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.


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.


The Expanding Definition of Sports Fandom and What Sports Business is Doing About It

It took sports shutting down to speed the sports industry into a new era.

Sure, fan engagement and monetization had digital elements before covid entered the daily zeitgeist. But the conditions for a complete paradigm shift happened as everybody was stuck at home and the sports business was left with no choice but to innovate. An industry that had for so long enjoyed enormous recurring reliable revenue had to pivot (unless you had insurance, like Wimbledon!). But for these billion-dollar businesses whose moneymaking models had largely not changed in over a quarter century, the path forward is anything but certain.

“Sports, I think in a lot of ways is one of the fastest-moving industries because it is a little bit smaller than some other big things, but it’s also a fairly slow-moving industry in a lot of other ways,” said Jacob Feldman, who covers innovation in fan engagement, among other broad topics in sports business, for the publication Sportico. “So to see those changes happen, basically overnight during the pandemic, was really fascinating. And now we’re kind of seeing a proving point of are these things worth keeping. Are they worth pushing forward on it? Should we put these ideas back on the shelf and maybe they weren’t ready yet?”

Digital engagement became paramount during the pandemic as so much of, well, life was spent on Zoom or watching streaming or engaging with online communities or games. Sports wanted to ensure they were part of that engagement diet, capturing hearts, minds, and, more broadly, attention and time spent.

But something else was bubbling up, too, during the time that digital fans and localized fans were one and the same. ‘Fans’ couldn’t go to games, they couldn’t wear their team’s t-shirt in a pickup basketball game at the gym or talk about being at the big game at the watercooler the next day. Life was being lived online more than ever — a lasting challenge and opportunity for sports business.

“You have thousands of other things to spend time on now. I think that has been the biggest driver of teams, leagues, players, media networks, all saying, okay, how do we, whether it’s looking more or working more like those new things are, or just improving our product so that it can compete with those things I think is the biggest driver (of innovation),” said Feldman, who has written extensively about NFTs, web3, fan engagement startups and more for Sportico.

“It’s competing for attention, it’s also competing for identity. Like, people who are young people in the world, young adults, maybe just out of college, trying to decide who they wanna be, what are they gonna put in their Twitter profile and their Instagram profile? Are they gonna put Warriors fan or are they gonna put Fortnite player? Once you determine who you are and what you do, everything else kind of comes from that.”

The broad scope of identity is an important inflection point for sports fandom. It was once about having a bumper sticker on your car, wearing your team’s cap, or going to a team bar to watch the game. All that can still be part of being a fan, but, as Feldman stated, digital identity can be just as important. For some, being a fan on digital platforms is the only way they can express their fandom. They evangelize the team as they engage on digital and social, and they showcase their identity in whatever way they can. And oftentimes the team has no idea who they are, let alone a way to give or get value from it. Feldman used himself as an example, at Atlanta Hawks residing in the northeast, and the opportunity to strengthen and activate his Hawks engagement.

“I’m a big Atlanta Hawks fan. The Atlanta Hawks don’t know who I am, don’t know that I’m a Hawks fan and at some point that’s frustrating, right?,” said Feldman, who grew up in Winston-Salem, NC before heading up north to attend Harvard for college. “Like, in every other way I go about life — I play Magic the Gathering sometimes when I have some free time, and Wizards of the Coast — the people who put that game out, they know who I am. They have my email, they message me, I get rewards, all these kinds of things.

“I don’t get that for spending hundreds of hours watching the Hawks, reading about the Hawks, talking about the Hawks. I’m a massive evangelist for this brand and I get nothing back from it. So I think NFTs hopefully were a wake-up call that teams need to be doing more in that world to connect with fans [like that].”

Connecting with fans, making them feel appreciated, and giving them more chances to engage with the players and teams they love are not altruistic endeavors, of course. There is money to be made. The technology that sticks around is not only what fans will adopt, but what will enable all these displaced fans, and the sports businesses…err….teams that they support to manifest that investment and engagement in tangible ways. “[Sports organizations are] recognizing how much money is being left on the table from fans who don’t live within a hundred miles of the stadium,” Feldman stated. “Whether that’s international, whether that’s just kind of national, that’s been changing a lot in terms of what teams are able to do. Obviously, technology has allowed them to reach those fans and monetize those fans.”

The sports industry has plenty of incentive and necessity to make moves and to do so quickly. Organizations in sports need to explore emerging engagement vehicles and platforms, lest they get left behind. There was a lot of experimentation in the last few years in sports, and it’s not yet clear which paradigms will prevail in the years and decades to come. But we’re watching it play out right now, and the road ahead for what it means to be a sports fan is uncertain and exciting.

Said Feldman: “I think whether sports is being dragged or sports are finally coming around to some of these innovations, it is happening now. And we can go back to the pandemic thing — I think that was a big push. It’s also just kind of where the money is, right? You know, Apple and Amazon have the money, and they’re going to be slowly gaining a bigger and bigger foothold in sports.

“[Innovation in sports business] was slow in the past. I think it is speeding up, but they still have a way to go to catch up to some of these other industries.”


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.”


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.”


    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.


      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.


        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.”


          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.


          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.