Sports Roundtable: Knowing the score

Brands have more avenues than ever to align with sports and activate fans' passion. Various leaders in the sector joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York for this Catalyst Public Relations-sponsored roundtable.

Brands have more avenues than ever to align with sports and activate fans' passion. Various leaders in the sector joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York for this Catalyst Public Relations-sponsored roundtable.

Social equation
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Everyone in this room is impacted by athletes who have had major image crises, to some degree – Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Lance Armstrong, LeBron James. How does this impact your work and, more specifically, how does social media magnify this scenario?

Paul Bamundo (Subway): This is something we're contemplating before we even choose somebody. We look at how many followers they have on Facebook, how many followers they have on Twitter. We write it into our deals that we expect this of the folks that we work with: we want them to be having social media messages on our behalf or engaging with us on whatever it might be.

Matt Bourne (Major League Baseball): At the league level, we're paying attention to all of our players who are on social media. Some of the clubs are less interested in having their guys out there because they're afraid some of them are going to make mistakes and say the wrong thing and get themselves or the club in a tough spot. But at the league level, we see that as a great opportunity to get the word out, to get fans to know more about the players.

Rob King (ESPN): One of the things everybody is dealing with is the reality that news gatherers can come in any shape or form. Some of the biggest stories that have broken in ways that athletes dislike have come as a result of somebody with a camera phone, somebody with a friend who has a camera phone, or somebody who received an image on a camera phone. From the editorial perspective, it's been a challenge for us. How do we remain an authority on authenticity in news coverage? How do we respect how the news cycles change?

These cycles move in ways we can't necessarily predict. Tiger Woods having a car accident in the middle of the night on Thanksgiving becomes something very different in three months.

Fandom Fostered

In a Q&A with PRWeek managing editor Gideon Fidelzeid, Subway CMO Tony Pace discussed the chain's "Famous Fans" initiative, which signs on athletes as brand ambassadors, at the PRWeek/Catalyst breakfast session prior to the roundtable. Subway began the program in 2006 with Michael Strahan, star defensive end for the New York Giants at the time. "People can't get enough of their favorite athletes," he explained. "Famous Fans is a real marketing asset." Pace also described how he selects athletes, looking at geographic reach, on-field results, on-camera appeal, and their love of Subway sandwiches.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Let's say you have a really popular athlete, very successful on the field, but he or she is sort of a loose cannon when it comes to social media. You don't want to lose the partnership, but how much control can you have over an athlete's tweeting?

Bret Werner (Catalyst): You can't control every situation and things can occur along the way, but you can do more due diligence now than ever. You can understand how your athlete spokesperson is embraced and by who. What's the sentiment? You can test this in real time. While you can't prepare for every situation, the tools available now are deeper than ever.

David Higdon (NASCAR): At NASCAR, we pride ourselves on our athletes being authentic. That's one of the distinguishing characteristics of a NASCAR athlete. What we try to do in communications is emphasize to them that we're here to magnify the personality, not manufacture it. Social media provides us the ability to do that. Some people are comfortable with the camera and others are comfortable behind that kind of wall that Twitter provides. We steer them in the right direction because that's where their personalities can really be showcased.

Michael Sprague (Kia): As a brand it's up to us to make sure we know with who we're partnering. There are some surprises every so often where somebody does go down a path that you didn't expect. There are contractual clauses that can protect the brand. The athletes all have strong teams behind them advising them as well.

Tai Foster (Under Armour): You have to listen carefully before you overreact to a situation. What you see a lot of the times is… a pattern of athletes who may not have been on Twitter, scandal happens, and then a month later they have a Twitter handle because that's their opportunity to start controlling their message.

Bourne (MLB): At the league level and for the clubs, we're actively, especially during spring training, talking to the players about understanding social media. We're [educating] that what you put on a Twitter feed or on a Facebook page is the equivalent of standing in a press conference and saying the same thing. If you're going to be prepared to tweet something, you have to be prepared to say the same exact thing if you're in front of a room of 20 media.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Sports might be more 24/7 than any other sector. How has this 24/7 reality impacted your jobs?

