How to Develop Sponsored Fan Engagement that Keeps Sponsors Coming Back

What does the recap look like for your sponsored social media content?

It’s likely packed with the usual metrics — reach, comments, likes (‘engagement’), perhaps video views and completion rate, maybe even some audience demographics. And that’s great. But recognize that those metrics really only help the sponsor accomplish a couple of objectives — awareness and (more loosely) brand association.

But if the sponsor is investing in that partnership with your team or league and hoping to tie it to its bottom line, that’s going to be more challenging. Nick Lawson has been around the sports business for years and saw too many sponsorships churn over the years because of such limitations. When the partners assessed the effectiveness of their sponsorships to allocate budget, deals that delivered reach and awareness only were often the first on the chopping block.

Sponsors are trying to reach your fans, so, yeah, reach certainly matters. They want fans to interact with their brand, so engagement means something, too. But it’s after the reach and the engagement that the most value gets created and, even weeks or months later, can help a partner’s bottom line.

“…A lot of people forget, especially in sponsorship, the re-engagement,” said Lawson, who is co-founder and CEO of digital engagement platform SQWAD. “When you run a Facebook ad and you earn that email, even if somebody doesn’t make a purchase, you can create an audience that reengages that person who maybe put something in their cart. We didn’t have that in sponsorship [when Nick was coming up].”

These corporate partners are businesses with marketing and partnership budgets. Money spent on one avenue, like a team sponsorship, means taking away from another tactic to help drive sales or lead generation or whatever helps make money for the business in the short term and long term. That’s ultimately what the team is up against each cycle for a partnership, to prove that the ROI of the sponsorship is better than the ROI of spending that budget elsewhere. So it has to go beyond impressions, says Lawson, because when decision day comes, that’s what separates the indispensable from the rest.

“If you’re not giving a reason why return on investment a brand should come back with you, they’re gonna default to, ‘Okay, we’re gonna cut something, what’s it gonna be?,” said Lawson, whose SQWAD works with the biggest sports teams in the world. “Well, we don’t really need social impressions anymore. That’s kind of a vanity metric for us. So let’s cut everything that has social metrics.’ 

“If you have a thing that says, ‘Hey, we’re earning 1500 leads per month through this team. I can’t turn off that pipeline. That’s too important for my organization.”

It seems so clear and simple. But go back to that original question and envision what the sponsored social recap looks like across the board. Are those results that the partner can’t live without? That’s what Lawson is getting at, the results should be aligned with what the sponsor needs to accomplish. Sometimes that’s only awareness and the reach metrics look great. But if the way to maintain and grow the sponsorship goes beyond helping to drive awareness, you have to deliver more.

That can be a mindset shift, too, because engineering or delivering such measurement goes beyond the norm. The ‘typical’ sponsored social campaign still has a foundation of reach and engagement. It doesn’t have to be that way, Lawson told me.

“The tough thing becomes is just because [the sponsor] is not asking you for those numbers [that] doesn’t mean they’re not gonna make a decision based on, you showed that this social tweet got ‘X’ amount of views, if their north star metric was earning leads that means nothing to them,” he said. “And again, going back to if you’re not giving a reason why return on investment a brand should come back with you, they’re gonna default to, ‘Okay, we’re gonna cut something, what’s it gonna be? Well, we don’t really need social impressions anymore. That’s kind of a vanity metric for us. So let’s cut everything that has social metrics.’”

So what goes into developing a fan engagement post or platform for a sponsor? There are several ‘classics’ that one can find across teams and sports at all levels. Lawson and his team at SQWAD have spent years and built a business on, creating platforms that deliver results. That fans enjoy, want to engage with, and end up converting on. It doesn’t have to be rocket science; indeed some of SQWAD’s most popular activations include prediction contests and scratch-off sweepstakes. It’s all by design. Because successful concepts share a couple of key characteristics, Lawson explained.

“The first part of it is the activation should be fun and familiar,” he described. “Like, when we’re thinking of a new activation, the first thing is, is this fun? Would I actually have fun doing this? And that goes back to entering an email for a chance to win a jersey — is that fun? No. It’s only fun for one person because only one person wins a jersey. So the fun factor is very low on that. 

“And then familiar. I always go to this [idea] of somebody says, ‘Hey, there’s a new card game that I want to play with you.’ If they say it’s like ‘this,’ then I’m much more obliged to play than if they just say it’s a brand new one [and] have to teach you all the rules. So familiar is the second piece of it. Is it fun? Is it familiar?”

Including all of the business objectives, all sides prize one common goal — a positive fan experience. Engagement is a good sign of that, it’s a store of value. But don’t forget about the partner in the equation, find a way to ensure they’re getting some of that value, too. Include that in the recap.


Why Athletes Were and Still Are the Original Influencers — If They Want to Be

There’s this notion that athletes have to build their brands. If they’re not making the most of their time in the sports spotlight and growing their brands (in the form of social media clout), they’re deficient, missing out, or even negligent.

But it’s not so black and white. It’s like the 7-foot teenager whom everyone expects to try and make it big in basketball or the Rookie of the Year that bursts onto the national radar — if they’re not maximizing that opportunity, they’re doing it wrong.

But the thing about sports, and what differentiates athletes from professional influencers and creators who literally make their living from social media clout, is that it’s largely gravy for the most elite athletes. The marketing and branding opportunity, however, can be transformative helping to create value for universities, leagues, teams, and, yes, the athletes themselves and their families.

Dakota Crawford, Head of Marketing for athlete influencer marketplace platform MarketPryce, has encountered just about every variation of athlete in his career. He worked with IndyCar drivers whose livelihood was directly affected by their attractiveness to potential team sponsors. He helped National Hockey League (NHL) players build their brands, an ancillary goal for many who already had millions guaranteed thanks to years-long contracts. And now at MarketPryce, Crawford works with athletes of all sorts, particularly college athletes at all levels, many of whom have a brief time in the spotlight to capitalize on that athlete advantage.

Crawford has come to appreciate that the different circumstances in which athletes find themselves affect the sense of urgency they feel to build up a brand that’s all their own.

“There are a couple of ways I think of it,” said Crawford, who helped the NHL launch and grow its Player Social Development Program before joining MarketPryce. “One is like this graph of an x-axis and a y-axis where one [axis] is how good are you at your sport and how influential are you on the field or on the ice or what have you. The other is how much do I need to put my personality out there? And they’re inverted lines, right? So if you’re Alex Ovechkin, you don’t necessarily ever need to do anything that shows off your personality. You’re good enough at hockey that you have a built-in following and they’re gonna be excited if you post anything…

“If you are a rookie playing in Anaheim, you have a slightly different challenge and I think you have to come in ready to put yourself out there, build your brand. And that’s even more so the case for the athletes we’re working with now at MarketPryce, who are D1, D2 volleyball players — your performance on the court isn’t gonna carry you to stardom on social…”

Athletes have so many built-in advantages that those others, the professional social media influencers, do not. First, they arrive with [and live] stories that are appealing to followers and to brands. No athlete reaches the pinnacle of their sport without a lot of sacrifice, hard work, and aspirational talent. Second, while creators find themselves on a perpetual hamster wheel of content creation, athletes often have photos, highlights, and stories flowing by nature of their occupation, coming from leagues, agents, teams, and media. Crawford called out this valuable benefit for athletes but noted that for the non-Ovechkin-like athletes to go to that next level, they need to do a little more.

“We would tell players [at the NHL] we can only do so much for you, first of all, but what we can cover is the base that is your on-ice performance. I can help you celebrate your biggest moments on the ice, I can help you have great assets to share, to support NHL campaigns like Hockey Fights Cancer or something to post during pride month or whatever it might be,” he said. “But the most engaging thing you can put out is what you are willing to do yourself. 

