Sports Roundtable: Games changers

Leading communicators gathered in New York at this Catalyst Public Relations-hosted roundtable to discuss how - no matter the sport - the rules of engagement and influence continually evolve.

Sports Roundtable: Games changers

Leading communicators joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York at this Catalyst Public Relations-hosted roundtable to discuss how – no matter the sport – the rules of engagement and influence continually evolve.

Melissa Brenner, VP of marketing; National Basketball Association
Marty Conway, VP of sports marketing, IMRE
Leigh Farris, corporate comms director, GE
Mark Jones, director of comms, US Olympic Committee
Anna Lingeris, manager of global brand relations and consumer engagement, The Hershey Company
Sergio Morales, SVP consumer marketing and head of sports marketing, Hill+Knowlton Strategies
Yolanda White, VP of brand marketing, Powerade/Coca-Cola
Bret Werner, managing partner, Catalyst Public Relations

The Olympics

Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): The Summer Olympics are taking place in London this July. What makes the Games such a unique and powerful forum? How is this year's event different from past Olympics in terms of sports marketing partnerships? 

Mark Jones (US Olympic Committee): The Olympics are obviously unique for a lot of reasons, one of which is that sport is kind of a secondary aspect. The Olympics weren't founded on sport. It was a peace movement with sport as the catalyst. While that's not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind about the Olympic movement, there's always that association.

You have the multisport aspect and there are athletes from every country living together, so there's a uniqueness from a cultural perspective that transcends all of the sporting events that take place.

Obviously, it's exciting to see Michael Phelps touch the wall or Shawn Johnson do an amazing vault. But at the same time, there's an emotional attachment surrounding it that's not really about sports. Everyone gets that on some level and that's why brands associate with it.

Melissa Brenner (NBA): The landscape from a social media perspective has changed dramatically in the four years since the last summer Olympics. In 2008, Facebook had 100 million users. As of this week, it announced 901 million users. In 2008, Twitter was at 6 million users. In 2012, there are 140 million users. So the landscape for which athletes could communicate with fans – and vice versa – in real time has dramatically shifted. So it's going to be interesting how that fuels conversation and attention for the Games.

Sergio Morales (Hill+Knowlton Strategies): The growth of social media is definitely a positive, but it poses a challenge at the same time. There's more clutter. The fact that it's an Olympic movement, if you will, is interesting because what comes out of that are stories, whether it's sports, whether it's consumer products. It's the stories that are going to start to field those conversations.

Brenner (NBA): Fans can help edit what stories they are attracted to. There's clutter just on a normal news cycle. I don't think the Olympics make the clutter any bigger than any other time of the year.

Morales (H+K): Yeah. I think across the landscape there's clutter. It's breaking through that clutter with whatever platform it is.

Brenner (NBA): The audience helps curate things about what they're attached to and what stories they glom on to.

Yolanda White (Coca-Cola): What we enjoy as a company in terms of the Olympics is that it's global. It allows for the conversation to go broader. It allows us to have really rich discussions for people to discover. Discovery is really key.

Mark hit on it in terms of the values of the Olympics. For us, that emotional connection is really strong. It's provided a platform not only to elevate Coca-Cola, but to also elevate Powerade, which is rooted in sports. It's been a tremendous platform across a multitude of our brands. 

The Olympics also stimulate country pride, which is attached to values. So for us, as we've solely supported Team USA here in the US, it gives us other areas that we can just dial up from a global perspective. We're excited about the growth in social media because we believe the stories that are told allow us to continue our conversation and make it really meaningful so that there's not just a conversation about the sports and winning. It really is about the conversations and the emotional drive and connection that the Olympics can bring.

Morales (H+K): It's also the research. It's research on the fly because, as you said, you're discovering. You're finding those new individuals that could be existing customers. They could be new customers. And you're learning about your audiences through different passion points.

Brenner (NBA): Don't discount the power of peer review, of having what your friends are saying as kind of what attracts you to an athlete or a sport in general.

Leigh Farris (GE): GE is a massive global brand. The Olympics is that global platform and stage to tell our story and talk about who we are. We're also unique because we're a b-to-b company and different from most of the big consumer brands on the Olympic stage. We have to make the connection in different ways.

Back to what Mark said about ideals and values. We're a company very much aligned with the IOC (International Olympic Committee), the USOC, and the values and the ideals around the Olympics. For us, it's the infrastructure and the healthcare play. So, it's how we're helping build and power the Games and provide healthcare technology to the athletes. There's also the legacy piece.

We work with the organizing committees and the cities to build up those communities and things that leave a legacy for those cities that weren't there before.

White (Coca-Cola): The Olympics are also multigenerational. It allows for mom to engage. It allows for celebrities to engage. It allows for athletes at all levels to engage. The social media statistics Melissa offered before are things we're really excited about because it allows you to basically compartmentalize those stories and tell them in different ways. From a brand perspective, it's the perfect platform to land our brand promise, which is really about powering through.

Brenner (NBA): Just to echo that. It's been 20 years since the first Dream Team in 1992. It's funny how fast 20 years goes. But what's interesting for us is just the multigenerational piece. That was sort of a cataclysmic time in our history because it really brought basketball to a global audience.

We now see the benefits of that first Dream Team where we have players like [German-born] Dirk Nowitzki [of the Dallas Mavericks] who watched that Dream Team, it captured their imagination, and led to their passion for the sport. Now we're seeing the globality of the game. We have all of these international players who this year are going to be playing not just for Team USA, but for countries around the world.

