What Marketing Niche Sports Teaches about Sports and Social Strategy

What was the last sport you became a fan of? Not the sport that captured your heart as a 9-year-old, but one that came along later and, for whatever reason, hooked you in?

After decades of relative status quo in the major pro sports landscape, there are more fans than ever finding themselves gravitating to sports they never thought they would. Social media has made highlights, storylines, and community more accessible; infinite streams and channels largely eliminate barriers to entry for fans to watch any sport; and the proliferation of content allows for broad exposure giving potential new fans a taste of a sport they never knew they wanted and could grow to love.

Karen Ramming wasn’t facing a lack of familiarity as an issue for potential new track and field fans as she took on her role with TrackTown USA. The majority of the world can recognize a race, a jump, or a throw, and many have participated in such pursuits with varying degrees of competitiveness. But that doesn’t mean they’re all fans, who will tune into major competitions and follow the athletes and stories that surround the sport. So the challenge she is faced with in her role setting the digital strategy for TrackTown is pulling in new fans, but not at the expense of serving the fans that are already there.

“With niche sports in general, you want to make sure that you’re serving the existing fan base because they’re the ones that are going to keep you alive online,” said Ramming, who was in social media roles with the Golden State Warriors and Pac-12 Networks before joining TrackTown. “But you also want to make sure that your coverage is appealing so that way, yeah, you can break through that bubble of whatever sport it is and reach a potential new audience…

“So how can you balance those two things of still serving the existing fan base and creating content in a way that’s accessible to potential new audiences?”

So about that sport you, dear reader, came to enjoy later in life — what first pulled you in? Not necessarily what made you a fan, but the clip or friend or athlete or story that first caught your attention. Ramming had years of experience promoting dozens of sports across the Pac-12 Conference, some with broad, well-established fan bases and others more in the ‘niche’ category.

The encouraging opportunity is that the entry points for new fandom are near-infinite. An amusing or incredible TikTok highlight can drive initial interest for some, a photo finish can draw in others, or an inspirational athlete can ignite another group of fans. They’re all sparks that can fuel the growth of a future fire, creating fans from the embers of even the most esoteric or eccentric elements.

“Let’s say a mascot race or like a baby race or whatever, those things are helping tell the story of the brand and the experience and the athletes,” said Ramming, who is TrackTown USA’s Senior Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation. “And I think that especially when you’re looking at growing an audience of a sport, the stories are what grows the sport, especially for new audiences…

“They’re going to become a fan initially because they found somebody in the sport that appeals to them and that makes them want to come back and root for them and learn the sport on their behalf.”

As Ramming noted, a common element shared by every sport is the athlete. They may be manipulating a different apparatus, if they even have a stick or ball, but it’s the people that make up the ecosystem of sports that most often form the foundation of emotional investment and fandom. Athletes recognize they’re the talent in the program, the stars of the show. But as sports become more and more like entertainment, showcasing the powerful stories and personalities is just as important as the competition. For Ramming, especially when she was surrounded by global superstars like the Golden State Warriors players, collaborating effectively with players meant earning trust at all levels, and treating them not like talent, but like, well, humans.

“Before we even touch on building trust with the players, a lot of it is a step back and building trust with operations and with public relations — they’re the ones who are the gatekeepers essentially to player access on a lot of the teams…,” explained Ramming, who was with the Warriors from late 2018 – 2021. “So that was the approach that I took and just being really proactive with my communications with them, overexplaining everything that we were doing, showing them the results of what we were doing and that was how we earned that internal trust…”

About working with the players, Ramming described that “It’s kind of a balance of being really professional, knowing exactly what you need from them so that way you don’t waste their time while also being just a normal human and talking to them in a way that shows that you respect them as a person and not just as an athlete who will bring a million new followers or whatever it is to the channels.”

But there’s another factor when it comes to marketing a sport through its athletes. Or, as Ramming faced both at Pac-12 and now at TrackTown, putting muscle behind the content, sports, and athletes that will more predictably perform versus telling more complete stories that better serve the team, conference, or sport [and fans] going forward. The NBA, for example, is accurately cited as a superstar-driven sport. It’s Jimmy Butler and the Heat, LeBron James alongside Anthony Davis and the Lakers, and, of course, Steph Curry and the Warriors. The social media metrics may dictate that focusing all content on Curry would deliver the highest numbers, but that may be missing the forest for the giant, all-time shooting tree.