“I think I would tell any college athlete who we work with now ‘Figure out how to put your personality out there. Tell your story, do it authentically. If you get a hype video from the team that you play for, great; post that. But it can’t be the only thing that you post.”’

Crawford and his colleagues saw that promise come to fruition during the height of the pandemic in 2020, as players had nothing but time and TikTok took the world by storm. That enthusiasm and activity dissipated, however, as Crawford said many NHL players largely went back to the perhaps excessive humility once things went back to (kind of) normal. But something else magical started to happen as Crawford and his team found a young, willing group of up-and-coming star players.

Working in collaboration with the league, Anaheim Ducks rookie Trevor Zegras became the ‘poster child’ for what it could look like to mix the spoon-fed sports highlights with the ‘put yourself out there’ mentality. And that took it to the next level, for Zegras and for the league.

“We equipped him to post around [his viral] moments and that’s great. And it’s kind of like we talked about — because he was doing awesome things he’s getting more engagement so he didn’t have to lean into it with his personality to keep those numbers going up,” Crawford described of Zegras’s ascendance in his 2021-22 rookie season, highlighted by a viral video the league made for Zegras representing his anti-highlights, a ‘lowlights’ video of Zegras messing up at times.

“Not every player was willing to laugh at themselves in that way, but Trevor was, and we learned that, after six months, a year of working with him through the first stages of his career…”To me, that was the moment where I was like, ‘We did this.’ We really got a player excited, bought in, and posting something that moves the needle for his brand and for the league.”

A new generation of athlete is here. One that recognizes the opportunity to be more than an athlete, that the combination of being a superstar athlete and a human is powerful. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Athletes were always the original influencers, anyway, and they’re starting to realize the opportunity that offers.


San Diego Wave vs. Angel City FC NWSL Game – Fan Engagement + Sports Biz

On September 17, 2022, the San Diego Wave and Angel City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) set a single-game attendance record for the NWSL when over 32,000 fans came to see the game at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego.

Here’s a taste of the game, with a fan engagement bent. Check it out below

The Key to Successful Athlete-Brand Partnerships

The sports sponsorship and advertising space is evolving in multiple directions. In some ways, analytics and marketplaces and automation can make partnerships like mathematical transactions, no different than the NBA Trade Machine on But then there are true partnerships — with each side banking on the other, entering into a mutually beneficial agreement with upside; the whole greater than the sum of their parts.

That sounds good on paper, but what does it look like in practice? While massive athletes and organizations can play the upper hand, the up-and-coming or niche athletes and organizations face a more level playing field. And it’s in those scenarios where the partner in partnerships is even more integral.

It is at this intersection where Andrew Stallings and Athelo Group are flourishing, with brands investing in athletes and vice-versa, both rising together. Stallings and his team work with some athletes on the rise, others that are at or near the top of their sport, even if their sport is not among those typically shown on SportsCenter every night or debated on First Take. For Stallings’s clients, it’s showing why they’re a great investment — why they’re valuable and how their value is only growing (so invest now!).

“(These athletes) need somebody to be constantly upselling, showing how I can bring more value, how this is growing, [how] that’s growing,” said Stallings, who is Founder and President of Athelo Group. “If my TikTok’s not working, my email newsletter is. If my email newsletter isn’t working, guess what? We’re starting a subscription box service in the next three months. They just want us to be constantly in that person’s ear to help build them.” 

Stallings added that the athlete should show that same interest in learning about the goals, values, and opportunities of their brand partners, too. “They should learn, they should be able to understand the brand,” he said, “the company, the morals, the people that they’re working with and representing; because [then] social content, messaging, and really explaining to their own audience why they work with a brand is gonna come second to none. It’s not gonna be just hashtag ad.”

The opportunity is boundless for athletes as the creator economy builds out more avenues for activation, as Stallings alluded to above. The most appealing partners in the sports space, in any space, are offering not just ad space, but a platform; a platform built around them. The savvy athletes are dipping their toes, if not diving all the way, into a number of tributaries that can activate their brand and engage their fans — and present new avenues for partners to come along for the ride. Stallings talked about the partnership marketing piece to athlete sponsorships; while a select few superstars may have deals thrown at them like scripts to a movie star, for most of the sports world, there’s a marketing, buy-and-sell aspect.

“(Brands) want to converse with agencies and teams and athletes and influencers that have a diverse portfolio of assets for them to activate against,” explained Stallings, whose Athelo Group has formed and activated marketing partnerships with athletes and brands since 2018. “They don’t all need to be built out. You don’t need to have a million followers across every single platform you work with. You don’t need to have audiences with massive buying power.

“What you do need to show is that you’re working towards and you’re trying and you’re steadily building and finding the success to be able to provide case studies to these brands of what is working, what can work, and what can be better with their help…They’re looking at how can this individual or how can this agency bring forth more assets to complement existing campaigns, further brand’s activation ideas and stuff that we have — how can they complement and be a supplemental resource to us?”

There’s a different feel when both parties are on the same side of table. There’s a desire, and even instinct, to not plan to execute the minimum requirement combined with the least necessary effort. Instead, the sense of teamwork and genuine connection can entrust and empower each side to optimize how they put the partner’s campaign into action. There is a positive feedback loop at play — the more believable the athlete activation, the more their authenticity and appeal to fans increases, thereby adding to the athlete’s value as a partner. Pretty cool, huh? Stallings calls it the “good stuff” and goes into detail about the realistic, ideal scenario.

“(You) find the authenticity, find the pivot, and be prepared when things don’t perform the way that the brand is expecting them to, be prepared to offer up alternatives, be able to give more and more before you’re just sending over that invoice,” he said. “Because that’s the good stuff, right? Like, you might be educating them by saying ‘Hey, if this is just an Instagram campaign, I get that you want to carousel, but I’ve been seeing great value with Reels. Do you mind if, for you, on the house, I just experiment by mixing your product in on this Reels post and let’s see how it goes?’

“A lot of people won’t do that. But if you’re one of those more lesser-known creators with value and upside, take the risk. What’s it gonna do? It’s gonna be an extra hour of work for you and you know what? You might have gotten yourself three more campaigns because of it. So you have to always be willing to overdeliver a little bit.”

In order to deliver (and overdeliver) and optimize, it’s essential to understand what success means for each side. That goes back to understanding objectives and strategies, to be sure, but the KPIs presented can also expose a bit about the relationship. There are transactional, immediate and visible ‘ROI’ partnerships, and then there are those may include more long-term, penetrating partnerships that expect to last a long time. Both types, and those in between, can be seen all over, but Stallings knows the type he likes to look for for Athelo’s clients.

“For some people [ROI means] big numbers, that’s all they want. Other people they’re like, man, we want signups. We want link clicks. We want sales,” said Stallings, who worked at Octagon, among other stops, before founding Athelo. “I think the worst nightmare you can ever have when working with a brand or an agency or anybody is if they are 100% sales-driven and nothing else, [it’s] probably best for you to walk away because they are not seeing the bigger picture of the authenticity of a relationship and they probably haven’t done the homework on your audience.”

Athletes thrive when working as part of a team. They want to be versatile, multi-tool players. And they will study and adjust and do what it takes to win. That all sounds like a winning formula for their competitive endeavors and well beyond.


How to Marry Brand and ROI in Social Media and Sports

Social media and sports pros are asked to deliver a lot. They must drive the key ‘vanity’ metrics to ensure the brand is reaching a wide audience, keep the engagement rate high in order to be attractive to sponsors, aaaand help develop new fans across generations — and do all that while building and enhancing the brand of the organization and activating their presence across a number of disparate platforms. And, oh yeah, create content and track and interpret data, too.

Yeah, it’s a lot.