Farris (GE): It is a mass audience. Again, for a b-to-b company where everybody is a consumer now. Our key audiences are customers and investors, not necessarily the consumer in the traditional sense. But everyone is a consumer now. The Olympics is a way for us to expand our audiences and tell our story in a sort of simple, compelling way that helps more people understand what GE does.

Bret Werner (Catalyst Public Relations): Building off how Melissa started the conversation, Twitter, for example, grew 20-fold since the last Summer Games. Then you combine that with the intersection of a platform that appeals to such a wide array of audiences. It will be interesting to see how the intersection of social media with this mass platform intersect in this modern day. That's definitely a story to watch.

Jones (USOC): One of the interesting things for us is that these will be the first real digital Games. Twitter and Facebook were obviously around for Vancouver, but not at this level.

Brenner (NBA): No one really knew how to use them.

Jones (USOC): We started our corporate Twitter feed for the Vancouver Games, but were hardly active. At this point, all of our athletes are. The exposure they get at this kind of “one moment in time” is interesting. They obviously create this unique fan base. It will be interesting to see how far they can carry on their own kind of individual brands.

When someone follows [US track and field sprinter] Tyson Gay or [US decathlete] Bryan Clay, they aren't necessarily always top of mind in the US. Now they get them for that one moment in time. Maybe even passive followers will see them tweet every other day, every week, or whatever it is. Once they follow them they're kind of in.

Werner (Catalyst): Has anyone trademarked the “Social games” yet?

Brenner (NBA): That brings up an interesting point. For the sponsors in the room, how closely do you look at an athlete's social media footprint when you evaluate whether to go into business with them? 

Farris (GE): We don't sponsor athletes in a traditional way, but we do sponsor teams and bring on athletes from a campaign perspective. People who promote certain campaigns, whether it be healthcare or otherwise, more than ever you have to think about their digital and social presence. That's how you're going to get your message out. So, I wouldn't think it would be the top criteria, but one of the top criteria.

Anna Lingeris (The Hershey Company): It's part of the mix we look at. We don't use a ton of athletes at Hershey's as a whole. Our main sports partnership is the NCAA. So, we have kind of an equity play game with the Reese's College All-Star Game, which is college basketball stars. It's part of the mix for us because we want to manage the risk behind it, too. Because the more followers you have, that's great. You can drive our message out, but there's also some inherent risk to that.

The growth of Facebook and Twitter are great. It's totally going to change the dynamic of how news is going to be distributed. We like to think of Twitter as a headline driver. That's going to be a great use of Twitter for the Games.

The one thing I'm more curious about is how YouTube is going to get impacted. I vaguely remember the 2008 Games ñ being kind of an Olympic junkie myself ñ when Michael Phelps touched out the Australian in the 100-meter fly. All of a sudden, that went up on YouTube within seconds because somebody recorded it on their DVR and then obviously NBC removed it. But how the use of YouTube is either going to hurt or, maybe NBC has some type of deal.

That's going to be interesting because a lot of people go right to YouTube to see those recaps and replays versus going to the home news site.

Jones (USOC): NBC and YouTube do have a partnership with these Games. NBC's channel will have tons of content available immediately, almost in real time. Quite honestly, we're going to have a ton of content in the run-up to the Games that we're producing right now with dozens of athletes. It's a pretty unique partnership. But to your point, it's the first place people go. They don't necessarily think, in this day and age, to go to website XYZ. They go to YouTube. So, in this case, that's a great partnership.

Brenner (NBA): From a content management standpoint, is the crown jewel of our digital empire. But you can't discount YouTube in the sense of it's a way for us to get casual fans. Where our more avid fans will be on, our casual fans will go to YouTube. So we can't just cut that off and just say go to

It's hard to change consumer behavior, but we can use YouTube as a marketing tool. We've been pretty successful about this to whet people's appetite, give them snackable bites of content, and then drive them to for more information and for more content.

Werner (Catalyst): Because of those YouTube relationships, the interesting play will be Facebook and Twitter, but I'm more interested with what's happening with Google Plus. What's happening with sites such as Pinterest because that's such a visual sport. What are the new emerging mediums and how are they going to create presence?

Social media game plan
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
How has the constantly changing social media landscape altered your communications plans?

Brenner (NBA): Being first is important. You want to be on new platforms as early as possible, but it doesn't discount the fact that you need to be very scholarly in your approach in terms of observing what other brands are doing, how the platform is moving to make sure you're using a platform to its fullest.

Our strategies have evolved. We first went on Twitter in February 2009. We looked at it as a way for us to tell fans in real time when an exciting game was going on. It was an alert mechanism that someone's having an unbelievable fourth quarter or the game's going into overtime. You name the scenario. You need to watch now.

That's still a big part of our business. We did something with the D-League finals (held the week of April 23). We gave away Jeremy Lin jerseys. The D-League was the number-one trending topic for about an hour on Twitter because of this giveaway. The fact that we keep building upon new ways to use these platforms is an important point.

Then in terms of where we see the business going, there are a couple of big trends we see. Obviously, photo sharing is huge. I mean we saw the news with Instagram [being bought by Facebook] last week and what Tumblr has been doing. So, photo sharing is huge. We're fortunate that we have a tremendous photo library. There's a lot of opportunities for the NBA in the realm of photography and sharing.