“We knew when I was there that we could post a clip of Steph [Curry] hitting a halfcourt shot once a day and nobody would get tired of it and it would hit a million views every single time,” Ramming explained. “But that would be doing a disservice to our players, our team, and our fans by not showcasing the other players. So it wasn’t even just the social team that was keeping that in check and making sure that there were faces getting on the feeds, it was our entire marketing department…”

Ramming and her team face a similar challenge in showcasing the various disciplines that make up the track and field competitions put on by TrackTown USA. Many casual fans can recall seeing Usain Bolt win the 100-meter dash or Michael Johnson set records in the 400, but trying to develop fans of every competition within track and field is not necessarily the right way to go about fan development. If someone loves the long jump, but couldn’t care less about hurdles, that’s okay, and it may not be a good use of resources to try.

But Ramming notes that perhaps that’s not the right question. These days, quality content is what cuts through, and getting the content and storytelling right — can render everything else, if not moot less of the main point.

“There are a lot of people who are throws fans and they care about the throwers and discus, shot, javelin, hammer — that’s what they care about and that’s great. How can we serve them? How can we create content for that specific audience? Same thing for sprints, jumps, distance,” she said…

“I don’t think that I have an opinion right now in terms of segmenting [social accounts] for jumps, throws, sprints, and distance, necessarily, but instead looking at how we structure actual content packaging…”

Ramming cited the recent example of TrackTown’s docuseries ‘Road to TrackTown,’ hosted on their YouTube channel, which follows athletes in their preparation and lifestyle leading up to their major competitions. It wasn’t necessarily that Netflix’s Drive to Survive made us all realize what a cool sport Formula One is, it’s that the level of storytelling gave us a reason to care and to learn more. So, for ‘Road to TrackTown,’ Ramming said that within the phenomenal storytelling and packaging, they were able to produce narratives across track and field disciplines.

“We intentionally chose one runner, one jumper, one thrower and one multi-event athlete, so that way it could appeal to those specific fanbases while still all living on our larger TrackTown USA Channel,” she described. 

In the end, they’re all athletes showcasing passion, dedication, triumphs, failures, hard work, and humanity.

Said Ramming: “Being able to experience that kind of raw emotion from athletes directly when you tune into a track meet, whether it’s online, on TV or in person, I think is what makes the sport really special. And even outside of those moments, obviously, these athletes are humans. They have hobbies and interests and they have other stuff going on. So understanding how we can better tell those stories to make them more relatable and potentially find new audiences through them and who they are as people is really valuable.”

It’s incredible to think that there have been sports and sports fans for thousands of years. The games and the mediums evolved, but those same undying principles that made fans cheer and jeer centuries ago, the stories that captured our imagination still do so today.


How Sports and Entertainment Broadcast Talent Can Build Valuable Brands on Social

In the before-times, businesses ruled the world. The ability to reach the masses was confined to those that could afford to use the mass-reaching mediums of the day. 

But that paradigm was dramatically transformed by the arrival of the World Wide Web and realized in full with social media. The masses are still bombarded with messages and content from businesses and brands, but now real people have access to a megaphone, too. And when it comes to building relationships, the logos of the world don’t stand a chance against real people.

We’re in the after-times now, when the path to authentically cut through the noise is through individuals. So while ESPN and the like had long been defined by its famous figureheads — the Stuart Scotts and Chris Bermans of the world — its social media priority, in the beginning, was on its logos. That gradually changed and Brendan Kaminsky played a key role in taking the initiative from idea to execution. The biggest sports personalities and reporters on TV could, should, and would become just as big on social media. It was inevitable.

“It’s just a way of the world now is talent and individuals have the most power online,” said Kaminsky, founder of bknown agency, who helped many of ESPN’s top talent learn the ropes of social before starting his own practice. “People have relationships with us and connections with us… it’s important for us to use our social platforms to leverage because everyone has some sort of influence on their networks. I think that was just in line with ESPN and it was really smart and I was really happy to be part of it.” 

It’s easier said than done, however, to build and feed a credible social media presence that was authentic to the individual fans know from linear platforms like TV and radio. Many of us can relate — to a degree. We balance who we are on social media with who we are IRL. The difference with the type of talent Kaminsky and bknown work with is that their public selves are often seen by millions. The talent that work in sports, especially, straddle a difficult line. Actors are playing a role most of the time they’re seen by the masses, so fans wouldn’t expect the Bryan Cranston they see as Walter White to be who he is on his personal social media. But what about a Stephen A. Smith of ESPN? 

Sure, they could have their ‘public figure’ account and a separate personal account, but that’s not only difficult to maintain, it’s typically not advisable, said Kaminsky. Nor would fans connect with an account that’s just full of clips of their TV appearances — they’re no more human than a made-for-the-masses logo then. Fans don’t want to feel like they’re watching an act on TV — these aren’t actors. 