The volume of demands and output requires a keen sense of brand development, and a deep understanding of each social channel. There are still some that press ‘send’ and see their content, copy, and creative plastered across platforms identically to drive up the vanity metrics; but the vast majority do not, and for good reason. I recount all this to set up the insights offered by Austin Penny, who helped develop and execute social media strategy for Auburn Athletics and Auburn Football, as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — recognizing each organization’s unique goals and how to effectively execute against them across platforms, while staying true to stated brand goals and values. Penny was able to frame the discussion in clear and stark terms, noting the similarities and differences of moving from Auburn to the NFL and the Bucs.

“Everything that we did at Auburn was based around recruiting,” said Penny, who had two separate stints working at Auburn around his time with the Bucs. “At the end of the day, you’re creating content to show what it’s like to be an Auburn Tiger; [to] really give that 14 to 18 year-old the best insight of what it would be like if they came and played a sport and studied at Auburn. So that was our goal every single day is how can we create content that’s going to show that?…

“[Then] with the Bucs], it went from recruiting to revenue…”[It was] ‘let’s do our best to create content, sell [social] media, work with corporate partnerships to make sure that we’re marrying the right content to the right partner.'”

The trick is to create content worth marrying to the partners in a way that aligns with the brand that the Bucs wanted to put out there, too. A brand that fans would want to identify with and wrap their arms around, and also a brand with which sponsors would want to partner. When Penny joined the team, the Bucs were about to set sail (sorry, had to do it) on a reinvigorated brand strategy, creating a desirable brand in which fans could take pride. It’s one thing to talk about a brand, another to articulate it, and yet another to execute and convey it. Penny described the pillars that guided him and the Bucs on social media. With an identity in place, they were ready to go when moves on the football side presented an opportunity — wind in their sails, if you will.

“We had fearless, we had being piratical and really taking advantage of our mascot — who we are — [and] we had being heartfelt,” said Penny in describing the Bucs’ brand pillars. “Then you start to have these [player] signings where you’re getting Tom [Brady], you’re getting these guys and the hype is starting to build, and then you’re rolling out this new brand.

“And you can see it from [around] last February into April — the brand transition, along with the jersey change, that’s kinda what helped spur that on, and then you get a brand that is high-class. You get a brand that’s really focused on the customer service side and look how cool we are. You want to be a part of this, you definitely want to be a part of this. Look, we’re winning now. “

Penny conceded that, of course, winning makes everything easier. But even the best teams still face the challenges that every organization does in trying to be intentional about their brand — being engaging to different fan demos on different platforms. The tactics, voice, and content packaging, substance, and strategy can all differ when speaking to diverse groups of fans and on different social networks. It’s not about trying to be everything to everybody; that’s a doomed proposition. To have success on each social channel is to respect and use those differences; to understand who you’re talking to on each platform and how they like to engage there. The brand’s north star can be consistent even as it floats to different platforms; it’s not unlike how, well, real humans have distinct personalities even if the way they talk around their aunts and uncles is different from the way they talk around their friends. Penny gave a thoughtful explanation of how the Bucs looked at some of the major social platforms.

“On Twitter, we were way more engaging, we knew that we had to constantly be talking back to fans — not in a bad way, but talking back to fans and engaging with them, making them feel like they were a part of this whole thing,” said Penny, who today works as a Social Media Manager for sports digital and social marketing agency STN Digital.

“On Facebook, we started a Facebook Group for our fans and we would always be in that engaging with them, giving them opportunities for giveaways and that type of thing. So we were a little bit more not necessarily reserved, but we were more appreciative, I guess you could say, as a brand. On Instagram there were times where we were telling people to walk the plank because they were clapping at us and saying how terrible of a game we had or how bad we were, and we’re just like ‘Hey, you know what, whatever we’re coming after you at times.’”

The reason it is so necessary to have presence across a growing number of platforms is that teams and schools and sports organizations are trying to reach everybody. They’re trying to reach existing fans across a variety of sociodemographic groups, while also reaching and converting potential new fans, particularly among the younger cohorts. It’s easier said than done, however, and it’s why hitting big numbers overall is not always a clear signifier of success on social media. And it’s why such a thoughtful approach across social networks is essential.

Penny broke it down further: “It’s not necessarily about just growing platforms,” he said, “but it’s doing it the way that we know that we should — are we putting out content that our fans are actually engaging with and then, to take that a step further, how are we locking in on the 14 to 18-year-old next crop of NFL fans? Are we showing content that’s resonating with them?

“And then it’s like, okay, how are we going to do our job so we can make sure that 10 years from now we’re still able to have a job because there is that next crop of fans coming. And that’s every professional sport league…”

Penny continued, hitting on what guides social media teams in making economical decisions about how and where to deploy their limited resources.

“Every platform has its own world, really, and you may have fans or followers that follow you on every single platform and kind of going back to my earlier point about having a different voice on [each platform] that kind of gives them incentive to follow you on everything. But from actually breaking it out and figuring out where we’re going to put our resources, it’s really prioritization of the buckets of the people that we’re trying to hit.

“Every platform is going to have a key demo that you’re going to hit and once you figure that out and you kind of understand that better, you can really start to attack it, divvy up your resources better.”

There’s no one way to identify success on social media, because each organization comes with its own goals and distinct brand. The best know what they’re trying to do, they’re intentional about it. Every decision, post, and piece of content is not about what will earn the highest engagement — that’s part of it, sure — but it’s what will earn the highest engagement while helping ‘x’ goal and conveying ‘y’ brand and reaching ‘z’ audience, among a number of other letters of the alphabet representing variables.

There are a lot of pathways to earning the engagement and impressions that many use to measure success, but the routes and destinations are unique to each organization. Every strategy needs to start by mapping out the routes and destinations that make sense for them. Don’t ever lose or forget the compass, it’s the only way to get where you need to go.


20 Quick Sports Business and Social Media Nuggets, Insights, and Takeaways from the 2021 Hashtag Sports Conference

The worst parts of the pandemic appear to be over and sports are gradually returning to normalcy. Games are being played in front of packed venues and there is more than enough live sports programming to satisfy any fan’s appetite. But there have been and will be lasting effects of 2020 for the sports industry — new platforms, new fan behaviors, new opportunities and necessities. These themes permeated much of the conversation at the 2021 Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference this past June, one of many great industry events that Hashtag Sports holds.

I recommend you check out all the panels (they’re available on demand). You’ll digest some thought-provoking ideas and key learnings from the panels — here I present some of mine in the following 20 nuggets: 

