Sports Roundtable: The team concept [Extended]

Sports properties and their brand partners are collaborating in innovative ways to get fans on board.

Sports industry leaders shared their playbook as they joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York at this roundtable hosted by Catalyst, an IMG Consulting Company.

-Jen Becker, executive director of corporate comms, USAA
-Susan Cohig, SVP of business affairs and integrated marketing, National Hockey League
-Dan Courtemanche, EVP of comms, Major League Soccer
-Nina Herrera-Davila, PR director, Marriott
-John Maroon, CEO, Maroon PR
-Brian McCarthy, VP of comms, National Football League
-Andrew McGowan, global media relations director, UPS
-Scott Miranda, MD, DKC
-Bret Werner, managing partner, Catalyst, an IMG Consulting Company
-Shane Winn, assistant VP of corporate comms, MetLife

Game-day activity
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
Fans are increasingly using social media while the on-field action is taking place. How are organizations tapping into these evolving opportunities?

Bret Werner (Catalyst): Communication through social channels is part of the game experience inside or outside the stadium. The avid NFL fan, for example, tweets eight times on game day. That whole experience starts when you wake up in the morning and the excitement builds before, during, and just after the game. More than ever before, social media has transformed game day into a full-day experience.

Shane Winn (MetLife): Our name has been on the stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, for three years now. We try to create content opportunities for people who are attending the game, particularly the pregame experience. We put a lot of effort building out MetLife Central, an area right outside one of the main entrances with a huge variety of content opportunities for people. Everything from being able to kick field goals to some virtual reality green screens where you have the ability to film yourself doing a touchdown dance to a huge bronze Snoopy that fans high five.

We encourage fans to use our hashtags to post photographs. The number of images we get over a season with the brand authentically integrated into them is substantial.

Dan Courtemanche (MLS): Social media has allowed our audience to amplify and grow exponentially over the last five years. If you go to a Seattle Sounders game, there will be 20,000 supporters organized mainly through social media singing and chanting throughout the game.

Sporting Park in Kansas City, KS, is a Google Fiber stadium that allows for Web speed 10,000 times faster than the normal Internet. This helps fans organize and be orderly during the game.

Susan Cohig (NHL): Our priority is making sure we push out content they can’t get anywhere else. Whether it’s on game day or at any other point, the community experience is the key. It’s fans being able to engage with each other not only within their own market, but all across the world.

Jen Becker (USAA): We serve the military. Social media is a way to connect with our members and to bring something that’s very important to them at home to wherever they are in the world. Being an Official Military Appreciation Sponsor with the NFL has given us a great opportunity to spread that message.

We bring military men and women to games and strongly encourage them to go on social and share their experiences. Whether in Afghanistan or Fort Hood, this allows them to be a part of that game-day experience.

Nina Herrera-Davila (Marriott): The NFL is one of our biggest partners. Fans will tailgate at our hotels, get amped, and then go to the games at the stadium nearby. And when they return, we keep our bistros open late to continue that game-day experience. And through social media, the entire day’s activity is shared.

John Maroon (Maroon PR): One of our clients is the annual Babe Ruth World Series. It doesn’t get a lot of attention, but you’re still talking about 12 different states and seven different countries. How do we keep in touch with the families and the fans back home? We embedded college kids as reporters with each team. Every day they would tweet about the teams. They would turn out stories on their iPhone, through Vine videos, and so on. Without mainstream coverage, this was a fun way to capture that game-day experience in a different way.

Brian McCarthy (NFL): There’s never been a greater time to be a sports fan. We look at social media as being the great American sports bar on Sundays. You have an opportunity to visit with a wide variety of fans from your own team and other teams as you’re watching a game in real time.

We look to provide content they want to see, but we’re not shy from time to time about making sure fans know why a particular call was correct, even though they may not agree with it.

Social media is also a great place for feedback, which we welcome. As PR pros, we’ll know on Sunday evening the things we’ll have to clean up on Monday morning based on fan reaction to a certain play or a league policy that plays out in real time.