Then to your point about sharing among friends. It is very focused on static text. One of the new things we're seeing are platforms where you as a fan can interact with other fans using video and voice or even interact with athletes in this more intimate way. To us, that's a really interesting area to play in.

White (Coca-Cola): We've asked how can we utilize this space more strategically? Is it about allowing consumers to tell what they've seen or allow them to be a part of the conversation so that they can spur others to basically have an opinion? We're getting aggressive and putting hashtags on our communications. Starting the dialogue so that we're telling consumers to join us in the conversation and not just listen.

So everything we do on YouTube, when we share an advertising spot, we literally put a hashtag so people can start the conversation. As brands, we all enjoy being the number-one trending topic. We're like, “Oh yeah, this was a good moment.” But there are so many sites that help you see your digital content, you are able to really get more targeted in your approach.

Lingeris (Hershey): Just following up on what you said, Yolanda, we actually believe in a content-supply-chain approach. We're trying to use our keywords, the content, and filter them not only through the work we're doing in publicity, our press releases, and standard quid pro quo work, but also what we're using on Twitter and our Facebook channels. What's being put on our own site. It's a larger, strategic approach on where those pieces of content are being housed. And what's that life cycle of that piece of content. So, it's not just seeing it on a blip on Facebook, but you're going to see it pop up maybe a week or two later down the chain.

To answer the initial question as a whole, however, social media has literally changed our department at Hershey where PR actually rolls into digital. It does not roll into a comms unit. I know people find that very, very interesting, but it's changed our whole structure at the company and how we operate.

Being first is really great, but we also believe in the risk mitigation up front. We try to say that 10% of our job is risk mitigation and it's the first 10%. Then 90% is obviously the strategy and execution. Coming from a chocolate brand that does work in sports a little bit, but also in lifestyle, entertainment, and film, we also want to identify in the channels where our fans are.

For example, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups is a big sponsor of the NCAA. But if you bring them onto our social channels, it's split about 70/30. Seventy percent are women and they're not really looking to hear about that from us. So, learning to balance delicately when we need to tell what we're doing from a consumer promotions experience and a publicity lens and listening to what our fans want to hear back from us. It's definitely a delicate balance on what we're providing there because we're not coming from a full sports-based organization.

White (Coca-Cola): One of the other trends is around content. What we used to view as the content to drive within social media or just within the digital space is very different. You need to have many units, different communication. You have to break through in a number of different ways.

For us, it's not enough to just take a TV ad and put it in the digital space. It really is thinking about digital. How do you keep the conversation fresh? When you talked about the life cycle of a piece of content, it's shorter and shorter. You have to know when to move on and switch gears when the discussion is stopping.

Marty Conway (IMRE): Content really is king. It will always be king. Distribution platforms will come and go. But the question really is what is content? We started with radio. We would have all been carrying portable radios today. It was voice. We moved to text. Now we're into video, photo, etc. So with the nature of the content, you sort of start with the consumer and you work backwards. You stay focused on the content. You think about distribution platforms, but you can only be in so many places effectively.

You have to be nimble and flexible, but, at the end of the day, your content has to be quality. That's one of the reasons why the Olympics is poised to continue growing. The quality of that content never changes. It is always top level, premium content.

Werner (Catalyst): I love how communications is the melding of owned, earned, and shared. As modern day communicators, we should be thinking this way.

As you look at developing trends, Catalyst puts out an annual study on sports fans and social media. A developing trend we saw in 2011 – and it's continuing in 2012 – is the rise of location-based services. Sports fans want to show their fandom. They want to say, “I'm at the Knicks game,” “I'm at the local bar watching my team play,” or “I'm with my buddies in my living room and you're not.” It's a badge. So, you will see location-based-service functions continue to elevate with sports fans.

The other developing trend we see is the consumer influence. Again, people want to talk about their love and passion for sports. We should understand how much influence that group can have. It's not just The New York Times and USA Today. It's a lot of different avenues. Those are new mediums for a lot of us, but we need to embrace them.

Brenner (NBA): It's a generational shift. With the generation now, unless you put it on social media it didn't happen.

Lingeris (Hershey): It's the one-to-one relationships we're all trying to achieve.

Morales (H+K): From an agency that consults to brands, there's always a plan. There's a six-month plan, there's a one-month plan, but those plans can change very quickly. If you have a plan in place, from a digital perspective what's helped is that it's much easier now to monitor. It's much easier to see where people are talking to figure out why they're saying what they're saying. To figure out why they're clustering with these other groups and to figure out we have this plan in place, but let's take a step back. Let's continue to do the day-to-day stuff and execute on that. But what does this mean over here? Why are people saying this? We're noticing something here, so we're taking it down to that granular level and basing our ideas on further research.

So maybe it's talking to that influencer. Maybe it's talking to that girl that lives in New York and has a following of 4,000. How does she gain that? What are they talking about? What are her peers talking about? How do we bring that back to, say, Powerade? How do we bring that back to the NBA so that we can create different movements around that? Whether it's a very short movement or whether it's something that lasts longer.

White (Coca-Cola): We've put some pretty controversial communication online and we love it. We instituted daily social listening so we could monitor how many positive and negative comments we drew. And we adjusted our communication as we were rolling it out.