  1. Don’t chase numbers, accomplish goals. In a conversation between STN Digital’s David Brickley and Shareablee’s Tania Yuki, a key point was to establish objectives and KPIs for social media strategy and campaigns and focus on those metrics as measures of success. Depending on the goals, there are successful scenarios in which the vanity metrics do not go up.  
  1. “Too much time is spent on finding the wins.” This quote came from Yuki, who noted there is a ton of insight to come from looking at the ‘losers’ among social media posts as there are the winners; perhaps even more. 
  1. On one of the panels, the moderator asked each speaker to name their favorite social media platform and why. For Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup, notably, it was Facebook. Why? It’s because it’s THE place for him and his partner brands to reach families. “Grandparents, aunts & uncles, (family) – you got everybody on there…” said Gallup.
  2. We see influencers partner and collaborate on platforms like TikTok and teammates often pairing up for podcasts for videos. But Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekelter talked about his initiatives uniting athletes across sports for causes, collaborations, organizations, and events like Twitch streams and tournaments. If athletes across sports start working together more, the possibilities are endless…
  1. In discussing the last year and recent priorities, both Jared Harding (Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche) and Nick Monroe (Milwaukee Bucks) named YouTube as an area of focus. They touted YouTube as a good way to reach new and broader audiences, so they’re programming for YouTube strategically.
  2. Greg Mize, Senior Marketing & Innovation Director with the Atlanta Braves, discussed the three criteria he and his team use when evaluating new digital/social platforms. There is the business case (how can this benefit the business?), the audience there (who can we reach?), and the resources required for success on the platform.
  1. In articulating his thoughts about TikTok, Mize characterized the content there with a thoughtful quote: “It’s the micro-highlight…It’s the highlight within the highlight.” A sharp summation about content like the bat flip and high-five resonating more than the actual home run (my line, not his).
  1. Portland Trail Blazers Director of Content Aaron Grossman talked about gleaning insights early on new platforms by getting feedback from the audience. “They say don’t read the comments, but with a new channel it’s important to [do so], to learn (what the audience likes).” The audience will often point to where you’re going right and where you’re going wrong.
  2. Grossman also cited the growth rate of the brand/account’s audience on a new platform as a key KPI to know if the team’s content is resonating and to evaluate the viability of the platform for the team overall.
  3. In discussing how teams can look at the ROI of social media, the Braves’s Mize talked about the long tail of fandom. “We believe firmly that creating engagement on social media will eventually have a long-tail impact on monetization…(We need to) build fandom through engagement.”
  4. Joe Carr, the CEO of Thrill One Sports and Entertainment (Nitro Circus, among other brands) talked about the company’s success with UGC, particularly during the pandemic. But Carr cautioned that it’s important to not saturate the brand’s feed with UGC and to be mindful of the type of UGC they’re sharing. Thrill One is cognizant to maintain brand integrity amidst the UGC strategy, he said.
  1. The Sacramento Kings have had a tough time on the court, but they operate at an all-pro level on social media. A key for them, according to Kings Social Media Manager Sydney Zuelke is to have fun on social media. That’s why the team has embraced a light, playful tone that is mimicked in their engaging content. If you have fun then fans will, too — win or lose.
  1. How pervasive is gaming (not to be confused, necessarily, with esports) among Gen Z? According to Hollister Director of Brand Marketing Jacee Scoular, 90% of their Gen Z consumers consider themselves a gamer (!). A stat that explains why the brand has entered the gaming space for various campaigns.
  1. Twitch Regional Vice President Nathan Lindberg was on a panel alongside Scoular and made an interesting comparison that esports fans are a bit like NASCAR fans. By that he means they genuinely appreciate the partners supporting their favorite drivers (or gamers) and sport — and therefore are undyingly loyal to those sponsor brands.
  1. Speaking of appreciating sponsors and being loyal (even evangelical) to those partners, Scotiabank’s Lisa Ferkul said this level of proselytizing fidelity has been very much the effect her brand has seen from their sponsorship of women’s sport. To underscore the opportunity (and dearth) for sponsorship of women’s sports, Ferkul cited an eye-popping stat — just 0.4% of sports sponsorship revenue. It’s just about all with men’s sports. Wow.
  1. Instagram’s Head of Sports Dev Sethi is always thoughtful on these conference panels and here he spoke about Instagram’s objective (for sports organizations to heed) of helping fans express themselves [and driving/helping them to do so by posting content to IG]. “How do you encourage fans to express themselves?” Sethi succinctly stated.
  1. Sethi also recommended organizations think ‘holistically’ about their Instagram strategy. To utilize all of the platform’s offerings in a cohesive manner — Feed, Stories, Reels, Shopping, IGTV, and Live. 
  1. Kaitee Daley runs social media for ESPN, so she knows all too well the frequent ideas and opinions expressed by everyday social media users (including coworkers) that aren’t social media professionals. It’s an experience to which many can relate, but Daley encouraged social pros to not let ‘backseat social media drivers’ get them down. Said Daley: “Driving your car every day doesn’t make you an expert in cars just like using social media every day doesn’t make you an expert in social. So trust your experts…”
  1. Jack Settleman, the brains behind leading Snapchat [and general social media] sports media brand Snapback Sports gave a thoughtful panel and talked about how he actually planned to go viral (and did) at the Super Bowl. How? He knew every year there’s a big hullabaloo about the color of Gatorade that would be dumped on the winning coach (also always a popular sports betting prop). So he made sure he had a good shot of the moment and got the video out there while the main broadcast wasn’t as focused on the Gatorade pouring moment. You can’t manufacture virality, but you sure can anticipate opportunities that present viral moments.
  1. Settleman also confirmed what many had suspected — hot takes and polarizing stances drive engagement with sports fans. There’s a reason the Skip Baylesses of the world drive engagement and reaction with their polarizing takes on TV and social media. Settleman said taking such stances and then letting the fans argue away has been a key ingredient in their engagement strategy.

There are far more nuggets of insight from the Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference that I could not get close to covering in the short list above. I recommend you check out the on-demand videos for further enlightenment.

If there’s one thing sports business professionals can count on, it’s that the engagement and activation strategies that prevail today won’t be the same next year, perhaps even next week. While we must follow the money and the metrics oftentimes, it’s important to never stop asking questions. To tackle challenges, to question the meaningfulness of the best and the worst ‘results’, to never get complacent, and to follow our instinct as fans at heart.  

How Brands Activated Their Stars on Social Media for Super Bowl Ad Campaigns

Super Bowl commercials are about much more than what airs on the big screen during the game. What started as calls-to-action to visit a brand’s .com website grew to requests to ‘like’ them on Facebook. Today, most brands that air Super Bowl ads plan and execute multi-faceted campaigns across digital and social platforms, often spanning several days before and after the actual football game. 

But wait, there’s more. The celebrities that pepper the Super Bowl commercials can yield enormous additional value to offer when they activate their social media channels, too. The question is: Are brands paying for the celeb[s] to play a role in their commercial or are they truly partnering with them for a campaign? With that in mind, here’s a look at how the ambassadors/stars of the commercials for several prominent brands used their social channels on and around Super Bowl Sunday.


Verizon had a mission to go after the gaming audience and ensure everybody knows that Verizon 5G is the only way to game. Their ambitious, video game-themed ad starring Samuel L. Jackson capped off a lot of activity, particularly with a roster of NFL players, to amplify Verizon’s campaign around gaming in the days preceding the game. Most of the NFL players did their part by quote-tweeting a Verizon tweet, as opposed to posting a native tweet (perhaps by design, perhaps just for simplicity and convenience). JuJu Smith-Schuster, a noted gamer and wide receiver, posted a retweet sweepstakes with prescribed copy on his timeline. Meanwhile on Super Bowl Sunday, Samuel L. Jackson got his hands on a GIF and directed a tweet with it to JuJu. The Jackson tweet properly put the period in front of JuJu’s Twitter handle, too (a glaring omission made on a since-deleted brand tweet by another brand celeb on Sunday…see later in the column). The campaign took place almost entirely on Twitter only and they were able to activate a lot of ambassadors, some better than others.

General Motors

GM had a star-studded ad that included Kenan Thompson, Awkwafina, and Will Ferrell in an ad that went after Norway in a comical way to promote GM’s dedication to producing electric vehicles (and help the US surpass Norway with the most EV’s per capita). While Ferrell adds a lot of value on-screen, he does not maintain an official Instagram or Twitter account, so only ⅔ of the ambassadors even had channels to activate. Both Thompson and Awkwafina posted the 30-second ad on their respective accounts (Instagram only for Awkwafina). They each also went a little beyond by posting on their Instagram Stories, including Thompson sharing a full-screen image and having a poll, text, and swipe-up link on his. It’s hard to come off earnest when promoting this ad, but going the extra step of doing a little on Stories helps add a bit more authenticity from the effort. Looking at GM’s own brand account you can see they had a few videos cut for IG Reels that performed very well; such video cuts could have been something unique to provide to their two stars, too. Especially with the way Reels rack up views. But celebs may also choose to keep Reels less-produced and more personal. Overall, they had their ambassadors with social media do their part.