Scott Miranda (DKC): In 2013, the USTA launched a 50-foot long social media wall at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center where fans, players, and sponsors were able to interact throughout the US Open utilizing Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This was a resounding win for the USTA, as it was able to connect with fans of all ages on-site while providing interactive activation opportunities for their partners.

Andrew McGowan (UPS): UPS works with 68 of the top colleges and universities in the country. We’re always trying to figure out how to be relevant in terms of fan engagement, not just the sponsorship dollars and having our logo appear.

With the help of [global sports statistics and information company] STATS, we started the Team Performance Index last year. We know when people think of UPS, reliability and speed come to mind. And we love numbers. So starting with college football last year, adding college basketball this year, we created this poll to rank teams in the hopes of creating engagement. We also create content to come out in advance of our rankings. We highlight how we have seven different measures of teams and how they perform. Fans get insight into our company and what we do. Moreover, college fans are so involved on social media, this has gotten us huge engagement leading up to game day and beyond, with fans getting into Twitter arguments over which team is better.

Herrera-Davilla (Marriott): Given the effort UPS puts into this, how do you ensure fan engagement?

McGowan (UPS): We went to the colleges’ PR people and sports information directors and told them what we were doing. We asked them to leverage their assets between their game day notes and TV and radio shows. We asked them to tweet material out on their channels as well as ours. We created a UPS sports channel, on which we engage more like sport writers and people that follow college sports.

We’ve worked with a lot of the different schools, giving them content. They push it out, engage the fans, and then hashtag back to our sites. It just blossomed from there.

And with college basketball, we also do a poll for the women’s game. That has given us a whole new avenue.

Channels of engagement
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
While Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are top of mind, what lesser-used digital platforms have proven effective in this arena?

Becker (USAA): We use Pinterest, which does skew heavily toward women. It’s a great platform for sharing ideas and allowing communities to interact. It’s very effective for showcasing Super Bowl parties and traditions around games such as the annual Army-Navy battle. The latter really highlights the military appreciation aspect.

Herrera-Davilla (Marriott): Social gaming has proven to be an interesting avenue. Last season with Courtyard and NFL, we partnered with Facebook’s The Ville. Hundreds of thousands of fans came in through that. It was basically building a room that would be all decked out with Courtyard and NFL branding. It was a different tactic that produced solid engagement.

Courtemanche (MLS): We used Google+ Hangout for Commissioner Don Garber’s State of the League Address at both the start and end of last season. In addition, on a weekly basis, we had a sponsor and corporate partner do Google+ Hangout sessions with our players to connect with our fans. This year, we are also going to integrate a Reddit session with our commissioner and look at that for players, too.

McCarthy (NFL): One of the most effective things we do remains the good, old-fashioned conference call with Commissioner Roger Goodell. Likewise, we’ve done a series of in-person fan forums before games. To engage passionate fans, this still works well.

That said, I must share this story. There was a blogger from Indianapolis who happened to be in Brazil at the time of one of the commissioner’s conference calls. He wasn’t able to ask a question, so he went on Twitter and explained he got shut out. Goodell actually tracked him down in Brazil and had a half-hour conversation with him. 

Werner (Catalyst): It all comes down to whom you are trying to reach and how they digest information. That dictates the medium you use. I’ll go back to Pinterest. We now live in a very visual world and sports is all about images. You think of Muhammad Ali or the 1980 US Olympic hockey team and pictures immediately pop into your head. Sports fans love that and want to share that. You could easily see Pinterest as a developing medium in sports.

Cohig (NHL): The key thing is removing that filter between us and fans. Whether it’s Instagram and photographs or Vine and videos, it’s furthering the conversation. It could be a tie game or the visual from the Winter Classic, social media just explodes with people talking to each other. Being able to engage in that conversation directly is phenomenal.

Maroon (Maroon): Sometimes YouTube is underutilized, strange as that may seem. There are numerous organizations out there that don’t brand their channels because they don’t understand how that impacts SEO, among other things.