Sprague (Kia): You have to be ready. You have to look at all of the different scenarios that could potentially happen. For us, we had a great experience when [Clippers' NBA star] Blake Griffin jumped over our car at the NBA slam dunk contest this past February. We knew going into it, “OK, he's going to jump over the car. We think it's going to be pretty cool.” We had no idea what the impact was going to be, but because we knew it was going to be good, we had lined up the producers to cut a spot really fast. We had it on air within 72 hours. We had a newspaper ad ready to go into USA Today. We had all of these things lined up and ready.

Werner (Catalyst): I look at 24/7 a bit differently. Of course it keeps you on your toes all the time, but how do you differentiate given that there's even more noise than ever? That's where smart marketers understand that sports fans ideally may want to be communicated post-game. They want forums to discuss in social media. We need to build platforms where you can get engaged 24/7. That's where location-based services are so applicable, too.

Higdon (NASCAR): You need to have your strategy in place. When someone comes out and says something outrageous and everybody gets up in a fury and there are tweets flying fast and furious, we have to be careful to step back and make sure that we're making the right decision based on our overall plan. Everybody here has had to suffer through that, where you get some pressure from executives asking, “What's our reaction? What are we going to say? Should we be saying this right away?” That's the toughest part of PR today.

Wayne Catan (Coyne): You must be real strategic. For the Dew Tour, [professional skateboarder] Paul Rodriguez was our spokesperson. For this, we're not going to go to the obvious media like a major national newspaper. We're going to look at where it can make an impact on a Saturday night and that might be with Transworld SKATEboarding. In fact, if we went to a traditional newspaper, that would have made the program “uncool” to the skateboarding community.

Tangible results
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Has social media led to better product sales for brands who partner with sports entities?

Michael Fluck (Bridgestone): Tires are not a very exciting category for most people unless you're an enthusiast, so it's given us an opportunity with our sports relationships to really engage with people on an ongoing basis. To talk to NFL fans, NHL fans, all those relationships we have, so we're keeping our brand in front of people at a time when they may not be in the market for tires. It allows us to have a real dialogue even if it's not product-specific. It gives us an opportunity to just keep our brands top of mind with consumers.

Bamundo (Subway): The one that comes to mind immediately was the decision to have [spokesman] Jared Fogle run the ING New York City Marathon. What was essentially a PR idea became an entire focus of a promotional window. We established a partnership relationship with the New York Road Runners. We saw specifically within social media how that helped us in that promotional window. Our featured sandwich [during that time] was one of Jared's favorites, so the Subway Club was what we were featuring in the advertisement and creative that we specifically did around Jared's running the ING New York City Marathon.

You can't necessarily point to one thing in terms of the complete causation, but as far as correlation goes, between all the social activity that we had going on as well as the TV impact, that became our number-one selling sandwich for that window, so it absolutely did have a tangible impact for us.

Sprague (Kia): We see a direct correlation between our being the official automotive partner of the NBA and our sales. We went into the agreement four years ago when our brand had a very different perception than where it is today. We were basically a cheap and cheerful economy brand. Since then, we've launched seven new products in 24 months using the NBA as a platform to help us connect with those passionate fans of the NBA who see us with our 13 league team sponsorships. They see us in arenas, they see us on TV, they see us on They're putting all the pieces together and saying, “If the NBA can partner with a brand like Kia, they must think pretty highly of Kia” and that's translating down. When they talk to our dealers and are asked, “How did you learn about this car?” We hear, “Oh, I saw it on the NBA.”

Bourne (MLB): The MLB Fan Cave has been a really unique activity. It serves as a content engine for social media. We have two super fans at a great location in downtown Manhattan watching every single game on television. We're bringing the players through, celebrities, musicians, entertainers. It's been great for media interest, but also the content that we're creating and developing is beyond just highlights and footage. It's connecting with a younger audience by distributing it through social media…our younger demographics are up across the board.

It's hard to make that exact correlation of the project, but we're really encouraged by seeing what's going on.

Foster (Under Armour): Every week, we see a tangible correlation between social media and products. We use our Facebook page to educate our fans on new products that we have, on new innovations that we're coming up with. There's a significant amount of traffic that goes from our Facebook page to our e-commerce page. It can be as simple as every week the Under Armour women's Facebook page is highlighting a new must-have product. It can track how many people went from the Facebook page to our e-commerce page and even to see who has purchased based on that.