“I don’t really like the whole character thing on, ‘Hey, because this is online on the internet you should behave in a different way,’” said Kaminsky, whose bknown agency helps talent across media on social media strategy. “I think there are things that are more acceptable and you’re able to express yourself in other ways than maybe you can in person. Or if you’re on TV or you’re in the public spotlight; you can definitely showcase things you wouldn’t otherwise. 

“But when it comes to personality, I think it should be as close to who you are as a person. When I follow you, and I see your messages and tweets or whatever that should be you as much as it can. I should be able to meet you in person and not feel like I’m talking to someone different.”

That authenticity, when combined with two-way engagement, is key for talent to build logo-proof identities and fandoms. The network behind them lends credibility and can help give talent a leg up, to be sure, but to put all of one’s eggs in a logo-ed basket is a strategy with an expiration date. It’s not a bad thing for the employer for its talent to cultivate personal fandoms; a rising tide lifts all boats even if that talent may leave someday. It all makes sense on paper, but Kaminsky puts the best-laid plans into action. It’s about making fans like you for you, not for your affiliation.

“The more that you’re optimizing generally, the more you’ll be able to reach your audience and the more that they’ll appreciate your content. And then the more that you’re directly engaging with them, you can build monster fans from that,” Kaminsky explained. “So I think it’s a big picture principle where people will follow you if they feel that you’re being genuine. 

“And it doesn’t matter what type of content it is, necessarily, where if you’re not bringing them that content, when you leave a company, they won’t come back to you. They like Neil for Neil [fr example] and wherever he goes, they should continue [to like you] assuming you’re loyal.” 

So a major key is engagement. Stop me if you’ve heard that before, engagement being the favorite industry buzzword, the magic pill that equals success, and showing up in the algorithmic feeds. The desire for engagement is one of the main factors behind the growth of polarizing hot takes on social media. People don’t engage with a neutral opinion, strong statements and, oftentimes, sensationalism is what drives replies, comments, shares, and views. 

With that in mind, the temptation may be to throw out hot takes at every chance, to jump on whatever conversation is trending at the moment. But that’s not the way to think about it, Kaminsky explained. It’s a good idea to weigh in on trending topics, but not at the expense of one’s authenticity.

“It’s not all about being polarizing,” he said. “It certainly helps, but some of it also just comes down to authority and being useful to your fans. So, if you have a strong voice in a specific topic and see that topic is trending, you just explaining, not necessarily making a hot take — certainly, that can do well — but it’s really just like, okay, you’re the king or queen on this specific topic, make your voice heard. Because at the end of the day, people just want to hear from you and they want to hear from you in that moment.”

The era of fans wanting to hear from specific talent, not just networks, is upon us. When the balance of need is weighing toward the talent more than the logo. And that is introducing a brand new paradigm that is only just beginning. Kaminsky and I talked about the rise of these individuals that are building such powerful digital brands that network branding and reach are irrelevant. Talent win over fans so much that fans could care less about the brand behind them. It doesn’t matter which medium or network or platform, fans are fans of the person. The balance of power has shifted and there is no going back.

“If you are good — talent is just talent; good talent is just good talent…,” Kaminsky said. “So if you are that talent — like [former NFL punter turned massive sports personality] Pat McAfee can resonate. It doesn’t matter what platform Pat McAfee is on, that man will resonate.

“So to me, the model is building an audience online and then taking that audience with you because you’re able to go direct to them and you’re able to push out all your stuff. So I recommend folks figure out their niche and be really strong on digital.”

The names of the individuals, the personalities, the talent are out front now; no longer do fans form genuine relationships with logos and networks. The name on the back of the jersey in the greater sports media and entertainment space carries more weight than the name on the front. The era of human connections driving fan loyalties is upon us, and we’re all better for it.


How Brent Gambill Helped Develop and Package Strong Stories with SiriusXM Baseball

The circumstances brought on by the pandemic has caused evolution in a lot of industries to happen more rapidly than anyone could have imagined.

When athletes were stuck sheltering with the rest of us, and certainly as many entered their respective league bubbles, the sports world witnessed the rise of the athlete journalist. This may not be exactly what Derek Jeter had in mind for athlete journalism when he founded the Players Tribune back in 2014, but no one can deny the power and scale of athlete-produced content now, ushered by social media.

But here’s the thing — as cool as it is to see athletes giving us the pictures, the reactions, and feel of things, this development in sports media perhaps helps fans appreciate sports journalists. The storytellers, the objective eyes and ears, the ones who can put to words the emotion and novelty of the moment. It’s hard not to consider this unique value reflecting on my recent interview with Brent Gambill, now the Director of Communications for NASCAR, Mid-Atlantic region and formerly a longtime producer with XM (and later Sirius XM) radio and their show ‘Baseball Beat.’ Their show was different because they didn’t chase down players, they wanted the writers instead.