Another development is the creation of digital newsrooms, which enable content creation that targets specific audiences. We helped develop Sagamore TV, which has proven to be a big hit with thoroughbred racing fans. Fans look for it on Twitter and Facebook.

Winn (MetLife): It’s definitely about content generation, but sometimes we have to step out of the equation. We don’t have to be the delivery mechanism for that content every time. That can help make it a much more authentic conversation.

For example, we took a different approach to blogger engagement this year. Typically, I engage bloggers if I’ve got news. It’s a one-off conversation and we hope they deliver content for us. This year, we had the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium. We had a whole season to focus on that. We engaged a cadre of bloggers around the US – super fans such as the Patriots blogger, Jets, blogger, and so on. We delivered the content to them – all under the banner of "The Road to MetLife Stadium" – but they were the ones pushing it out to their own audiences.

It wasn’t MetLife speaking directly to the fans because that’s not quite as authentic. It was this group of people with permission and a license to have that conversation directly with the fans.

Herrera-Davilla (Marriott): This is where bloggers are great because they’re always looking for things that add value for their fans. We’ve done this with sports bloggers and family bloggers. The organic growth of it is phenomenal.

The stadium experience
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What are the keys to fan engagement at the stadium or arena beyond social media?

Cohig (NHL): You always want to make sure it’s a compelling in-arena experience because you can’t control what happens on the ice, field, or court. In some ways, it’s impossible to not factor social media into this – and making sure our arenas are fully up-to-date technologically is essential. However, our main goal is making sure from the time you walk in to the time you leave the experience is great. Maybe it’s KISS playing between periods, as they did during the Stadium Series game in Los Angeles, or what you’re showing on the video board. It’s making sure fans have a great time regardless of the game’s outcome.

McCarthy (NFL): Ironically, the NFL is really competing with the at-home experience because that has become so good. It’s cheaper. It’s more comfortable. Still, there’s nothing like being at a stadium with 70,000 people screaming. As my daughter says to me, "You know, Dad, they can’t hear you yelling at the TV." But at the stadium they can, so we look at ways to duplicate the best of the at-home experience at a stadium. We shouldn’t penalize our best fans because they’ve invested eight or nine hours at a stadium.

Fans want to know what’s going on in other games, so we make sure to have fantasy stats ready to go and packaged for them. We embed NFL Red Zone in the stadiums so teams can show what’s going on around the league on the video boards. There’s still a technology aspect to all that, but it goes back to old-fashioned fan service.

Stadium security plays a role, as does guest services.

Herrera-Davilla (Marriott): When we check people in on Thursdays for the weekend’s games, every staffer is wearing a jersey. In the bistros during football season, there are sharable things and items from our other sponsors that help build the environment. Of course, we make sure to still cater to the many guests we have who are not there for football.

Our entire "Greatness on the Road" messaging carries through everything we do and it resonates with guests as they start aligning that message with what you stand for as a brand. It’s not all about social media.

McGowan (UPS): The focus for UPS in its sponsorships is to drive revenue, but also tell its story. And there are two key components. The first is customers and we use these sports partnerships to highlight our services. Equally important are our employees. UPS is one of the largest employers in the US with nearly 325,000 staffers. We do a large internal communications piece to get our employees engaged.

Drivers are among our most valuable assets. One of the elements we include with our sponsorship is game-ball deliveries. We have nights where a driver is rewarded for his service by going to either a college football or basketball game and he or she delivers the game ball.

The bottom line
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What is the true ROI of sports partnerships? How can such relationships actually impact brands’ business?

Miranda (DKC): With a lot of clients, it’s just about providing that good, old-fashioned fan experience at the ballpark and leveraging the assets of all the properties you work with. Say it’s a financial institution and baseball, it’s giving cardholders a chance to run the bases or some similarly unique opportunity.

With the US Tennis Open, it could be a mobile service provider setting up chargers so people can power their phones and get out of the sun. Such things are very important for a sponsor to consider when leveraging the sponsorship.