More than just impressions and numbers, Under Armour is an emotional brand. Facebook and Twitter is our opportunity to understand the behaviors and trends of athletes and start speaking to them in a way that's relevant.

Werner (Catalyst): It's important that we evolve from number of fans and impressions. That's a metric; it's not the best metric. If we really want to evolve as marketers it's about engagement.

King (ESPN): Social media is an ongoing conversation; you can't turn it on or turn it off. The notion that we have talent that might be on a show at 6pm, but they're available to people all day long through tweets and through social media – that's a very powerful connection.

Mario Flores (Sportivo): From a Latino consumer and media perspective, it's really interesting, for example, when you follow different groups of people on Twitter and the conversations are taking place in English, Spanish, or Spanglish. That's an opportunity for brands to really tap into that passion. We were talking about soccer earlier. Look at the Rose Bowl, which was packed with 90,000 people [for the USA-Mexico Gold Cup final on June 25]. Eighty-five percent of them were Mexican fans.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What is social media's impact on other marketing disciplines?

Foster (Under Armour): As a fan, Twitter and Facebook enhances when I'm watching a game. It could be I follow one of the writers on and he's following the game and I want to see his insights. I communicate with my friends over Twitter when we're watching a game as opposed to calling them on the phone. From a brand standpoint, it allows us to participate in the conversation if one of our athletes is participating in the game or if we're having the Under Armour All-America game. It's an opportunity for us to talk about it on Twitter and then it's a call to action for people who follow us on Twitter to go turn the game on.

Catan (Coyne): Radio is also still very much alive. According to the Pew Research Center, 93% of Americans listened to AM/FM radio in 2010. We worked with ESPN for the FIFA World Cup. A lot of it was social media. We had to co-op the influencers in early. It was challenging to get player Mark Tyler and we had to get the community's buy-in, we had to get the fans' buy-in, and it's not easy. So a lot of it was social-media driven… and getting the blogs on our side early.

Higdon (NASCAR): The digital space is the best thing to ever happen to TV. It's made it a better product. It's gotten a younger demographic involved. I was talking to Rob [King] earlier. He has a young son who gravitated to sport not because of what he saw on television, but what he saw in gaming, which we haven't mentioned. That turned him into a NASCAR fan. So those media all ultimately come through and you can utilize that through your television broadcast.

Werner (Catalyst): The Catalyst sports survey that we did showed 58% of respondents watch more games on TV since they started using social media to follow sports, so that just validates everything that's been said here. While television is still the dominant medium, they're all integrated. As marketers we have to truly develop integrated marketing programs.

Flores (Sportivo): If you look at some of the programming Univision does – any time the Mexican National team plays, those are the top five viewing opportunities that fans are engaged in. From a US Latino consumer standpoint, I think television is still a really critical and crucial medium. Talking soccer-specific, television is still their primary source, followed by radio.

Bamundo (Subway): It's word of mouth. At the end of the day, that's what we all want as brands and as marketers is to get that word of mouth. Social media is just the really newest way of doing this.

Influential sponsorships
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Teams and leagues partner with brands in multimillion-dollar deals in various forms: stadium naming rights, as the official sponsor of a post-game show, anything you could imagine. What do you truly expect to get out of the sponsorship?

Fluck (Bridgestone): We obviously expect some level of return. The return that we were looking for early in our sports relationships is different than what we're looking for now. We were really looking at the top of the funnel to increase our awareness with a core audience of men 25 to 54. Sports made perfect sense. Fans are passionate and we want them to be passionate about our brand. Now we're looking farther down the funnel, because we're three, four years into most of our sports relationships. We're really looking at purchase. For us, that means partnering with retailers because we don't control the sale to the consumer.

