But when it comes to marketing programs and resources, Murtaugh and his team at Montana must be more mindful of how they spend their time and use their resources. The team is leaner and the initiatives perhaps a bit more scrutinized. However, both school A and school B face challenges; they’re just — different.

          “I’m glad that I’ve been at both levels…I think there’s a lot of value in each [experience]. I don’t think one’s better or worse than the other. They’re just different and you just have to figure out what’s important to you and what matters to you,” said Murtaugh, who also spent time at Arkansas State, Western Kentucky, SUNY Brockport, and even an internship at Clemson. “You talked about having a lot of people at Iowa — .the department is probably two and a half times the size of the one here in Montana — so sometimes things might take a little bit longer to get implemented just because of the layers, where here you talk to one or two people. 

          “Now there’s good and bad to that because on the way up you’re like, well, did you think about this, this and this? And you’re like, oh, I guess I didn’t. Whereas if you’d had less people you might make some errors because things hadn’t been thoroughly checked through, so then you have to say oops, won’t do that again.”

          There are the pluses and minuses of the bigger departments and budgets. But one truth is that more resources means the athletic department gets to take more swings. When you shrink the ledger, each investment becomes that much more of a big deal. And therefore each decision must stand up to more scrutiny. If everything’s important, then nothing’s important. And if you try to execute every idea, well, nothing gets done. For college athletics marketers, there is a constant balance at play. Because there are so many sports, so many fan segments to reach and engage, and a mandate to make every sport and event the best possible. For Murtaugh and his colleagues, it means they have to identify and focus on what matters most.

          “It’s really trying to figure out what is important. What should we be focusing our energy on? Because if we’re focusing our energy on like ten different things, we’re not really doing anything. And so what good is that?…,” he said. “And so it’s like, what are some of the things that are fads that it might be nice to know this now, but six months from now, it’s going to be nothing again. Do we spend our time on that?…You just have to kind of try to figure it out along the way, see industry trends, see what other people are doing, see what other people are having success with.”

          Murtaugh also discussed how that mindset permeates their strategy 24/7/365. It’s not just about each game, each season, and each academic year. The volume and the speed of college sports necessitates always staying (or trying to stay) a couple steps ahead.

          “What are some of things that we just cannot do without?,” Murtaugh asked rhetorically, reinforcing the equation of economy. “But what are some of the things that we want to do in the future?…Let’s start putting a plan together so when we’re talking in March and April of next year we’re hitting the ground running. So [come] summer we’ll be ready to go and we won’t have any downtime because we’re already going to have our kind of our marching orders because we already know where we want to go.”

          Regardless of size, resources, or any number of variables, all organizations could benefit from the scrutiny and planning Murtaugh preaches. Plans, preparation, and certainly execution cannot happen in a silo, however. Cross-team coordination is becoming more valuable and expected than ever. Part of it is aligning goals, to be sure, but something else is at play here, too — a convergence around content. While there are different skillsets and tactics that permeate each aspect of a college athletics department, content is currency for most — telling their story, conveying their messages, and winning over their customers — content amplifies and is often the foundation of those efforts. Murtaugh talked about the various hats college sports pros have to wear, regardless of department. It’s not always ideal, but it’s often out of necessity (and increasingly so).

          “Marketing departments are kind of becoming game operations/content creators. In my opinion that’s a different person…it’s a different brain [and] mindset,” Murtaugh explained. “So to be hopping back and forth from one to the other — I think that can be a little bit taxing and I think that’s why you’re starting to see some people [specialize]…

          “I don’t think that we’ll ever be at a point where we’ll be able to have you just do [one thing], because I do think that there is some benefit to having multiple positions, but who’s the one that’s saying enough is enough? Like, alright, I’m already doing this and this and this. I don’t want to do this either, but it has to get done and you’re the only person that can do it.”

          Back to the main idea at hand — that ubiquitous challenge of always wanting for more resources — because many of Murtaugh’s notions come together here. It’s about making each other better, the whole ‘sum of the parts is greater than the whole’ principle. There sure will be times when we have to wear the less familiar hats, but when we work together, align goals, and maximize the skills and resources at disposal as a group — that’s how an athletic department (or any organization) operates at beyond 100%. Murtaugh summed it up perfectly:

          “You get so much more accomplished when you’re a bunch of we’s instead of a bunch of me’s.”

          LISTEN TO MY FULL INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MURTAUGH