Becker (USAA): Sure we want to drive business, but the return we seek is connecting fans with our members and telling the story of the military and helping people appreciate that. We’re seen as a passionate advocate for the military, so nothing is more important to us than having platforms to talk about servicemen and women and the sacrifices they are making.

We’ve had really great relationships with the NFL, the San Antonio Spurs, and the San Diego Padres. All of them have proven to be great conduits between the fans and what we’re ultimately trying to provide.

Werner (Catalyst): Few things tap into people’s passion the way sports do. There is value in that alone. In terms of measuring, whether it’s sales, lead generation, or brand awareness, the key to ROI is understanding what you want to accomplish with any partnership before entering into it.

Winn (MetLife): MetLife has a stadium partnership with the Jets and Giants stadium in New Jersey. It’s important to understand how we approached it at the beginning to better grasp what we’re measuring.

We’re the largest insurer in America. Brand research underscored that when people see us, they know us and love us. Our stadium sponsorship puts us in front of people every day, especially with two NFL teams playing there.But it’s more than just our name on the outside of the stadium. We took a very deliberate approach to how we positioned the signage within the stadium. It literally came down to creating cloth versions of our signs and installing them in different locations with the stadium to see where they would end up on cameras.

That’s the heavy lifting piece of a sponsorship. [Sports marketing research firm] Repucom analyzed every stadium across the NFL that had a naming-rights sponsor. For the first two years of our deal, we ended up on top by more than six times the dollar value of the second-highest sponsor. The dollar value they assigned for one year’s worth of sponsorship was $90 million.

The fan experience is another key part in how we approach sponsorship, but you’re always asking whether or not you’re moving the needle in any way. So we did some research on brand preference with people who had never been to the stadium, those who had been but didn’t participate in any activities, and those who did take part in activities in our designated areas. We found the needle moves as high as 50% up in terms of brand preference with people who are actively engaging in branded activities that we’re presenting them on game day compared to those who don’t come to the stadium.

Courtemanche (MLS): We have a unique team in the New York Red Bulls that is owned by Red Bull out of Austria. That’s the ultimate branding experience. They have Red Bull Arena. In the suites they serve different varieties of Red Bull. When world-class players Thierry Henry and Rafael Márquez were signed to play, they both had a personal service arrangement with Red Bull to help increase their market share in France and the southwest US and Mexico, respectively.

This wasn’t about growing market share in the US because that was already high. This was about focusing on and boosting business in specific markets.

McGowan (UPS): I worked for New York Red Bulls before UPS and they have a very different philosophy. Red Bull doesn’t usually sponsor, it owns all the assets so they can run things their way. They own the stadium in which the soccer club plays. They built Red Bull Media House so they control the digital assets and programming.

They do it because their brand is so important to them. They then look at the metrics at the back end of it and the value they get from it.  

Herrera-Davilla (Marriott): Driving bookings is always our end goal, but before that you have to influence preference, consideration, and an emotional connection. Our partnerships help us most when a person goes online to make a booking. And our affiliation to the NFL helps us draw sports fans because we have guests of the same mindset staying with us already.

Winn (MetLife): Our stadium deal is for 25 years, so we’re in for the long haul. The key is that such a relationship must be about so much more than just signs and your name on a stadium. It’s all about activation and understanding that we live in such an evolving environment, things will constantly come up that you never would have specifically accounted for in the original deal.

Both sides must recognize the ongoing need to bring their assets to the table together to make the relationship ultimately work. And when the teams who play in that stadium see us spending a lot of money to deliver this broader experience to the fan, they appreciate that because they know it also benefits them. That makes a really strong foundation. If that isn’t present, the sponsorship would never work.

Cohig (NHL): The complexity of sponsorships today is incredible when you factor in media, rights, signage, and customer interaction. It starts with ROI and that means beer sales in the case of MillerCoors, car rentals in the case of Enterprise, and so on. And as earlier noted, the renewal process on a sponsorship deal starts immediately. For the NHL, that’s incredibly important because our brand is communicated and amplified through our partner activation. Without a shared culture and share of mind, an inauthentic brand experience is created at the consumer level.