Bamundo (Subway): It's important for us to get to the next level of messaging. So for the Pepsi Porch in Citi Field [home of baseball's New York Mets], we love that area, but we also love our $5 foot-long sign that's right there. It kind of hangs over the field a little, so there's a lot of conversation when a ball hits it or gets close to it. Whoever we're partnering with, whether it's with ESPN for the Subway Fresh-Take Hotline or it's the CBS Post-Game Show, we need to get that next level of messaging because generally people know Subway. They know our brand. Our latest numbers show it's 90-plus percent awareness of the $5 foot-long.

Catan (Coyne): We opened Red Bull Arena [home of Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls, located in Harrison, NJ]. Beautiful arena. It has a European feel, all oak. It's gorgeous. It's bringing soccer to new heights around here. So for Red Bull, the key audience is male Millennials, but now we're hitting the moms who are taking their sons. A lot of energy drinks are now targeting moms who are tired, so it's giving us an opportunity to hit a different audience.

Sprague (Kia): Everybody knows the Subway brand. Very few people know the Kia brand, so we use our relationship with the NBA to help build that awareness. It's not just as the official automotive partner of the NBA. As I mentioned, we have 13 individual team-level sponsorships, because we have to go deeper than just being a sponsor of the NBA. Consumers see right through that. Our dealers are able to engage with the 13 individual team sponsorships.

For example, they just built this beautiful new stadium in Orlando, FL [the Amway Center, home of the NBA's Magic]. There is a section branded Kia and we have a vehicle in the stadium. Our dealers are able to use that space to give tickets to consumers either for test drives or if they've made a purchase. It makes the consumer feel special. So we're continuing the relationship before, during, and after the sale.

Bourne (MLB): From the league perspective, there are three things that are important. One is reputation. Connecting with brands that have the right message and are in line with our brand is important to us. Baseball has the Americana, all-American traditional feel, so we partner with companies like General Motors and Bank of America. When we announced our partnership with Firestone we were able to get a big New York Times story focused on our long history together in terms of Firestone's connection to baseball and baseball's history.

Two is reach and getting into places that we normally aren't able to get into. When we partner with Bank of America and they run a baseball-themed promotion in all of their banks around the country, that's helpful for us. Or with Pepsi, they're in grocery stores around the country. When we're with Under Armour or a licensee and they're in sporting goods retail outlets across the country, that's reaching our fans and reaching potential fans in a way that we don't have the ability to do.

Then the third is connecting with fans. Everything we do is all about the fan experience. Our sponsors and licensees are able to provide sweepstakes, league promotions, and special activities that go above and beyond our capabilities.

Foster (Under Armour): For Under Armour, the three main things sponsorship speaks to is the authenticity of our brand, the mission of our brand, and then experience with athletes. From an authenticity perspective, Under Armour was literally born on the practice field of the University of Maryland, so we see the importance of having a presence on the grassroots level with athletes. An event like the ESPN Under Armour All-America High School Football Game is an opportunity for us to reflect that authenticity. It also gets our products, our innovation right into the hands of these kids that are going to be great athletes one day and a lot of the times are the influencers in their communities.

A lot of our sponsorships we're able to use as platforms to showcase the innovation in our products. One example is the NFL Combine where we introduced the E39 shirt. It allows you to read sort of the G-force and the heart rate of athletes. Nothing like this has been developed before. We put it on a lot of the players that were in the combine. It shows that we're thinking ahead and we're thinking about how to make athletes better.

Flores (Sportivo): When we look at sponsorships, or clients come to us and say, “We want to do some sports stuff,” one of the things we look at is the relevancy for our consumer. Obviously, we're very niche in what we do, so soccer always just kind of percolates to the top. Often time, though, that soccer scene is really oversaturated, so we take a look at what else is out there and what's relevant for the target market. For our consumers, grassroots is really key. It's the ability to go into the communities and do something not just as a one-off, but leave a legacy in those communities. That's really key for us. It's often not the sexiest thing to come in and refurbish a field or donate some soccer balls to a local league, but that leaves a lasting impact.

King (ESPN): From a content perspective there are a lot of things that we discuss. It gets down to fan experience. My fondest memory is going to RFK Stadium with my dad to see a Senators game on bat day and getting a bat. Now I've got a 7-year-old son. I see the way he experiences the world of sports. In our conversations about what seems appropriate in terms of branding, I try to bring that back to the conversation of how can we provide something that seems like a natural environment where the fans really seem to fit.