One thing that's really great is that digital is topical. You can change it. You can continue to evolve the conversation. You can insert yourself in different ways. Being able to really listen to what you see written and what's in between the lines in terms of positive and negative is really critical.

When you play in digital, you have to listen, monitor it, stay on Twitter, and look at it yourself as marketers. At least we did. It allows you to react in real time, but it requires different processes. It requires different actions as an organization and from a brand perspective. It's not about the one-month plan. It really is about the daily plan.

Brenner (NBA): It's been fascinating to watch this cottage industry of third parties that could monitor and listen to the conversations. They've really come a long way.

Less than a year ago, we had companies coming in and they'd give these very sophisticated presentations. I would ask them to pull up [Minnesota Timberwolves star] Kevin Love's favorability rating. They'd show he was off the charts because his name is Kevin “Love.” He's a great player and there are a lot of things to admire, but his favorability rating was really that much higher than his closest competitor [because of his name].

The technology has gotten so good that you could actually, through programming, inform it and teach the programs about what you're looking for. We've had a lot of success in measuring not just volume of conversations, but actually taking a deeper dive and looking into sentiment.

Farris (GE): Everyone has ramped up social and digital in this age. But the need to be able to control your own message and tell your own story is more prevalent thane ever. Anyone can be a journalist now. 

Lingeris (Hershey): That's a great point. 

Farris (GE): You need your third parties and your surrogates to amplify your story, but you also need to be able to tell your own story through owned channels. That also goes to transparency and just being as open with the audience as you can and giving them a platform to engage and react.

We've significantly ramped up our digital storytelling for a complicated company such as GE. We're constantly trying to simplify our story. We've been early adopters on visual platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram. Again, it may not seem obvious for a company like GE, but to tell a story about gas turbines, healthcare technology, or jet engines visually, people like that. There's a geek cool to that.

We get more traffic from Instagram and Pinterest back to than we do from Facebook and Twitter.

Lingeris (Hershey): One of the challenges for brands as a whole is the real-time response and adapting to that ever-constant flow of communication. Obviously, all of us know that our job is 24/7 and never stops. But now other people are starting to understand what 24/7 feels like.

That real time is something we're adjusting to and we have made significant strides at Hershey. When we see an athlete or a celebrity doing something proactively for us, we tap into that. When we have something negative happening, we get out ahead of that before sitting back. But real time is always a challenge, especially when you mention processes and making sure that everybody is comfortable.

Farris (GE): With big companies, when you need to respond in minutes and not hours, you can't be getting statements approved up the chain and eight hours later respond. You must use the social platforms, empower the digital rapid response team with the right messages, and they can take it from there. There's not a bunch of lag time in terms of approvals. 

Lingeris (Hershey): The one benefit we've seen is that our fans often come to our rescue. If we decide to sit for whatever reason, a lot of the times our fans are coming in and answering our questions for us, which has been beneficial. It's not something you can use all the time, but that has been helpful in the digital age.

Jones (USOC): It helps us. Maybe it's coincidental that Melissa from the NBA is here today, but there was a story recently where some athletes had opinions on whether or not they should be paid to play in the Olympic Games. That story probably could have gone in a lot of different directions. But the support, quite honestly, that we received from Olympic fans was great.

Werner (Catalyst): It just shows you it's about, in a very clever landscape, who is driving and shaping the conversation. It's so vital to understand that as a brand or an organization.

Morales (H+K): From a digital standpoint, it's been a breath of fresh air in terms of measuring success because it really recalibrates the way we're looking at how are we moving the brand from here to here.

If you're a brand and you're telling me as a consultant, “I want to reach 15-year-old boys in the South Bronx, get us into The New York Times,” that's a huge disconnect. That 15-year-old kid is probably not reading the Times and he's probably not watching the news. For that, it's been a breath of fresh air because now we can sit down and really look at what the objectives are. Who are we targeting? Where are they living? Where are they breathing? We can see that action and we can actually have a benchmark where we're making a fairer assessment of what we're doing.

White (Coca-Cola): When you look at all the sports properties, they actually skew fairly low when it comes to teen viewership. So what the digital space is providing is the opportunity to bring sports closer to young consumers. We're seeing more and more of that because they're engaging in their own way.

So it might not be that they can tune in for the entire game, but they're watching the clips. They're keeping up with their players. There are stories they're engaging with. So I definitely see heightened interest and connection to a broader landscape. It is a trend and a shift as we look at young consumers, which are at the core of sports-drink consumption.

The Linsanity effect
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
The past year has brought Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow, two interesting athletes who came out of nowhere to stardom. Everyone wants to pounce on the marketing opportunities these two present. But superstardom can be very fickle. In Tim Tebow's case, he was traded. In Lin's case, it was a injury. If you're a brand, or consulting a brand, how do you know it's the right time to jump on the opportunity or if it's best to take a wait-and-see approach?

White (Coca-Cola): The paradigms that we used to see historically have just completely shifted in front of us today. We are seeing the emergence of rookies where people are saying, "Wow, we need to jump on that" a lot quicker than what we would have done historically. I've also see that the way we would begin those relationships with younger athletes is changing drastically as well. For young people who show a glimpse of success or potential long-term, you have to come to the table with way more today than you did a year ago, two years ago, and definitely five years ago.