McCarthy (NFL): We embed our people within a sponsorship, so both the NFL and the brand really understand each other’s culture. When the culture begins to change on either side, then it’s sometimes best to move on. Often, it’s a mutual decision.

Werner (Catalyst): Activation is essential and it needs to be a 360-degree marketing effort by a brand. At times, the communications discipline has been underleveraged when utilizing a sponsorship. Sports assets are incredibly powerful. Brands must constantly think about how they can create an ownership position where they get to communicate the necessary message.

Drafting the right brand ambassador
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
Working with athletes is a major element of sports partnerships for brands. How do you determine the best ones to work with? How is the relationship impacted when they notably struggle on the field?

Becker (USAA): Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III certainly comes to mind here. He had a great rookie season, but struggled in year two. What’s interesting, though, is his performance on the football field is somewhat secondary in our relationship.

He’s a military brat. Both his parents were active military and stationed at Fort Hood, TX. Our connection with him and our other athletes focuses on who they are, their ethics, and what they represent. RG3 is the perfect example for us of a modern day player. Legendary Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who went to the Naval Academy, is another. Who they are as people and how they connect to our customers and members is the key for us. RG3 is an incredibly valuable ambassador for us, even if he didn’t have a great year on the field.

Werner (Catalyst): When you look for an athlete ambassador, you need to focus on what they bring to their community, how will they represent your brand, and their other personal interests. It can’t be all about on-field performance because nobody knows what will happen on the field. An injury can change everything.

Maroon (Maroon): You needn’t always look for current-day stars. We work closely with Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken, who hasn’t played in about 20 years. He’s still very sought after, but he’s also very wary of being a "salesman."

He is a key figure in a program with Transitions Optical. His involvement is going around the country to do clinics for inner-city kids. The Transitions bus that accompanies him fits them all with glasses when they need it. For Energizer batteries, he helps builds houses for Habitat for Humanity and drives traffic.

Will he get the same traction as a modern-day star? Perhaps not, but he’s safer. In many cases, that’s the better way to go.

Becker (USAA): It always goes back to understanding whom you’re trying to reach and finding different ways to get to them. We’ve done a lot of work with Charles Tillman of the Chicago Bears, who won the 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which honors a player’s volunteer and charity efforts. He’s a huge military advocate and he will appeal to somebody very different than RG3 or Roger Staubach. However, they all share the character quotient we look for. We have to find vehicles that work for the 75-year-old retired military officers, as well as their kids and grandkids.

Miranda (DKC): Leagues and teams do a ton of investigating into players before the relationship is finalized. Brands have to do just as much into potential representatives, if not more. In this social media age, where everyone is a journalist with their smartphones, a 10-year-old image can crop up at a moment’s notice that can change the perception of that athlete – and brands associated with them – forever.

In many cases, such relationships are designed to be longer-term. That only increases the importance of homework. If during your research phase a red flag comes up, it’s probably there for a reason. Brands must take that heavily into account.

Cohig (NHL): Sometimes brands get too caught up in looking for that headline player. Certainly in our sport, some of the second- and third-line players are much more comfortable in front of a camera, engaging in the community, and savvy from a social media standpoint. Ignoring those players is a mistake.

Herrera-Davilla (Marriott): With sports, you also have viable non-athlete options. We work with the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen. His personality and the way he embraces our brand really makes the relationship work.

Winn (MetLife): I do the "radio row test." Say I have an athlete with me on radio row. If they get a question pertaining to their relationship with the brand and they can’t provide a quick and authentic response, it’s the wrong athlete. We very carefully consider the athletes we partner with, specifically in terms of media relations.

Courtemanche (MLS): We always try to recommend athletes to brands and facilitate. We know the players best, so we’re in a perfect position to suggest athletes that would work best for all parties, so long as we’re smart about it and don’t over-push certain guys.