Bud Light

Bud Light had a catchy commercial in which it was raining lemons in the neighborhood, to promote their Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade and a play on 2020 being a ‘lemon of a year.’ (They also later had a nostalgic Bud Light Legends ad). The lemons ad may not have featured a high-paid celebrity, but they did have an onsite ambassador, who happens to be a viral Internet celebrity — @dudewithsign (run by @fuckjerry), who boasts over seven million Instagram followers. He is known for, what else, holding signs. So, moments after the commercial aired, the broadcast cut to @dudewithsign there at the Super Bowl, holding a sign with lemons and wearing a Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade mask. His IG and Twitter accounts soon posted pictures of his Super Bowl appearance, racking up over a million engagements and driving good exposure for Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade. Sure, it was just a couple posts, but all those that know him from social media had their attention grabbed and when they went to their phones there was the proof that he was in on it. That real-time nature matters for engagement.

Mountain Dew

Mountain Dew had a clever campaign that had fans tweeting after the ad aired. The commercial promoting Mountain Dew Melon starred John Cena and also featured a bunch of bottles of the soda bouncing all around the screen. The call on social media was for fans to tweet their guess for how many bottles there were in the ad using a specific hashtag for a chance to win $1 million. Cena posted similar messaging, along with a native video (that earned ~ 200,000 views). The conversation results included approximately 300,000 tweets with the hashtag and massive follower growth (compared to other Super Bowl brands). The most notable part of Cena’s involvement was a tweet a week prior. In the tweet, Cena re-shared Mountain Dew’s Twitter video (adding a huge # of views to Mountain Dew’s video and therefore social proof). It also teased the ad and made use of Twitter advertising’s ‘like to remind’ feature, garnering over 43,000 likes. And the tweet still appeared via ‘Twitter for iPhone,’ adding a bit of authenticity to the tweet (as much as a tweet with that many links, handles, and hashtags can be).


Cheetos grabbed at a bit of nostalgia with a play on the Shaggy single “It Wasn’t Me” (which came out all the way back in 2000). In addition to Shaggy, the commercial starred Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. The ad was around stealing a few Cheetos (and getting caught red-handed, as one does when eating Cheetos). Cheetos did a good job activating across channels, including an AR filter, and their ambassadors did a little bit on game day to support the ad. Kutcher posted video on his Instagram last week with language that sounded pretty natural to him. (Mila Kunis doesn’t have official social accounts). Shaggy’s supporting posts on Instagram look neither planned nor produced — and that’s kind of why they’re great, too. Send ambassadors product, let them post however they see fit, in their real house, with their real phones (or at least send them photos that look like that). Cheetos could have some fun with that more ‘raw’ content from the actors, too. The Cheetos brand account itself has been posting video clips from the ad going back to mid-January. [Cheetos also did some interesting stuff with Snapchat and scanning their ad to win free chips, but we’re just focused on the endorsers in this column].

Amazon Alexa

The Amazon Alexa ad came late in the game, but the commercial starring Michael B. Jordan had already been shared quite a bit on social media throughout the week, well before the game kicked off. This spot was definitely more than just a TV ad, with Kevin Hart joining the campaign and setting off a course of engagement with Jordan that continued through Super Bowl Sunday. Hart posted a fun, authentic-feeling video on Instagram a week before the game and also posted to Twitter a few days before the game. With Hart’s posts it’s notable that they included a text-only post, a lot of hashtags/handles in others, and multiple tweets with YouTube (as opposed to native) videos. This likely resulted in lower views overall (the goal could have been to maximize YouTube views, of course). Michael B. Jordan did an admirable job, including putting up (and annotating) content on his Stories on game day calling out Kevin Hart. He also posted multiple times to his Instagram feed, with the full ad spot also on his IGTV. The use of real-looking footage, Stories, @ mentions, and multiple posts were effective for Alexa. It’s great to see ambassadors ‘engaging’ with each other over social, though some IG comments and Twitter replies could be low-touch, effective ways to add even more to the campaign.

A Few Others

State Farm

One of the catchiest ads of the day was ‘Drake From State Farm,’ a wonderful play on the well-known ‘Jake From State Farm’ ad campaign. And State Farm (both the Jake and the brand accounts) did a good job engaging on social throughout the day. Their superstar Drake, however, erred with his tweet (I’m not here to assign culpability). His tweet mentioned the Jake From State Farm account at the beginning of the post without inserting a “.” before the handle, which resulted in the tweet not going in the timelines of all 39 million of his followers, but only those following both him AND the Jake From State Farm account. It was later corrected, but that’s one to learn from for brands as a lot of engagement and measured reach were lost along with the original tweet.


Toyota’s ad with Paralympian Jessica Long was the clear winner of the day among any ad trying to conjure up emotions. Looking at Long’s social media posts on her Instagram feed, which included the full spot earlier in the week and a still-photo on Super Bowl Sunday, she came off very genuine. One could tell she was excited and proud. The humanity and relatability were also evident on her Instagram Stories on Sunday, showing her family watching the ad featuring her on the broadcast together and reacting. She quote-tweeted Toyota on Sunday, too, instead of tweeting natively, which may have been (even likely) by design, in order to add to the video’s 12M+ views. With an ambassador like Long, there was probably no shortage of content she would love to post across her channels, so supplying her with more than enough assets could’ve augmented the volume even more.


A quick look at the Jason Alexander ad with Tide and accompanying activation shows a couple of posts on his channels. The tweet included detailed text, clearly supplied by the brand, and a link that generates no preview on the Twitter timeline. He posted the full spot to his Instagram over a week before the game. It would have been good, even just a Story post, to have something on his Instagram on game day when the ad aired.


Here are the two posts from Dan Levy to support his commercial with M&M’S.

Uber Eats

UberEats had very little going on on social from their Wayne’s World-themed ad and its stars. Dana Carvey had nothing on his social, Mike Myers does not maintain Twitter or Instagram accounts, and the biggest social media darling of the ad — Cardi B — did not offer access to her massive social audiences. (Maybe that costs more!).

Door Dash

The DoorDash ads with Sesame Street did not get much support from Sesame Street’s sizable social channels, just a single IG Story frame on game day.

Rocket Mortgage

Tracy Morgan gave Rocket Mortgage some impressive tonnage across his social media channels to support his ambassadorship and ad campaign with the brand. He had a ton of posts all over his Twitter and Instagram feed with different cuts, creative, and copy in support of his endorsement of Rocket Mortgage. Dave Bautista also posted on his Instagram feed before and after the ad aired (with just a quick cut pregame). Morgan, in particular, provided a lot of access, and Rocket Mortgage tried to make the most of it with different messaging, creative, even trying to goose their YouTube, and more. The only notable misses were nothing on his Stories and the purely white thumbnails on a couple of the IG feed videos.

The Super Bowl ad campaigns continue to integrate more fully with social media each year. And the celebrities they pay big rates to be at the center of those campaigns can and should deliver value beyond their screen time during the spot. Effectively activating ambassador/star social media channels is not about itemizing a certain number of posts or other stipulated social media support in a contract. No, it should be a partnership — both parties should stand to benefit.

The social media posts or content the ambassadors make should be valuable for them, too, showcasing them in a brand-building and positive way. The brand (and its agency) can also equip them with a bunch of cool content they can post on their own, whether with messaging direction or not. Advertising is often about ‘have to,’ while partnerships come off more authentically, more about ‘want to.’ Hopefully every year, outside of the obvious hashtag #ad or tagging, it’ll be harder to tell which social media posts are prescribed/mandated for celebs and influencers, and which were posted at their discretion, by their hands.

The advertising, endorsement, and broadcast commercial paradigm is overdue for transformative change. The industry picked up a few more yards this year, but we’ve still got plenty of room to go to reach the end zone.

12 Thought-Provoking Sports Biz Insights from the Hashtag Sports Conference

2020 has been a heck of a year for the sports industry (and, yes, pretty much everything else). It has been transformative not because something incredibly new or novel emerged, but because trends that had been gradually growing, accelerated to open eyes and lead to what looks to be lasting changes moving forward for the industry.