“(Baseball Beat host and current LA Dodgers broadcasts) Charley (Steiner) used to describe as the show as ‘I didn’t want to start a show with players, I wanted to talk to the people that were actually in the room, who are actually covering everything,'” said Gambill. “Who can tell you what they ate and what the feeling of the crowd was and know how to report and put cohesive sentences together and really paint the picture o the sports universe and what’s happening on the baseball diamond…

“He goes: It’s the romanticism…'”


That mindset of embracing the writer perspective continued to carry the show for Gambill and Steiner. Their cumulative sensory knowledge and intuition of the stories playing out in front of them were invaluable. Fans have, and likely always will, want to relate to the players. To try to put themselves in the shoes of these aspirational super heroes and experience what it’s like to be a pro athlete. But it’s the journalists who are the flies on the wall, taking in the sights, sounds, and storylines. And the story of the storytellers emerged just as intriguing as the stories themselves, oftentimes.

“I can still remember Game of Shadows [book detailing BALCO and steroid usage in MLB], getting an advanced copy because we had worked so closely with Mark Fainaru-Wada and the rest of the team working on that…,” Gambill recalled. “All those guys for the New York Post that were writing all these amazing stories covering the scandals, we were talking to those guys…We tried to tell it from the perspective of the writers who were doing it. It was such a unique time to be a part of it.”

But while the reporters brought great intrigue and interest to the show, Gambill also knew that much of sports radio — and that’s what he and Steiner were doing, even as their content began showing up online, too — is driven by engaging with fans: listener calls. A lot of the Baseball Beat listeners, however, were listening passively often at their desk at work. Previous attempts at caller segments were mostly mediocre. But when social media arrived, new avenues for interaction opened. Gambill explained it:

“What happened was – radio was driven a lot of times by callers and you have an audience who’s listening. They’re passive listeners, but they can’t pick up the phone and talk…We said ‘let’s start finding a way to (engage them).’ So we started doing a question of the day…”

Nowadays fans want to, and can, engage directly with players. But, realistically, only a select few will get a like, let alone a comment or reply from their favorite player. The writers are more accessible and the two-way relationships developing between fans and journalists are nearing a golden age.

As more bubble games begin and most fans remain confined at home, there is more demand than ever for the stories and more options to find them. The players are giving their unfiltered view of experiences through their lens. Media is curating many of those stories. Reporters are consuming it all, giving their objective firsthand view, leveraging their sources, and having on and off the record conversations. There’s a place for both and the fans are the winners.

Something happened when the sports stopped. Players realized that fans were eager to engage even when there were no games. Fans still cared what they had to say. The PSA’s for COVID and the response to social justice that came weeks later empowered generations of players that were already increasingly social media savvy. Meanwhile, reporters are bigger brands themselves, whether it’s Woj becoming an institution or The Athletic’s writers bringing hordes of subscribers with them when they joined the publication.

The stories will always reign supreme. But there is a renaissance for great storytellers, each with their own unique perspectives, points of view, and personality.





Episode 174 Snippets: NASCAR’s Brent Gambill on Evolving Storytelling Over the Years

On episode 174 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Brent S. Gambill, Director of Communications, NASCAR— Mid-Atlantic Region.

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.

Episode 169 Snippets: Uni Watch’s Paul Lukas on the Sports Uniform Geekiness and the Community That Can’t Get Enough

On episode 169 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Paul Lukas, founder and writer, Uni Watch.

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.

Episode 162 Snippets: Brandon Berrio Helps Lead LSU Football’s Social Content Strategy and Operations Through a Dream Season

On episode 162 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Brandon Berrio, Associate Director – Creative and Digital Content for LSU Athletics.

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.

Episode 160 Snippets: Andrew Brewster Developed a Michigan State Athletics Blog for USA Today While also Working a Full-Time Job

On episode 160 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Andrew Brewster, Editor, SpartansWire (Michigan State Athletics blog for USA Today).

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.

Episode 158 Snippets: Kathleen Hessert on What to Know about Gen Z, Athlete Image, and Questions to Guide Brand

On episode 158 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Kathleen Hessert, Founder + President of Sports Media Challenge and Founder of WeRGenZ, to talk about Gen Z fans, her experience on brand/social media with Peyton Manning, SHAQ, and more.

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.

Episode 157 Snippets: Kendall Baker on Telling the Stories of Every Day in Sports for Axios

On episode 157 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Kendall Baker, Sports Editor for Axios.

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.

Episode 155 Snippets: Alexandra Willis Serves Up Aces for Wimbledon’s Digital and Social Content + Communications Strategy

On episode 155 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Alexandra Willis, Senior Manager – Digital Media for Wimbledon and the AELTC.

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.