SDSU and USD basketball games: two different fan bases, strategies, and atmospheres

I was lucky enough to attend two games in three days in mid-February 2018: First, a University of San Diego Toreros game at Jenny Craig Pavilion and, 36 hours later, a game at San Diego State University in their home venue – Viejas Arena.

Two Division I teams of different scale, with different resources, and different fan bases. Take a quick trip to each game with me, checking out the sports business and fan engagement elements.

A few quick takeaways


  • The atmospheres are night and day. USD felt like a great outing for a young family, where kids could have a good time, get a picture with the mascot and cheerleaders, watch their friends play at halftime, and maybe get a caricature done with mom and dad. Whereas the SDSU game was more like a party atmosphere, with loud music and flashing lights and screaming fans.
    • This difference is not a bad thing, just a reflection in different institutions in different places. SDSU, despite a tough season this year, has now established a culture of winning, which brings in the students and allows/necessitates a more raucous atmosphere. A bigger budget doesn’t hurt, too. USD has struggled on the court, which inevitably affects student attendance, and their marketing and presentation is more amenable to driving those looking for an affordable outing – families – and capturing them en masse, hence the engagement with youth teams, too. USD’s budget is also more tied to wealthy donors, and this atmosphere is more amenable to those attendees, too. (At risk of generalizing)
  • SDSU had much more sponsor-driven content and replays on their video board, while USD’s in-game engagement was more of the ‘cams’ we see so often. Stuff like surf cams and dab cams can appeal to students and families alike (everyone wants to be on the video board) and any school with an arena cam can create these fun opportunities. Get on the video board, and it doesn’t matter who wins or loses.
    • This is not to say USD doesn’t want more sponsor involvement in their games (see the Domino’s Delivery of the Game), they’re looking for ways to drive fan engagement during the game that doesn’t require manpower to create graphics, videos, and animations. Their plan is to grow in this space, but I personally love the idea of the surf cam, and getting a sponsor for it will only allow it to have a little more juice and aesthetic.
  • The disparity in sponsor impressions between the two schools was certainly stark, and this represents an opportunity for USD. Their halftime stats and highlights, their cams, their dearth of digital signage — all this means there is great potential for the Toreros to drive more sponsor revenue, and they’re getting assets in place to do so. It’s easier said than done, however, when they don’t boast the crowds that SDSU gets for their games. It’s why some deals will start as bonuses or throw-ins, before becoming assets that command some more serious coin.
    • Whether the attendance is in the thousands (as for SDSU) or the hundreds (as it is for USD most games), sponsorships can be more than just presented by or than static signage. It was notable how many activations the Aztecs partners had included a text CTA or enter to win or an active element in their app. It doesn’t matter as much if 5,000 fans see something, but there are no results to show for it, if 1,000 fans see something and 100 take some measurable action.
  • It was pretty darn cool when the lights were out, the video board was flashing, and a bunch of fans and students were shouting in unison “I believe that we will win!” while some stomped their feet to rumble the arena (Yeah, I know it’s the USMNT chant, too). It was hard not to get chills. Traditions are a powerful thing and make the game day experience something special that can’t be missed by students, alums, or loyal fans.
    • USD Athletics recently got new leadership and is working on reestablishing their traditions. It’ll be fun to see it happen and come together.


There is so much at play for college athletics — driving student attendance, driving non-student attendance, getting donations, fulfilling sponsor deals, producing content for in-game and web and social and traditional platforms, and doing it all when you have a dozen or two dozen or more other sports to worry about, too, some of which are also revenue sports. It’s a fun challenge that so many of us have. And we’re all doing our best to figure it out and to create fan experiences that are special, that will strengthen ties to the school, and do it all while minding the bottom line.


A Trip Around the NBA Crossover event at NBA All-Star: Engagement and Activation

As part of NBA All-Star 2018 in Los Angeles, the NBA held a special event for fans that celebrated the crossover of NBA and culture – NBA Crossover. There were sponsor activations, exhibits, free swag, and more.

What follows is a photo tour of the event, along with more info on the activations, to give a full review of the event.


Alessandro Gasparro on the Importance of Understanding How Fans Speak and What Engages Them

On episode 113 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Alessandro Gasparro, Director of Social Media Strategy, Endeavor.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

Posted by Neil Horowitz

Follow me on Twitter @njh287 Connect on LinkedIn

Mark Burns Summarizes What Sports Business Experts Think of VR, AR, OTT, esports, and more for 2018

On episode 110 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Mark J. Burns, founder of Sports Business Chronicle.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

Posted by Neil Horowitz

Follow me on Twitter @njh287 Connect on LinkedIn

Figuring Out Social Media and Sponsorship in Sports Isn’t Easy, But It’s Essential


There remains a fine line between advertising and sponsorship.