This was apparent listening and learning from some of the leading minds and practitioners that gathered (virtually) at the 2020 Hashtag Sports Conference, the annual event that attracts top people from the sports business industry, held this year October 20-22. New revenue sources, different ways to engage, time to take a long look at esports, scrutinizing and improving sponsored social — these were among the highlights (and more) from the conference.

The inclination for Gen Z to not remain bound by the longstanding status quo is permeating to all ends of society in 2020. Sports is no exception. The industry cannot afford to err on the side of cautious innovation, the urgency is only increasing.

With that as the setup, here are 12 sports business insights that stood out to me from the Hashtag Sports Conference:

  1. In-game betting is going to be huge over the next several years. It’s been oft-stated that much of the wagering in more mature markets overseas takes place during games and stats shared from Simplebet CEO Chris Bevilacqua underscored the crazy-high engagement levels of in-game bettors. Bevilacqua said, looking at trends from NFL games in which fans using the Simplebet platform wager tokens, sessions on the platform averaged 27 minutes and users placed an average of 25-35 bets during the game. (Wow!) The only limiting factor is the latency of stats and video, so bets can be placed and processed in the seconds between plays or drives. Another point brought up during one of the Hashtag Sports gambling-focused sessions noted how traditional US sports, such as American football and baseball, are amenable to in-game wagering with more discreet plays and longer pauses between plays (as opposed to soccer, for example).

  2. One more assertion that was mentioned in a quick comment, but stood out as significant was longtime sports exec David Levy talking up the auspicious future of peer-to-peer betting. Most discussion of sports gambling has the model of betting against the house and the odds they set or being part of a pool (a la daily fantasy models) of other players, some better equipped with data, research, and expertise than others. But as platforms mature and more states legalize (and normalize) sports gambling, more options and models will continue to proliferate. Including the chance to turn that barstool or group chat debate with a buddy into a small but secure and official bet, with odds baked in and no ‘We didn’t shake on it’ alibis possible. Not only does sports betting promise to make casual fans more deeply engaged with sports, it could also lead to fans being more engaged with their friends through sports, adding a competitive element to social co-viewing beyond season-long fantasy leagues.

  3. The way activations and events are built, digital and experiential elements are too often still planned in separate silos and resource allocations. But that’s changing now more than ever. “It’s no longer just about being an event on the ground, it’s much more holistic in terms of touchpoints…” said Alex Beer, Vice President – Client Services at GMR Marketing. Every touchpoint with a fan feed into and inform the others. It’s not a linear chain, but a full circle; experiential activations are not a single-touch experience with fans and shouldn’t be treated as such.

  4. Even before the pandemic, and certainly during the pause of most sports is caused, esports was on the mind of many in sports business. Monumental Sports and Entertainment has been investing in the space for years and MSE’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives laid out why they’re bullish on investing in the space. He noted fans of esports are a digital-first audience, they are just as passionate as traditional sports fans, and MSE actively wants to be ahead of the curve with what’s next in sports and entertainment. But the most powerful statement Leonsis made alluded to how gaming is a prism through which a generation connects with each other. Esports is the social fabric of a generation. WNBA player Aerial Powers, who has nearly 5,000 subscribers to her Twitch channel, reinforced this point, saying her postgame routine (after getting home) often consists of jumping on Twitch, gaming, and catching up with her fans and friends. An interactive Twitch stream sounds like a pretty cool alternative for many fans to a postgame press conference.

  5. Outspoken MLB starting pitcher Trevor Bauer talked (in the clip below) about some of the fan engagement ideas he’s seen overseas. His observations underscore that if sports want dramatically change the direction they’re going with the next generation of fans, they have to be willing to experiment in big ways. The adherence to tradition and gradual changes may feel necessary to some, but it’s foolhardy if it’s done at the expense of losing a generation of fans. Having a player, e.g. one not remotely expected to play, in the dugout live-tweeting or even streaming a bit seems sacrilegious to even consider, but that’s the kind of challenge the old ways thinking that may be needed to save traditional sports. Nothing is stopping such experimentation from moving forward besides obstinate resistance in the name of competition. A lot of fan engagement tactics involving teams and players won’t help win games, but they can help win fans. And at some point, the latter has to outweigh the former more often than not.

6. For years, live sport has been becoming just as much a TV product as it is a live event product. That only accelerated this year with fans restricted from attending live games. “We [reimagined] the game without fans…We called these ‘studio games,’” said Manchester City FC CEO Ferran Soriano. “We transformed a problem…into an opportunity.” We often think of the pinnacle of televised live sports as making fans feel like they’re at the game. But what can a game look like if the entire presentation and field setup is built to be a TV product? Optimized for the fans at home, first and foremost, with fans in attendance more like a glorified studio audience (that may be a bit of an exaggeration, at least today). It’s thought-provoking to consider because, as has been oft-cited, the vast majority of fans will never attend a live game of their favorite team.

7. The best brand-celebrity partnerships start organically and are a true partnership. Bleacher Report’s CMO Ed Romaine talked about how the powerhouse publisher’s partnerships with celebrities and athletes often start with organic engagement. The celebs and athletes are already engaging with B/R/s content. The relationship then is not an endorsement or sponsorship, but a co-creative partnership. They collaborate on creative oversight and create produce something both sides can be proud to activate and promote. Properties don’t have to steal the attention that influencers, celebrities, and athletes garner and have earned, they can act more like an agency, giving these influential individuals the resources, platform, and creative assist to produce something extraordinary for fans, together.

8. Logo slaps are outdated, said Bleacher Report CMO Ed Romaine. Brands want to be more organically embedded in content and the story, getting that ‘halo benefit,’ he explained (and I paraphrase here). It has taken some time for the industry to catch up, the easier route with social and digital media was to put it alongside the print ads and ballpark billboards that prevailed on rate cards for decades in sports business and sports media. But the most valuable sponsorships are not built by eyeballs being borrowed away from the live or digital content they actually came for. When brands aren’t stealing away attention, but instead embedded ‘organically’ within good content, that’s a winning formula for all sides.

9. Many have recognized the opportunity to monetize the thousands and, for many teams, millions of fans that will never buy a ticket to a game. The reality imposed by the pandemic, when digital touchpoints are the only fan touchpoints made teams think about what it means to prioritize the at-home fans. Los Angeles Dodgers VP of Digital Caroline Morgan spoke about helping fans feel connected as they would at Dodger Stadium at a game, but also spent more time than ever thinking about how and why it’s valuable and lucrative to cultivate a global fanbase. A diehard Dodgers fan living across the country may never be a season ticket member, but is there another form of membership or path of sustained monetization (beyond sponsored social media) that should be more strategically approached and activated? There are a lot more social and digital-only fans than there are fans who attend live games, and the next big revenue opportunities will come from figuring out more ways to serve and monetize this enormous pool of fans.

10. There is a growing number of fans that are fans of players more than teams. There is a growing proportion of players that have more followers — and a higher number & proportion of engaged followers — than their teams on do. Those two telling trends are among the reasons why Opendorse’s co-founder and CEO Blake Lawrence says athletes should be out front – for recruits [in college] and for fans. It’s the athlete-driven and athlete empowerment era, he said. Leagues, schools, and teams that have realized that are looking internally and allocating resources and investment into equipping athletes with the resources to rock social media. Because engaged fans of a team’s players helps the team and the league. It starts with funneling game content like photos and highlights, but the next level is acting like something of an agency (ideally scalable) to co-create content with players that is as thumb-stopping as anything the team spends time on for their own feeds.