For us, sitting on this end, you go through the typical brand assessment. Do they fit my brand strategies? Do they exemplify what I want them to stand for? But then are they cost efficient and effective? Can we leverage them in the right way? It's always a big question mark. Financially, you have to lean in so heavily today for very young, unproven athletes to the point that you've got to make a decision now and say, "I'm going to either go there or not."

Powerade has moved forward with some negotiations that we've been able to close and others we haven't. However, I just feel like the paradigms have shifted drastically. The amount that was considered the normal going rate is three times that. The time period of your deals have actually tripled as well. It's something that has made us wonder about what does this mean in terms of the world of sports? Is it really about the athletes? Should we be thinking about our strategy in a slightly different way?

Conway (IMRE): To Yolanda's point, that began to shift when - and it's being corrected now by the NBA and the NFL and some others - the salary components for rookies was a lot higher than for veterans. All of a sudden, there was this sense of entitlement for players coming into the league that they had this opportunity. Now that's being shifted in a good way.

At the end of the day, though, you're advising people on two things, looking for value and finding transparency in these relationships you have. That's why somebody like Phil Mickelson continues to rise above all others. He emotes his own story. He's not hot and cold at any particular time, but you know what the value is if you're working with somebody like him. Look at the transparency he's willing to give to his family, to his story.

If you can't find those two things, you really have to be a bit cautious and suspicious before you get into those relationships to determine where these athletes are going to take your brand and what are they going to do with it. You have to consider what they're going to do with your brand's story.

Morales (H+K): I was going to say that there aren't too many Jeremy Lins that come along. He's authentic, he's genuine, he's every marketer's dream. You also know that he has an actual impact on a community where it's going to lead to purchases and where members of the Asian community might say, "I'm going to rally around this brand because Jeremy Lin is attached to it."

Brenner (NBA): Social media was rocket fuel for the story.

Werner (Catalyst): If you look at the story discussions around Lin and Tebow, they're amazing. The conversation with Lin is like Mount Everest. It subsided due to his injury, but I'm convinced he'll be a global story for years to come. You look at Tebow's conversation trail and it's Everest and then it's just like Pikes Peak. It never really subsides. I mean these are two individuals that have absolutely transcended.

But if you identify an athlete who is authentic to your brand, you need to act, basically. Because it's very rare that you can identify global icons that you can associate with. The ROI in sports can be stronger than almost any other area of entertainment.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Would you say someone such as Lin and Tebow, who weren't necessarily expected to be as good as they are, could be more valuable to a brand than a Michael Jordan, who everyone knew was going to be a superstar?

Werner (Catalyst): You could have "bought" Michael Jordan very inexpensively. He was not the first pick in the draft. It took vision from certain brands to embrace him at an early stage. Rewards don't fall to the meek here. You need to take risks. Periodically, you will not be correct, but with a strong strategy and getting people that are authentic to your brand, again, I'll reiterate, the ROI is off the charts. 

Morales (H+K): It's very rare that athletes come out of the blue. Jeremy Lin actually had a following before he got to New York. He had the Asian-American community driving hours on the West Coast just to go see his game [when he was a member of the Golden State Warriors], even though he was playing maybe two minutes.

That points back to, again, maybe it's the digital aspect. You have to be out there monitoring what's happening. You have to be in the trenches. You have to know what the communities around those particular influencers - who are athletes - what sort of impact are they having around them? Some of them have zero and then some of them feel that's something that you can act on. Those others that are sort of swelling, if you will, there's ways of finding that with digital and through research.

Brenner (NBA): I'll give you some stats compiled by my great team back at the NBA. In a month period during the height of Linsanity, there were 2.7 million mentions of Jeremy Lin. The next highest player was LeBron James with 2.2 million. So, 500,000 more mentions in a month period for Lin. The Knicks' website traffic in a two-week period increased 770%, with unique visitors rising 531%. One of the best stats: the New York Knicks online is up 4,000%. Again, social media is like rocket fuel. It's not just with the conversations, but it's also affecting real business metrics for us.

Werner (Catalyst): Adding to that conversation, what makes sports so unique is how you can find segmentations of audiences. So before Linsanity, maybe appealing to Harvard University was part of your business goal, for whatever reason. You could associate with Lin at an early stage. You can identify areas of the country, certain passions. It's amazing how an athlete can help lead you to see many segmented audiences.

Why sports are special
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
There are so many different entertainment forms with which a brand can associate. What makes sports a preferred partnership for your brands as opposed to any other forms of entertainment?

Lingeris (Hershey): It's the passion that sports brings, but it's a moment in time, too. If you think about it across the board, everybody has a season. There's games, there's championships, there's the Final Four. It's a moment in time that a brand can rally around across the board. It's that passion and the value of time that bring a uniqueness.

As Reese's, we're heavily involved in the NCAA Tournament. We can really use that time frame. We can also use the conference games leading up to it. We're big partners in with the Big East and the ACC across the board. It's rallying around that and driving a passionate or a loyalist from the brand that might not necessarily be the person we're talking to on a day-to-day basis on our social channels. It's really targeting, perhaps, that hyper user across the board and really elevating that passion and bringing it to the forefront during that moment in time that's really key to the brand.