At risk of oversimplifying, advertisers intrude, sponsors add value. And today’s fans/consumers are equal parts skeptical and understanding. They’ll sniff out an ad (and often it’s not that hard), while appreciating a sponsor. The key to finding the happy medium for social media and sports lies in the authenticity – in messaging and in platform.

I couldn’t help but notice a conversation among social media and sports peeps on Twitter (don’t you love those?) prompted by a tweet from Jessica Smith (yes, THE Jessica Smith, aka @WarJessEagle) noting a San Diego Padres Instagram post that looked more like a McDonald’s ad, noting fans could get free McNuggets because the Padres won. [see below]

Now, the Padres are one of several pro sports teams that have similar deals with restaurant partners, whereby an offer is activated by a team win or achievement. It’s a nice way for a partner to celebrate along with fans. This is a fine way for a restaurant sponsor to activate their partnership with the team. The idea is not the issue, it’s the way the platform is usurped for nothing more than an ad.

Let me tell a story. I’ve lived this.

A major restaurant sponsor worked with me on a BOGO (buy one get one free) deal activated by a team win, which we’d deliver and track via mobile. Pretty standard. I worked on a few mockups as examples of how it would be communicated to fans on digital and social platforms. There were players and sick team graphics, ideas for player reads and skits and photos, and a GIF. All co-branded and delivering the offer message.

And all that work was turned down. It’s nobody’s fault, really. They were beholden to their branding and, despite my reasoned protestations, wouldn’t (and kinda couldn’t) budge from their creative, which looked like a coupon one would find as, yes, an advertisement.

The result? After weeks of lackluster results, we reviewed the data. It was short of expectations, and the brand’s team wanted ideas for improvement. It starts with replacing ads with content, and commercials with sponsor activations.

So how can this all be avoided in the first place, resulting in better outcomes (short-term and long-term) for fans and for corporate partners? It takes a lot of trust, first. An exchange of brand activation between partners (team and sponsor) is a big deal. But collaboration and using each one’s knowledge of the customer / fan is a good place to start.

No one knows the platforms better than those who live and work in it every day. The respective social media teams for the teams AND for the partner brands should have a seat at the table. They can see the content from the fan’s perspective better than anybody and make sure something doesn’t just pass the smell test, but is something fans want to sniff out. (Did that extension of the analogy work?)

Respect the fans. Respect the platforms. Be bold. Create content. There doesn’t have to be a value exchange (with fans getting ads, so they can get content), there can be value from added from all sides. A net outcome that favors everybody.

Social networks represent a powerful opportunity. But it’s a power that cannot be taken lightly.

Lessons on How Sponsors Can Sharpen Their Game to Engage Fans at Events

Despite the deluge of digital and social, there is no greater chance for exposure and engagement than that experienced IRL (in real life). But even those opportunities to come face to face with consumers in a welcoming environment, whether at sports events, festivals, or the like, are only as effective as the execution.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the opening event for the 2017 season of Formula Drift, a league for the DRIFT sport (cars drifting!), that boasts over a million fans around the globe and reaches tens to hundreds of thousands on a weekly basis. Their events also host dozens of mostly endemic sponsors that engage and activate and seek to drive value with, for, and from fans.

This up-and-coming generation of consumers have increasingly higher standards to engage, but they also recognize value when they see it. It’s always fun to learn from these events and how business execute. Here are ten lessons from Formula Drift’s event in Long Beach, where there were true connections and genuine engagement between fans and corporate partners.

Data exchange for free swag

There were tons of places giving out, well, free swag. And many of them had tablets mounted where fans waited in line to input their data in exchange for bags, t-shirts, hats, and more. And fans didn’t seem to mind the requirement at all. This is not an all-too-uncommon tactic, but the clear understanding of exchanging ‘x’ for ‘y’ was so evident that it stood out to me. It was organized, simple enough, and fans knew what they were there for — the (branded) swag.

Relevant swag – Adding value to experience, in exchange for data

Not all the free swag was relevant, but some of it went beyond token or knick-knacks to swag that fans wanted. Ford was giving away ear buds for fans that many have wanted to listen to the event commentary on their devices. There were also interactive photo ops to make memories (and digital content to share), and car accessories perfect for this crowd. There were lots of keychains, pens, stickers, and such, but the best are giving away relevant swag (related to the brand or service the partner produced or offered) and value-add swag and items (that added to the experience for fans at the event). Check off one of these boxes, check off both of these boxes – golden. And fans will gladly give data for that.