11. With more purchases of all products taking place online, there are more opportunities for brands to have direct relationships with consumers. And for brands to be more than just providers of products. Red Bull has earned praise for years for being a content brand that happened to sell energy drinks. Nicole Portwood, who is the Vice President of Marketing for Mountain Dew, discussed the increased movement to DTC (direct-to-consumer) for brands like Mountain Dew meant they could be more than just a beverage product that runs ads about said beverage product. Brands can deliver more and pull customers to them through content. The best content and distribution can win and there’s nothing stopping brands, like Mountain Dew, from attracting individuals to them through content in the level playing field of digital and social media. There is no competition for shelf space in digital, it’s a different kind of competition.

12. 2020 was the year that the comfort level of players posting video to social media went way up. Vice President of Marketing for the National Lacrosse League Katie Lavin noted that players started to that understand raw, unpolished video was okay and it “took away the fear” that content wasn’t good enough for their channels. Players who were once uneasy about posting anything that didn’t look produced or professional, let alone portray them as anything besides an elite, competitive athlete realized that it wasn’t just okay to use their iPhone to post a video to social, but that fans loved it when they did. And their social media engagement reflected it. There’s no turning back now, the willingness and eagerness for players to not be bashful about posting their own social media content, no matter how raw and amateur, will only increase. (And many will discover apps or in-app editing tools as they gain more fluency, too). Pro athletes were already influential on social media, but now many more are on the path to be influencers and creators.

None of this sports business matters without the fans. Everything should be framed around what is good for them, what helps them to connect to the team, the partners, and each other in authentic ways, and what makes them feel alive by being a fan of their team. Make this the year longstanding practices and status quos are challenged, imagining a better way. Innovate with the best of intentions. And remember why we do this.

Thanks again to Hashtag Sports for an excellent event!

How Bud Light Has Activated Its Brand with Sports Partnerships and What Can Be Learned

What makes for an effective brand activation in sports?

Is it that fans hear and see the name of a brand hundreds or thousands of times? That fans know and remember that ‘x’ brand is the ‘official’ whatever product or service of the league?

Depending on the goals of the sponsor, those can be laudable objectives. But the best partner activations in sports? They, well, activate the brand. Fans don’t just know what brand ‘x’ does or sells, they know what makes that brand preferable to others and therefore the one fans should consume and give their loyalty.

That’s why my favorite brand to watch do their thing in sports is Bud Light. 

Bud Light latches onto the exciting moments in sports, the times when fans are most likely to stand up and high-five their friends. That’s what Bud Light wants fans to think of when they think of the Bud Light brand.

How Bud Light Activates their Brand in Sports

This first example is cheating – it’s Budweiser, not Bud Light – but it’s too good not to mention. Budweiser looked at hockey and thought about those moments when fans burst out of their seats (or couches) and cheer. There is the final buzzer at a win, opening faceoff, big hits, amazing saves, hat tricks — but Budweiser went after something scalable and universal: goals. And, in hockey, goals means the red light going off. So what did they do? They came out with the Bluetooth-powered red light for fans to have at home. The light worked to go off when the fan’s team scored. The brand is part of the celebration, enhancing it.

Bud Light found another low-hanging fruit that was part of the excitement of scoring goals — the goal celebration. Goal celebrations are a special part of hockey and, again, part of the moments when fans are cheering and high-fiving. Enter the #BudLightCelly. The NHL league account, in addition to team accounts, used the hashtag when posting goals/celebrations on social media.

It’s not just hockey. Bud Light found the same moment that fit the brand actuation in other sports. In football, the #BudLightCelly happens with every touchdown. When hockey fans think of the excitement of goals being scored, they could think of Bud Light. Now it could be the same with football upon every touchdown scored.

Bud Light owned the goals and the touchdowns and – with their XFL activation – became the brand of celebrating after wins. After victories, team social channels were full of #BudLightCelly videos showing players in the locker room spraying and drinking Bud Light. Bud Light was able to associate their brand with celebratory moments in yet another unique but relevant and organic way.

And now, introduced recently as of this writing, Bud Light has seized the repeatable, high five-worthy moments in baseball: home runs. You can see the details below. And this time they’re adapting to the unique circumstances of the 2020 Major League Baseball season. They’re engaging fans — 100% of whom can only take in the games remotely — and using the carrot of home run balls to fuel a social media sweepstakes. Bud Light is owns the moment of celebration (well, at least for some fans watching).

There is no shortage of gameday brand activations in sports. But it’s instructive to analyze what makes Bud Light’s effective and how it can be replicated for other brands. Not every brand can own those celebratory moments like goals, touchdowns, and homers. But to be associated with ‘get off the couch and cheer’ moments isn’t right for every brand.

For years, a lot of sports sponsorships have been reliant on puns. It’s the Honda Keys to the Game, the T-Mobile ‘Call to the Pen,’ the ‘XYZ’ Gas and Electric Company Power Play. But, think back to earlier in this piece and which objectives those achieve.

We celebrate a good pun because it’s a way to sneak in a brand mention in a clever way, in hopes that, for example, when fans think of cars, they’ll think of Honda and therefore buy a Honda. What does this convey about the Honda brand, though? I know Honda for their ‘Helpful Honda’ brand promise, because the information booth at the arena was branded as such. Should GMC Trucks sponsor the ‘Drive Summary’ graphic for a football team (drive = cars, get it!?!), or is there a way to activate GMC’s brand with a ‘Toughest Play of the Game” to highlight the toughness they want their cars known for?


Excuse the extemporaneous example above, the goal is not create gold, but to stimulate a thought process to strive for more. To be more than puns and presented by’s. To find the moments to latch on, the emotional ebbs and flows that open fans’ hearts and minds, and the opportunities to insert a brand as a relevant part of the story.

Next time you’re exposed to the Bud Light brand at a moment of screams and cheers -— it won’t take long if you follow sports — appreciate the strength of that activation. That fans come to associate Bud Light with celebration. Achieving that is worthy of a #BudLightCelly.

How Sports Business Looks in Summer 2020: Industry Insights from the Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference

The sports and social media world is not afraid of change. The social platforms and the sports industry as a whole are constantly evolving, but it’s been a few years since something really transformational has happened in the biz.

After hearing several industry leaders discuss their strategies, insights, and observations about the current state of the sports business, social media, sponsorship, and fan engagement at the recent Hashtag Sports conference, it seems there could be paradigm changes coming out of the stay-at-home period from the pandemic.

Many athletes have seen the light of social media, corporate partnerships have been reimagined in a world without games, everybody has taken a closer look at esports, the social platforms themselves were utilized in different ways, and all the digital and social engagement has only reinforced the pathways of data collection to personalization.


  • When the games stopped, fans’ desire to see and engage with athletes certainly did not. Yahoo Sports’s Sarah Crennan said she would’ve liked to have had more working relationships with athletes with whom to co-create content. Meanwhile, NBC Sports’s Lyndsay Signor noted that the move to mobile productions and all remote appearances meant working on content with athletes was less challenging than it had been pre-pandemic. What could this mean moving forward? Will sports media businesses make it a point to establish relationships with athletes, even after the stay-at-home orders are lifted and sports return in some form? And will media companies be more comfortable connecting with an athlete via his/her phone even if it’s not as polished as their more produced content?


  • Many athletes during the pandemic posted first-person content on social media for the first time, or participated in live or mobile interviews. Coming out of this quarantine, many more athletes will be comfortable creating their own content, according to Bleacher Report’s Beckley Mason. Adding to that insight, Colleen Garrity of Excel Management pointed out that a lot of athletes tried and learned new things during this period, whether that was jumping on IG Live for the first time or streaming on Twitch. They’ll now have those abilities in their back pocket. When athletes are serving as their own directors and producers, it won’t be perfect, but that’s okay, and fans, publishers, and partners will learn to value it, said B/R’s Mason. It’s more authentic that way, anyway.