Here are a quartet of sports figures deemed to be among the cream of the crop in terms of their communications acuity:

Shaquille O'Neal, retired NBA superstar He has been masterful as an innovator in the social media space. His use of Tout to announce his retirement showed the world how to leave the sport simply, gracefully, and on his terms. Melissa Brenner, NBA

Abby Wambach, women's soccer player After Team USA's loss to Japan in the 2011 Women's World Cup final, Wambach gave an interview that was so good we use it for all of our pre-Games athlete media trainings. She was honest, thoughtful, and positive – all attributes you hope to display as a communicator. To do so after such an emotional loss is extraordinary. Mark Jones, USOC

Phil Mickelson, professional golfer He does something many athletes won't do today, he'll actually answer a question that is asked of him. Two words describe Mickelson, “genuine” and “authentic,” both invaluable qualities that enhance his appeal to fans across gender and age demographics. Marty Conway, IMRE

Steve Lavin, head basketball coach, St. John's University His brand shines through whether you're reading his quotes, watching him on screen, or he's on the sidelines interacting with his players. Lavin's messages always support his brand in that they are relevant, powerful, inspiring and, most important, authentic. Sergio Morales, Hill+Knowlton Strategies

Morales (H+K): It's the stories. Let's say you're walking down the street or listening to your iPod and you're not really paying attention. Let's say a taxi hits somebody. It stops you. There's a story there. You're going to tell that story. That's what sports does, it stops you. 

If a last-minute touchdown is scored. If a team wins that wasn't supposed to. There are stories there and there's that emotional piece that stops people. It's not the regular stuff that's happening on a daily basis. That is key in sports. You have a movie, it touches people and kind of moves on. Sports does that on a regular basis. It taps into your emotional being and it gets people to talk about sports. It gets people to grow by talking to other people.

Farris (GE): It's a gathering force, a rallying force for people to come together. And as Yolanda said before, it's multigenerational. It's broad. It's the mass appeal. Exposing your brand to new and broader audiences.

Take the Olympics. People reengage around their own health and you get inspired by the athletes to sort of jump-start your health resolutions. Or the day after the New York City Marathon, more and more people take up running.

Brenner (NBA): This is going to sound overly romanticized, but... you have global economic recessions. You have security issues, healthcare issues, education issues. The fact that for two-and-a-half hours during an NBA game or four hours with another sport, there is this respite from your everyday life that is something you can have a shared passion, whether it's in an arena or watching it on your TV with your extended family or friends. This is what makes sports exciting and sets it apart from your everyday life.

Morales (H+K): It's an open source branding opportunity. Consumers don't get to make a film with a production company, but sports organizations have opened up their brands via digital. Consumers are part of it. They talk about it. You can pick songs in the stadium. You can comment on athletes. So the organizations that are doing it right are really tapping into the consumer and bringing them into the sport a little bit more.

White (Coca-Cola): When you look at Powerade, we love sports because Powerade is consumed during sports. That's the pretty obvious one. However, when we think about sports more broadly, they impact life values. Moms love sports, kids love sports because it's a way of life. One of the interesting stats is that a kid either playing on a field, on a court, or playing a video game is spending more time playing games between the fifth and 12th grade. Because of that, it literally has transformed the way young people behave, the way they think about life. They approach life like it's a game.

Sports becomes this common denominator that hits multigenerational, multicultural. It is a way people live and it's how they talk. They want to know where they stand versus someone else at all times in all aspects of their life. They want to make sure that they're performing at the top of their game. They're looking not to take the shortcut, but the smart cut.

There are so many things we're seeing in terms of the values of sports and how it impacts life overall. That's a piece that we've tapped into, which is the power of sport for us.

Lingeris (Hershey): There's also the reactive nature of sports. I'm very lucky to work on some iconic brands where a lot of athletes eat our product and mention it in the press or show it on TV. There was an instance on HBO's "24/7" where [hockey superstar] Sidney Crosby happened to be eating a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. We sent them a couple cases. It's nothing, but that ended up getting picked up in the press because the GM talked about it at the press conference.

It's really great. We follow a lot of NBA stars on our Twitter feeds. We're looking at everybody who is talking about our brands and products across the board.

Sometimes that's how we actually, to be quite honest with you, find interest. If they're doing it organically and we really know they're a fan of our product, we really want that first. Nothing is worse than working with someone who really isn't a fan of your product. You want them to be a true organic fan, especially coming from the CPG world. So, sometimes we actually find partnerships that way. And even though we don't have a partnership with the NFL, there are NFL athletes who tweet about us or mention us on Facebook. We try to capitalize on those opportunities, too.

Farris (GE): Sports is about being healthy, being active. GE has a healthcare business with innovations and technologies that are all about better health for more people.

Werner (Catalyst): Catalyst does a lot of work in sports entertainment and the one thing you find in sports is fandom. You cannot match the fandom. The second part of it is that brands are sort of endemic to the sports world, for whatever reason. They may be endemic, such as with Powerade, because they're consumed on and off the field or because the culture of sports has embraced brands from very early stages.

It's part of the culture. As a brand, you can easily integrate it in. If you're authentic, fans will embrace you.

Conway (IMRE): That's a great point. You go way back to baseball, those outfield billboards were a part of the game itself. You still see that in great ballparks. But this isn't a recent phenomenon. Sports has always driven technology, from radio to television to DVR to the Internet, right down to mobile. Sports always drives the adoption of new technology. It's proven in almost every decade. And as platforms grow and proliferate, sports continues to grow. So when we study that, we see that's why that connection remains strong. What's going to be the next one? Who knows? But you can almost guarantee that sports as a medium will be driving that technology, whatever it is.