Methods – Tablets and paper [and spin to win]

Two common themes I noticed between sponsors at a NASCAR event and at the Formula Drift event – lots of opportunities to spin a wheel to win, and tablets to input information. The ‘try your luck’ element and the, well, fun of spinning a wheel with everyone watching attracts fans – and they’re willing to hand over some information for the opportunity. As mentioned previously, tablets were used by many – fill out the form and get some swag. Not only do the best have some relevant swag (see above), but they’re also mindful about what they’re requesting from the fans. The more fields there, the less likely it is fans will complete (or at least take care to complete it accurately). Many of these sponsors kept it simple and relevant – name, email, vehicle make/model/year. Some got even more targeted to their market. Some also asked for, frankly, a bit too much info – name, email, phone, street address, vehicular info, age, education. Choose wisely and make sure every piece of info asked is worth the ask.

Ambassador appearances

When possible, there is perhaps no better way to attract and engage a crowd than having the endorser or ambassador on-site. At the Formula DRIFT event, where fans can up close to the drivers and cars before the competition starts, sponsors were activating around them. This meant going lighter on the designated sponsor area, resting assured fans would come to see the driver and see their car. And they did. And when they did, they were exposed to the brand’s setup, too – with product on display, swag and data capture, brochures and on-site experts. Sometimes the bait, and the credibility it can lend, is the first and most important step.

Building brand with apparel

Just about every single brand at the Formula DRIFT event was endemic. They sold car parts, accessories, and stuff that I am not educated enough about cars to understand. But there was also a ton of apparel. Some even had apparel partnerships or full lines of t-shirts, caps, and hoodies to serve as a considerable part of the setup and a revenue stream. Just because you sell tires and suspensions, doesn’t mean fans won’t wear your gear. Perhaps the best way to create a visible brand is to create a visible brand.

Photo-ops and sick displays/cars

Visual appeal, sights that scream photo op, and a sense of feng sui can go a long way in getting fans to come your way. And there was plenty of that to go around among the sponsors at Formula DRIFT. It’s hard to resist the pull of an eye-catching, wow-inducing car (and to take a picture next to it). This not only drives foot traffic, but earned media as the brand is shared out. But wait, there’s more. There was incredible care with which stuff like exhaust pipes or steering wheels or mufflers were displayed. There’s an art to it and, fo the ones that take care and know what they’re doing and why, it can go a long way. It’s an all-channel, all-senses world (ok, maybe not smell so much; though there was an air freshener sponsors).

Premium areas

There were a couple areas that attracted the most stares – and they weren’t accessible to the public. A couple major partners had some fancy VIP areas, complete with big screens, buffet,decorations, and more. They were surrounded, too, by a typical setup with product and activations for the public. The VIP areas were special guests of the brand and the local retail partners that sold them. While it may not engage every fan that attends the event, there is intangible value gained not just from the eyeballs it attracts, but the credibility and repute it adds for the brand, as a Formula DRIFT partner.

Products on display and brochures, presentation

This is a pretty simple idea, but sometimes can be lost in the midst of activities and shiny objects and swag. Particularly for a brand endemic to the sport and of interest to the fans – they want to learn about what’s out there. They want to know about the top brands in the space and learn more about, well, how to make their own cars go faster and look cooler. Many also had brochures for more info and a handful had digital brochures and microsets on touch screens (tablets are for more than just form entry). The touch screens can be hard for any curious fan to resist and it offers an entry to engage, as well as an opportunity for the staffer on-hand to start a conversation.

Social media and earned impressions

Plenty of sponsors post hash tags and Twitter handles abound at events like these. (Including one brand that just promoted its YouTube and Pinterest accounts only). But, for some, there was a premium placed on social media impressions and gains. There were the straightforward ‘Follow us’ on social media for some free swag. One brand, however, had some pretty extensive instructions to share a picture in front of a specific standup via social, using a hash tag and tagging the brand, and following the brand – all to get a small knick-knack. The burden of effort was a bit too much for me, but it is clear social media is on the mind of many. The key just needs to be a focus on authenticity. If a fan is posting something on social media out of a sense of obligation or because someone told them they had to in order to get ‘x,’ the value of that so-called earned media is no doubt diminished.

Deep engagement and conversation

Especially at events full of big crowds and thousands in eyeballs and foot traffic, there can be a commitment to scale – reach as many fans as possible, but there is a lot of value in the quality of engagements, too. Fueled by the knowledge that there are a bunch of car fans here, sponsors on-site could approach with relative assurance there was a receptive audience of fans loitering and looking because they were genuinely interested. It can help to go beyond just thinking about conversions and consider conversation, where quality can trump quantity. In a world where we equate numbers with success, it’s important to appreciate not all consumer engagements and touches are equivalent. Value what’s valuable.

There is so much to consider when you have the opportunity to get a casual glance from a fan and a potential customer. Don’t just make it a data grab, but it’s okay to ask for it – just make sure it matters. And never take the attention and engagement with fans for granted.