Content production

  • Sponsors may have been skeptical at first of seeing their dollars and branding go into content that looked less-than-polished. But numbers and performance don’t lie and as more results come in, less-produced content can prove its value. And it has and will continue to, suggested Bleacher Report’s Beckley Mason. The new normal that has prevailed for the past several months, when more amateur-looking content was not just tolerated but welcomed, means brands can be more nimble and more open to experimentation, according to Octagon’s Meredith Kinsman. When they’re not spending a ton on an on-location shoot with a full crew, there’s less risk involved and more creative trialing possible.


  • Social media managers working for teams or leagues have recognized the value of raw content captured on mobile devices for years. But even while COVID forced a lot more original content to be less-produced, especially involving coaches and athletes, there remains a place for both produced content and raw content. This point was reinforced by Oregon State’s Kylie Murphy, who noted there’s time and place for both, and it can depend on context, listening to the data, considering the platform, and learning by trial and error.


  • It’s an understatement to say the last few months have been the golden era of archived content on social media. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, a lot of archived content may have been stuck on VHS tapes and DVD’s. But digitization has made it easier to access, produce from, and use to engage fans across platforms. There has proven to be a lot of potential, and maybe more to come, with historical content, said Octagon’s Kinsman, and this sports hiatus has only reinforced that value proposition.


  • Meanwhile, a company like Overtime has been able to double-down on its original content efforts in the absence of live sports. The mobile-first sports media company has seen more and more content consumption happening for longer average sessions. They’ve also seen a lot of YouTube viewing happening on smart TV’s and larger screens, not confined to merely mobile devices. Fans are willing to binge sports content, just like they are a series on Netflix or Hulu, and there’s an opportunity for sports to earn more and more of that screen time outside of live games.


  • The coronavirus pandemic along with the period of social unrest catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd has obligated every brand to prove themselves worthy of consumers, to show they are adding value to society at such a challenging time. This applies to sports-related sponsorships, too, where partnerships are being scrutinized to ensure authenticity more than ever. Rakuten’s Kristen Gambetta talked about wanting to make sure players with whom they partner are aligned with their values, while Dairy Management International’s Darcy Nichols, who oversees the company’s NFL sponsorship, said they look at players’s social media posts to make sure they represent a brand with whom they want to partner. Nichols also noted she wants players who aren’t just going through the motions, but those who actively believe in the message and brand they’re endorsing, and want to be there.


  • Dairy Management International’s Nichols also reiterated a prevailing point in sponsorship — that the operative term is ‘partnership;’ it shouldn’t be a transactional relationship between brand and league/team/athlete. Wasserman’s Anup Daji made a similar point stating that the best partnerships include those in which both parties accomplish objectives. Rakuten’s Gambetta gave a good example of this in action, describing the e-commerce brand’s activation with the Golden State Warriors. Rakuten and the Warriors offered fans cash back when they purchased merchandise at games, in partnership with Rakuten, who promotes their own cash back system for purchases made on their online shopping platform.


  • With no live events with which to activate, any and all sponsorships in sports became digital and social-focused. This only increases the value for a publisher like Bleacher Report, suggested Mason, as they can help a brand activate around a major sports event with a social-first campaign. And they can do it even if neither is participating as an official rights holder or partner.


  • Social media is less a throw-in these days compared to years past and partners now expect a campaign to be activated across channels. The New York Giants’ Katie Carew described this framework, offering the team’s activation with Stop and Shop as an example. It included physical and digital elements and resulted in content coming out of the campaign to allow for an effective social extension. AT&T’s Shiz Suzuki described her company’s viral ‘Pose with the Pros’ augmented reality onsite activation with the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, which provided not just a demonstration of their 5G technology, but also produced socially share-able content.


Esports and gambling

  • 2020 was supposed to be the year that sports gambling saw massive growth in the US. It still can be, but it perhaps won’t reach the peaks once projected. As sports brands look to capitalize on gambling, they’re increasingly cognizant of the best way to ease fans into becoming bettors. Prop betting seems to be an answer, with Bleacher Report’s Stefanie Rapp identifying prop betting as an entry point for sports betting. B/R has seen huge growth the last several months in its betting content, too, with its betting stream content in the B/R app growing 300% faster than any of their other streams. Fans that engage in this content and sports betting, in general, have stronger retention metrics, too.


  • While many continue to eye gaming as an opportunity, the pandemic led to more interest than ever in esports, which were only mildly affected by the public health crisis. Turner/ELEAGUE’S Seth Ladetsky recognized the opportunity for esports, especially when their competitions get airtime on linear TV. An important consideration, he said, as esports looks to capitalize on these opportunities is to recognize the audience and the platform, and produce a presentation that is optimized for each. Because an avid esports audience is different from the casual and curious community checking it out.


  • More sponsors started to gravitate to esports, too, seeing an opportunity to reach and engage fans viewing live events. ESL’s Paul Brewer said the most common way brands are measuring their esports sponsorships now are brand sentiment and share of voice. Brands are still learning the space and AT&T’s Suzuki noted how important it is to do the research of the fan base first and to always be thinking of how a sponsorship can produce additive value for esports fans. Brewer also pointed out how esports is starting to also look for ways it can mimic the traditional sports sponsorship activations menu to which brands are accustomed, such as corporate hospitality and experiential opportunities.


  • It’s no secret that TikTok has enjoyed explosive growth across the board during this stay-at-home period, including sports, athletes, and sports fans gravitating more and more to the social network. TikTok’s Harish Sharma presented the platform’s POV when it comes to sports, suggesting that TikTok is a place for teams and athletes to share about themselves away from the field. Sharma also recommended activating around ‘exclusive moments’ and ‘seminal moments.’


  • Facebook facilitated and even unveiled a lot of new features or behaviors and opportunities on its platforms during this period. They’ve long been focused on developing Groups and this feature remains a strong and growing part of the platform. Facebook Sports’ Nick Marquez talked about the engagement and data collection potential with Groups. He also lent a little inspiration calling Group members potential ‘ambassadors’ for the brand.


  • Facebook (as well as Instagram) saw a lot of creative usage of its Live capability, including archived content and virtual watch parties, during the sports shutdown. Digital-first content overall picked up by necessity, with no live games and accompanying highlights, and in their place Marquez pointed out how sports teams have been able to build up digital content franchises that then become valuable sponsorship assets and entitlement opportunities. Sports teams and leagues are digital publishers, Marquez said, that happen to play sports. He also enumerated four buckets of content where sports found a lot of success during the shutdown, including archive (as noted above), fitness, cooking, and gaming. One last feature to keep an eye on are Facebook Messenger Rooms, a product many saw as an answer to the usage of Zoom during the pandemic for social interacting.


  • Instagram has also been an essential part of sports organizations’ fan engagement strategies for the last few game-less months. Usage of IG Live has grown a lot — in case you somehow haven’t noticed — and Instagram has been working with sports organizations on monetizing the platform. Instagram Sports’s Will Yoder identified three ways sports biz has been monetizing IG: Branded content (which is treated the same as organic content in their feed algorithm, Yoder noted), shoppable posts, and Instagram ads, including direct response ads.


  • The NBA’s Jorge Urrutia del Pozo talked about their efforts to build a ‘golden record’ for each fan, by collecting data strategically. The key concerns for them are a) utilizing data to deepen fan engagement and b) determine the next best action or step for each fan to take to drive optimized lifetime value.


  • Both the NBA’s Urrutia del Pozo and the NHL’s Heidi Browning noted that collecting fan data has to deliver value back for the fan. The NBA collects information from fans progressively, delivering something back to fans at each step; this so-called ‘zero party data’ is valuable for the league in its efforts to personalize and enhance fan experiences. The NHL’s Browning called out the league’s ‘learning campaigns,’ which similarly asked fans for information while delivering tangible value back to the fan at each step. That exchange of value is vital.



The past few months have felt like a year passing and the sports industry has evolved at a similar rate. Thanks to Hashtag Sports for putting on a great event! Subscribe to their newsletter, follow them on social media, and attend their future events.