Brenner (NBA): One of the very simple jobs we have from a marketing standpoint as it relates to social media and technology overall is how can we help the fan experience. If you look at every platform we go on or everything we do from a content perspective, that's really the lens. Yes it's important to involve our marketing partners, but they're with us in the sense of how does that further the fans' experience and engagement with our game.

Lingeris (Hershey): Brands have a celebrity status just like the sports organizations, so if we can do something for the fans out there to enrich the experience they're having with our brand or with the sports experience, then we're always more than happy to partner with those organizations.

Successful partnerships

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Leigh, GE signed a three-year marketing partnership with the PGA a couple years ago. That was obviously a concerted decision because it isn't necessarily a natural partnership for GE. What went into that decision? What benefits have you seen from it?

Farris (GE): A sponsorship such as that is about health. Our health brand and our Healthymagination initiative is all about better health for more people. Again, it's a health-related platform where we can showcase our healthcare business, our technology and innovations, and how we're improving health for folks. It also enables us to engage athletes who are very health conscious and focused on their well-being. It's a natural synergy in terms of sports and health.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): I open this up to any other brand here in terms of their sports partnerships, too, but have you, Leigh, seen tangible results from this partnership with the PGA?

Farris (GE): For us, it's a reputation play, so it's more about reputation and thought leadership versus maybe specific metrics. It is about engaging new audiences. We can expose people to our story and our technology, whether it be on-site at a tournament or a way to engage customers in a different kind of setting, things like that.

Jones (USOC): The kind of reputational aspect of it is obviously something we get to deal with on a daily basis because we're not the NBA. We don't have a daily event. It's not necessarily about engaging a fan in this particular game or the background scenes of a locker room or a warm-up shoot, all the things that the NBA does really well.

They give access to these athletes. We don't really have that. We have the reputation and the ideals of the Olympic movement. So, it's things such as excellence and fair play that all of our partners associate with. It's also one of the reasons we're actually more cautious than other sports properties in the things we do and the communications tactics we use. We're pretty low key in social media. We obviously want to give as much access as we can to the athletes and create new and interesting content. But at the same time, we're super careful that at the end of the day it's tying back to what we're about. Not necessarily a particular experience as much as a particular emotion.

White (Coca-Cola): From the brand side, the reason why we're so excited about the Olympics is there are some measurable things we do look at. We look at awareness during that time period. We look at brand credibility. Just given the fact that the Olympics are sort of the purest sort of manifestation of sports. People aren't getting paid. It's about their passion, skill, love for it. So the values are top of mind, but there are key metrics that we've found very effective as we've looked at the key partnership.

Lingeris (Hershey): I just wanted to go back and mention health. Obviously, I work for a chocolate company. We do believe in moderation. We have a very longstanding program called the Hershey's Track and Field Games. It's actually the 35th anniversary of it this year. We've been a partner of USA Track & Field through this organization, which really encourages children, ages eight to 15, to lead a healthy, active lifestyle.

When we look at it from a corporate reputation perspective, just to back you up, obviously we're looking at it from that health and wellness angle as well.

White (Coca-Cola): When you think about the big sports properties, as a brand, once you partner with them it's almost like that partnership is long-lasting. Once you have exclusivity in that one category, it's really hard. Even though there's other properties that you would love to be associated with, your competitor can keep you out. So how you maximize the properties you're with is something that has to be really key because the ability to move around or to make it a one-year partnership is really limited when you start to think about these big platforms.

Farris (GE): GE is with the Olympics through 2020. It is lasting. It is about the legacy. It is about the story beyond the 17 days and the association beyond the 17 days. That legacy piece is so important. What we leave behind in these cities from an infrastructure and healthcare standpoint. We overhauled the ice skating rink in downtown Vancouver [host of the 2010 Winter Olympics]. We'll leave things behind in London. That's a big piece of our sponsorships and partnerships ñ that lasting legacy. 

Jones (USOC): The interesting thing for us, because we're asking our partners to engage for such an extended period of time, is on a day-to-day basis making sure it's worth it for them. We're asking people to jump in for four years or eight years. How do you ask people to do that? You have to make it worthwhile every day.

Farris (GE): For GE in London, our technology is going to be in every Olympic venue, competitive and noncompetitive. Whether it's turbines that are powering, whether it's the lighting, whether it's the healthcare technology in the polyclinics for the athletes, we're everywhere.

The next big thing
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What will be the next big trend in sports marketing or, for the brands here, the next strategy shift for your entity? 

Werner (Catalyst): Yogi Berra had an interesting quote. He said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." With that said, I remember launching in the mid-1990s and being at a newspaper and demoing for the first time to this editor. He stopped the meeting and said, "This is going to turn my business upside down in the next six months." He was correct, just a bit off on his timing.

Technology will continue to evolve sports. Location-based services will be key to the sports fan. They want to showcase their fandom and where they are. We've talked a little bit about the consumer influencer and how this is a powerful group. That, to me, is a wide space for communications experts.

Digital will lead the evolution. If we had to step outside of digital, I would say the acculturated Hispanic is an audience that needs careful watching. They will make up about 30% of the US population.

