What was the last sport you became a fan of? Not the sport that captured your heart as a 9-year-old, but one that came along later and, for whatever reason, hooked you in?
After decades of relative status quo in the major pro sports landscape, there are more fans than ever finding themselves gravitating to sports they never thought they would. Social media has made highlights, storylines, and community more accessible; infinite streams and channels largely eliminate barriers to entry for fans to watch any sport; and the proliferation of content allows for broad exposure giving potential new fans a taste of a sport they never knew they wanted and could grow to love.
Karen Ramming wasn’t facing a lack of familiarity as an issue for potential new track and field fans as she took on her role with TrackTown USA. The majority of the world can recognize a race, a jump, or a throw, and many have participated in such pursuits with varying degrees of competitiveness. But that doesn’t mean they’re all fans, who will tune into major competitions and follow the athletes and stories that surround the sport. So the challenge she is faced with in her role setting the digital strategy for TrackTown is pulling in new fans, but not at the expense of serving the fans that are already there.
“With niche sports in general, you want to make sure that you’re serving the existing fan base because they’re the ones that are going to keep you alive online,” said Ramming, who was in social media roles with the Golden State Warriors and Pac-12 Networks before joining TrackTown. “But you also want to make sure that your coverage is appealing so that way, yeah, you can break through that bubble of whatever sport it is and reach a potential new audience…
“So how can you balance those two things of still serving the existing fan base and creating content in a way that’s accessible to potential new audiences?”
So about that sport you, dear reader, came to enjoy later in life — what first pulled you in? Not necessarily what made you a fan, but the clip or friend or athlete or story that first caught your attention. Ramming had years of experience promoting dozens of sports across the Pac-12 Conference, some with broad, well-established fan bases and others more in the ‘niche’ category.
The encouraging opportunity is that the entry points for new fandom are near-infinite. An amusing or incredible TikTok highlight can drive initial interest for some, a photo finish can draw in others, or an inspirational athlete can ignite another group of fans. They’re all sparks that can fuel the growth of a future fire, creating fans from the embers of even the most esoteric or eccentric elements.
“Let’s say a mascot race or like a baby race or whatever, those things are helping tell the story of the brand and the experience and the athletes,” said Ramming, who is TrackTown USA’s Senior Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation. “And I think that especially when you’re looking at growing an audience of a sport, the stories are what grows the sport, especially for new audiences…
“They’re going to become a fan initially because they found somebody in the sport that appeals to them and that makes them want to come back and root for them and learn the sport on their behalf.”
As Ramming noted, a common element shared by every sport is the athlete. They may be manipulating a different apparatus, if they even have a stick or ball, but it’s the people that make up the ecosystem of sports that most often form the foundation of emotional investment and fandom. Athletes recognize they’re the talent in the program, the stars of the show. But as sports become more and more like entertainment, showcasing the powerful stories and personalities is just as important as the competition. For Ramming, especially when she was surrounded by global superstars like the Golden State Warriors players, collaborating effectively with players meant earning trust at all levels, and treating them not like talent, but like, well, humans.
“Before we even touch on building trust with the players, a lot of it is a step back and building trust with operations and with public relations — they’re the ones who are the gatekeepers essentially to player access on a lot of the teams…,” explained Ramming, who was with the Warriors from late 2018 – 2021. “So that was the approach that I took and just being really proactive with my communications with them, overexplaining everything that we were doing, showing them the results of what we were doing and that was how we earned that internal trust…”
About working with the players, Ramming described that “It’s kind of a balance of being really professional, knowing exactly what you need from them so that way you don’t waste their time while also being just a normal human and talking to them in a way that shows that you respect them as a person and not just as an athlete who will bring a million new followers or whatever it is to the channels.”
But there’s another factor when it comes to marketing a sport through its athletes. Or, as Ramming faced both at Pac-12 and now at TrackTown, putting muscle behind the content, sports, and athletes that will more predictably perform versus telling more complete stories that better serve the team, conference, or sport [and fans] going forward. The NBA, for example, is accurately cited as a superstar-driven sport. It’s Jimmy Butler and the Heat, LeBron James alongside Anthony Davis and the Lakers, and, of course, Steph Curry and the Warriors. The social media metrics may dictate that focusing all content on Curry would deliver the highest numbers, but that may be missing the forest for the giant, all-time shooting tree.
“We knew when I was there that we could post a clip of Steph [Curry] hitting a halfcourt shot once a day and nobody would get tired of it and it would hit a million views every single time,” Ramming explained. “But that would be doing a disservice to our players, our team, and our fans by not showcasing the other players. So it wasn’t even just the social team that was keeping that in check and making sure that there were faces getting on the feeds, it was our entire marketing department…”
Ramming and her team face a similar challenge in showcasing the various disciplines that make up the track and field competitions put on by TrackTown USA. Many casual fans can recall seeing Usain Bolt win the 100-meter dash or Michael Johnson set records in the 400, but trying to develop fans of every competition within track and field is not necessarily the right way to go about fan development. If someone loves the long jump, but couldn’t care less about hurdles, that’s okay, and it may not be a good use of resources to try.
But Ramming notes that perhaps that’s not the right question. These days, quality content is what cuts through, and getting the content and storytelling right — can render everything else, if not moot less of the main point.
“There are a lot of people who are throws fans and they care about the throwers and discus, shot, javelin, hammer — that’s what they care about and that’s great. How can we serve them? How can we create content for that specific audience? Same thing for sprints, jumps, distance,” she said…
“I don’t think that I have an opinion right now in terms of segmenting [social accounts] for jumps, throws, sprints, and distance, necessarily, but instead looking at how we structure actual content packaging…”
Ramming cited the recent example of TrackTown’s docuseries ‘Road to TrackTown,’ hosted on their YouTube channel, which follows athletes in their preparation and lifestyle leading up to their major competitions. It wasn’t necessarily that Netflix’s Drive to Survive made us all realize what a cool sport Formula One is, it’s that the level of storytelling gave us a reason to care and to learn more. So, for ‘Road to TrackTown,’ Ramming said that within the phenomenal storytelling and packaging, they were able to produce narratives across track and field disciplines.
“We intentionally chose one runner, one jumper, one thrower and one multi-event athlete, so that way it could appeal to those specific fanbases while still all living on our larger TrackTown USA Channel,” she described.
In the end, they’re all athletes showcasing passion, dedication, triumphs, failures, hard work, and humanity.
Said Ramming: “Being able to experience that kind of raw emotion from athletes directly when you tune into a track meet, whether it’s online, on TV or in person, I think is what makes the sport really special. And even outside of those moments, obviously, these athletes are humans. They have hobbies and interests and they have other stuff going on. So understanding how we can better tell those stories to make them more relatable and potentially find new audiences through them and who they are as people is really valuable.”
It’s incredible to think that there have been sports and sports fans for thousands of years. The games and the mediums evolved, but those same undying principles that made fans cheer and jeer centuries ago, the stories that captured our imagination still do so today.
LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH KAREN RAMMING