Listen to episode 175 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Kenny Pordon, Sports Marketing Executive, formerly with the NFL and XFL.
Listen to episode 175 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Kenny Pordon, Sports Marketing Executive, formerly with the NFL and XFL.
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.
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.
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.
How do you know it’s Bud O’Clock? Just wait for the light. 🚨
Watching hockey at home will never be the same. Introducing the Budweiser Red Light, a Bluetooth-connected celebration for every time your favorite team scores a goal. Pre-order yours: https://t.co/eiyuu8elKT
— Budweiser (@budweiserusa) October 13, 2019
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.
— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) March 7, 2020
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.
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) February 7, 2020
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.
— Houston Roughnecks (@XFLRoughnecks) February 22, 2020
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).
Bud Light is giving you a chance to take home an authentic 2020 home run ball! Tweet using #BudLightHomers, #Sweepstakes, and tag your favorite team for your chance to win. When fans can catch homers from home, there’s a Bud Light there. pic.twitter.com/8RFwwkqKZh
— Bud Light (@budlight) July 23, 2020
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.
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.
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.
Listen to episode 172 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted shares a list of top 10 industry learning / career / networking tips, and then hear a replay of an interview with TJ Ansley, then Director of Digital Media with the Portland Trail Blazers and now Director of Digital Media for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
[Tech issues this week, we’ll be back with a new episode next time, but still wanted to deliver fresh content this week!]
It’s Father’s Day and virtually no fathers in the US will be taking their sons and daughters to a sports event.
And while society is gradually reopening and more sports – youth and pro – are hoping to get games going, 2020 will be a year that kids all over the US miss out on opportunities to become bigger sports fans, if fans at all. It’s a scary proposition for sports business. Many leagues are already coping with a rising average fan age and a generation of kids growing up not idolizing the star athletes on the field or court, but instead their favorite YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok follows.
So, as a Father’s Day and a summer arrive, what can the sports industry do to ensure kids in both in the 21st century will fall in love with a favorite team, athlete, and the experience of going to a game or watching it with friends or family?
As is the case with many of the most difficult challenges, it’s instructive to think about the underlying emotions, behaviors, wants, and needs that lead kids to become sports fans in the first place. There are no clear answers to solve this challenge, but there are clues as to where and how to begin trying.
I think back to my own experience, falling in love with my first and favorite sport – baseball. I was an avid player, thanks to a pops that never said no to catch or a trip to the ballpark for some batting practice, but not every baseball fan grew up playing. But what made me a MLB fan, a lifelong fanatic for the game and the league?
It’s the unique experiences that stick with me the most. There was a magical World Series run for the hometown team at age 10 – but, remember, sports marketers can’t rely on wins and losses. But that’s not what sticks most today — it was the trips to Spring Training to see the players up close, a pilgrimage to ballparks on the east coast, and going to baseball camp to work with MLB players.
We always say that every game is a chance to create a memorable experience. That applies even more so to the youngest fans in attendance, whose hearts are open and passions still developing. Right now, a lot of sports organizations are trying to create that memory for every kid in attendance. They’re also straddling the line between giving kids memories and giving parents something with which to entertain and distract their kids.
There’s value to creating a memorable experience, something kids will post about on their social media, message their friends about, and talk about the next day at school. But what about the experiences that seep into the soul, latching on with emotion for eternity? Those experiences aren’t easy to create and execute, but that’s what makes them special. Those may not be as scalable, but they’re worth thinking about if it each means creating a lifelong fan, with lifetime value.
During the pandemic sports teams all over the world produced a plethora of activities for kids to help parents entertain their children with families stuck at home 24/7 — coloring books, word searches, mazes, Where’s Waldo adaptations, crossword puzzles, and more. Many co-created these with corporate partners, taking sponsors along for the ride.
But kids still spent most of their time with phones and tablets in hand, watching YouTube, TikTok, and children’s shows on-demand. If parents can stick some headphones or air pods on their kids and get some time to sleep or relax, especially during this quasi-quarantine, you can bet they’ll take it.
What role can the sports industry play? For years now, sports teams and have started to resemble media, entertainment, and content companies. What does Peppa the Pig look with NHL Flyers mascot Gritty instead of the animated British pig? What if my generation didn’t grow up watching Recess and Rocket Power, but also a cartoon about a well-known athlete, team, mascot, or youth sport? Or maybe it’s partnering with the influencers and entertainers already capturing attention of kids more intentionally.
For decades of sports marketing, the straightest path to fostering youth fans was through their parents. But today kids of all ages are consuming more media per day that generations past consumed in a week or a month. And therein lies a potential opportunity for organic infiltration.
A common staple for sports teams nowadays are kids clubs. They vary in size and sophistication, and typically involve tickets to a game, some swag and merch, an event or two, and maybe a sponsor gift or experience. But with so many kids becoming creators and some fancying themselves as influencers, is there an opportunity to turn those kids clubs members (or via a new initiative) into ambassadors for the team?
Every avid youth fan, from an avid fan family, is a potential ambassador; most importantly, an active ambassador and changes are there a few talented or aspiring creators among them. There is a partnership there, with mutual benefits for both sides. Now is the time to explore it.
The notions behind millennial marketing became so ubiquitous over the past decade they, ironically, started to become memes. But there is something to be said that millennials, the first generation to have the Internet in its adolescence, are the ones raising their kids now. And that means something.
At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, it’s worth considering what millennials value. Experiences are an important component, in contrast to ‘things’ that may have held more importance in the past. But now they have kids. How can teams create experiences, while accommodating the parents — group experiences that are designed for families? VIP experiences that include separate activities for kids? Millennials are growing up, so can the marketing and experience tactics to engage them.
What else can we learn from this generation? Their lean-back experience still involves engaging, messaging, chatting, listening, participating, sharing. Trying to win 100% of their attention is a fool’s errand and trying to win 100% of their attention split between their screens and IRL experiences isn’t any easier. Instead, fulfill the need to connect without trying to dictate it. The younger generations are complex, but they’re more socially connected than preceding generations, just in different ways.
Plenty of dads will pass down the passion of their teams and their favorite sports to their kids. But that love is not as hereditary as it once was, there are too many other outlets and options competing for attention. And it’s certainly not any easier with a pandemic sweeping the world and the sports world for much of 2020.
Hopefully more than a few fathers out there are playing catch with their sons and daughters today and a love for sports will be kindled, ensuring the generations to come will keep the power and passion of sports alive.