That's my point of view when you start talking about innovative things to try. So long as the sports calendar is respected and so long as the fan experience is respected, there is a sense of wonderment. Somebody walks into a stadium for the first time, somebody comes to our site, somebody discovers a piece of content. There's a sense of wonderment that you want to nourish. Sponsorship plays a big role in that.

Navigating labor disputes
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Two of the four major sports leagues in the US are either involved in a work stoppage or have just resolved a significant labor dispute. Describe the impact such events have on your marketing efforts?

Sprague (Kia): We have known that [the NBA lockout] was coming for quite a while. It was just putting the plans in place. It will impact it because we do need to basically remove every NBA association, affiliation, co-branding, whatever you want to call it, out of our marketing platform – from our websites, from our dealers. Our dealers have a lot of stuff and they've got to remove it all because of this work stoppage.

We have other sports sponsorships. We're big into motorsports. We're into golf. At the regional level, our dealers are involved in baseball and hockey, so there's other ways that we'll continue to connect with that passionate sports enthusiast, but we hope this is going to come to a quick resolution.

Werner (Catalyst): If there is a work stoppage, the big issue for marketers is: where do all those TV eyeballs go? That creates opportunities for other sports leagues. It provides opportunities for the shopping mall. As marketers, we say, “How do we now touch these consumers because they might not be in front of the TV on Sunday afternoon?” Social media becomes a very powerful tool to interact with those consumers if a work stoppage happens.

Bourne (MLB): From the league standpoint, it's really important to communicate. Communicate with all your business partners just to let them know where everything stands, what situation we're in, what we're doing, and what our position is. Then it's up to the business partner to take the appropriate steps.

Bamundo (Subway): What about fantasy sports? That's something where the lead times are even longer. We've been involved with Fantasy Football for a long time. [In the case of a lockout], we have to make those decisions immediately as a brand. Are we going to be involved with that or are we going to spend those dollars elsewhere?

There's a trickle-down effect to these labor stoppages. It's disappointing on a number of different levels as a fan, but even from a brand perspective we're going to have to make some tough decisions. Hopefully, the leagues are thinking through some of that because some of those dollars are just not going to be there if and when they come back.

New opportunities
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): There are still so many untapped opportunities in the sports marketing and PR world. If you could specify one that you believe will be prevalent in the near future, what would it be?

King (ESPN): Far and away, mobile is the untapped opportunity coming toward us full bore. Location-based services will become more sophisticated, too. Most importantly, the metrics around the usage in this space will become more sophisticated and the advertising will adjust to the medium. From where we're sitting, mobile is the hub for social gaming.

Foster (Under Armour): I'm also looking at the iPad, tablets, and mobile devices. Some of the greatest minds in the world are thinking about the next great app for this. Apps allow you to really engage and entertain. I'm also looking at how people are coming up with apps that allow the user to personalize their experience. There could be something there with the development of more apps that are specific to sports and allow you to experience the content and the entertainment in the way that you want to do it.

Sprague (Kia): We see opportunity in connecting with people in arena. People are spending a lot of money to buy these seats. They want to be entertained, whether it's through mobile, video, or what's happening on the floor. People want to walk away knowing they got value out of their purchase decision.

What we're trying to figure out is how do we bring all of these things together in working with our partners at the league level and at the individual team level to really make sure that those consumers have a great experience, because then they're going to go talk about it through social media and through all of the other channels.

Flores (Sportivo): The Hispanic sports fan is an untapped opportunity. A lot of brands we talk to say they're thinking about it. If you look at various studies and sports-fan engagement surveys, you'll see that the Hispanic consumers are more fanatical fans versus the general market. I don't think it can be an afterthought or some incremental dollar that you might find here and there.

Bourne (MLB): The untapped opportunity is the creation of additional content engines. For the Fan Cave, we feel like we've tapped into a whole other opportunity to demonstrate the personalities of our players, to connect with fans and special interest groups through celebrities or musicians or comedians or people in different areas. We can use these content engines to deliver this content through social media to deepen the connection with our current fans and also build new fan bases.

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