Jones (USOC): I don't know that how we communicate will actually change that drastically. Marty said it best. It's not necessarily about the platform as much as it is the content. So the things we're talking about from the Team USA perspective, I mean the Olympic Games, are always going to be about the same things. Those things are important to us. Excellence, fair play, respect, this kind of idea that it's a peace movement. The content and the reputation that we maintain is what's relevant to me. Not, necessarily the channel we do it on. That will remain our focus. It's always about how people are thinking about us, not necessarily the tactic we use. It's much more strategic than that.

White (Coca-Cola): There is one trend that is impacting the Olympics that you've talked about. But it's the emergence of new sports and changing sports. I mean rugby [a new Olympic sport in 2012] has always existed, but now bringing that to a global platform and being able to share that. When you talk about the Winter Games and the X Games basically coming to the forefront now. One of the major trends that will impact the Olympics is the fact that there will be more forms of sports birthed and we will see them move from being niche to going mainstream.

Jones (USOC): It will be interesting with NBC putting everything online and in real time, there's so much more content. They obviously always had a lot of content, but with the Comcast merger there's just so many outlets on television and there's so many online channels for these sports to be watched on. I mean there's been some joking like badminton, table tennis, these sports that are super low profile are awesome to watch. They are so much fun. To watch someone hit a badminton birdie 200 miles per hour is absurd. Every sport is going to be available to the consumer. So that, from my perspective, is fun.

Conway (IMRE): The two things you always have to be conscious of are the demography and then the technology. So what's on top of those? Where is that going to push those two things? We haven't even touched on Asia, Europe, and places like that. But the mixing of those opportunities, what we'll be seeing, what they will be seeing is really driven by those two things. The advancement in technology and the new mix in demography. Not just in this country, but in other places. Some of these will be what we consider now to be niche sports that will rise to that next level because of the demography trend and because of the technology distribution.

Lingeris (Hershey): Coming from a brand side, it's really the evolution of integrated communications. When you're activating in sports, it's making sure that you're everywhere the consumer is, whether it's online, on court, in a stadium, wherever. Different tactics come out every day. I don't know what tomorrow's new Pinterest is going to be, but you must make sure you're in that evolution of integrated communications from a brand perspective.

Morales (H+K): Bret started with a quote, so I'll start with one. [Former Apple chief evangelist] Guy Kawasaki said, "The nobodies are the new somebodies." This speaks a lot to what we were saying. It's finding those individuals and staying close to your consumers because now they can talk much faster, much wider. They have a voice. That will continue to evolve. Listening, adjusting, and strategizing against that is what leads to things such as location-based services, gamification, and experiences from the NBA and other sports.

There's also the issue of sustainability, which from a business standpoint is very important. This is a topic that is now part of many organizations' strategy. Sports is becoming more sustainable. There's a story there, but it's not really talked about that much. Stadiums are becoming more sustainable. The products used in stadiums are becoming more sustainable. There's a huge sustainability story around the Olympics. That's a trend that will continue to grow.

Farris (GE): It is a major message for the Games and certainly for GE. Our big plays are infrastructure and sustainability. 

Jones (USOC): It's a central business objective of the organizing committee in London. It will be going forward. I worked for the Chicago bid and one of the kind of new things we were trying to do was build temporary infrastructure. How do you build a stadium that seats 80,000 people and then two weeks later seats 5,000? How are you to able to kind of pare it back and make it a community asset instead of some big thing? But you see a lot of Olympic sponsors that have come on board exclusively for that sustainability message. Whether it's our domestic sponsor in BP or Dow from an international perspective, there are these brands that are absolutely associated with the Olympic Games because of that.

Brenner (NBA): From a marketing partnership standpoint, we have Green Week. We have a partner in Sprint. We launched an app a couple weeks ago where you can actually measure your carbon footprint and how you're saving energy and then share that from a social media perspective. That's something that we're hearing from our partners. That's a good point to bring up.

Farris (GE): Sustainability from an eco-perspective, but also from a legacy perspective. We need to make sure that what we're leaving behind for the city and the communities is lasting.

Lingeris (Hershey): It's interesting how all the mindsets changed. Twenty years ago, would we have been having this conversation? It's interesting that this is becoming a very thoughtful approach when you enter a market for the Olympics and what you leave behind.

White (Coca-Cola): There is more of a blurring of sports and entertainment. We've seen more athletes get into doing reality shows, but it's even being able to talk about athletes and what type of music they listen to. You can be a part of sports with never showing action or sweating. That's something we'll see more and more.

There's also the whole notion of athletes being brands themselves and them getting it now. That's the piece that has really surfaced at the forefront.

I also believe we'll see more scale being created around what I would call "nontraditional" sports at this point, which will become more of a traditional kind of sporting activity. The definition of sport will continue to evolve. It's going to get bigger and wider. People may not be sweating in all of those activities.

Brenner (NBA): For our league, I'll end the conversation where I began - the fan. For us, whether it's the Hispanic market or kids, we're very focused on the changing demographics of the world in general.

Then there's the fan experience. Years ago, if you saw an amazing play, were at a great game, or listened to it on the radio, you would talk about it at work, literally at the water cooler or with your neighbors. Then you had sports talk radio, which further localized it. Then you had the Internet, where you could discover content regardless of geographic boundary. You could be a Knicks fan in Ireland and get up-to-the-minute content. Now with social media, it's become this global conversation. The term our commissioner uses is the "digital water cooler." You have the ability to connect with other fans about our sport, our players, our teams in real time.

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