McGowan (UPS): Internationally, UPS is involved in golf, so we have sponsorship deal with three pros – Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen, and Jeev Mikha Singh. In the States, though, college sports is a huge part of what we do and we can’t use amateur athletes, of course. So we have taken the route of media people and it has worked very well, particularly on media tours as these individuals excel in that environment.

And talk about an authentic brand ambassador. We had come to an agreement with women’s basketball legend Lisa Leslie, but only found out late in the process that her husband is a UPS pilot. Great player, successful broadcaster, and as authentic a brand ambassador as we could ask for.

Cohig (NHL): We’re always thinking in terms of everything surrounding the game. Doing so highlights other ambassadors with whom brands can align. Phil Pritchard is the curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame and Keeper of the Stanley Cup. Dan Craig is our senior director of facilities operations, whose profile has increased greatly since we’ve introduced the Winter Classic and, this year, the Stadium Series.

Both have an incredibly authentic connection to the game. We’ve been able to create terrific content around the Cup’s travels with Phil. Every member of the champion organization gets to take the Cup for a day to wherever they want. We’ve been able to create partner programs around Phil and Dan, all while avoiding certain challenges that can sometimes pop up with athletes.

Not just for the boys
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
According to a 2013 She-conomy report, women make up about 40% of fans of all major sports. How have you adjusted marketing strategies for this powerful consumer base?

McCarthy (NFL): We’ve evolved a long way from the old "pink it and shrink it" philosophy. We now work with some of the best designers in the world. We have so much merchandise for women – and we talk with them, not to them, all the time.

We still have our Football 101 classes for women who want to learn more about the game. We conduct many safety clinics and programs for kids with USA Football – and we fully understand that moms are often the key figure in that. So our entire outreach, regardless of the need it is serving, absolutely keeps women top of mind.

Miranda (DKC): Women and moms are the CEOs of the family. They are the decision makers, the soccer moms, the ones taking their kids to practice. As a counselor of clients in this space, I will often look to mom and parenting blogs, as they lead many relevant discussions and have built an audience that leagues and brands in the sports arena must engage.

Becker (USAA): A slightly different perspective. I’m a mom, but not the one who takes the kids to practice. My husband does. So much of the parenting content out there skews heavily female and it actually frustrates him.

In addition, a lot of female Gen-Xers, who are parents today, grew up playing sports. We’ve been fans for a long time, often on the same level as the men. The point is sports properties and brands must be careful to not skew content or messaging too much in one direction. The messages don’t have to be altered for women – or men, for that matter – all the time.

Cohig (NHL): About 40% of the people in our buildings are women – and women drive most of the spending decisions in a household, whether it’s related to kids or not. However, one thing we’re always cognizant of is not to assume that because a fan is female that she doesn’t know the rules of the game. A fan is a fan and you need to speak to them as fans based on their knowledge. The same holds true when it comes to merchandise and products. Different people consume sports differently, but never assume that because it’s a woman she doesn’t fully understand what she’s watching.

Becker (USAA): Taking it a step further, leagues and brands should stop being amazed that a woman is knowledgeable about sports. USAA sees that in some of our sponsorships, which is interesting when you consider the women in the military, many of them with very athletic backgrounds who know and love sports just as much as the guys.

Cohig (NHL): When it comes to messaging to the female fans, one tack that works is telling more of a full story about what goes on with the athletes and how they got to where they are. P&G’s "Thank You Mom" Olympic campaign has been widely lauded, but it is so impactful and a perfect example of why sports partnerships are among the best ways brands can reach consumers on a relatable, emotional level.

And, of course, providing content for every possible audience that captures their attention and drives them to go to games and look into the brands that partner with the sports they love.

Maroon (Maroon): Working in Maryland, I have to note that the Baltimore Ravens do a particularly good job of telling that story of community and the back-story on their players, particularly on social platforms. This is particularly noteworthy as the Ravens are not always seen as the most angelic group. Even more specifically, they have really connected with the female fan base. Baltimore women are really huge Ravens fans.

Cohig (NHL): This approach also goes a long way in ensuring fans don’t lose interest in or affinity for the team when they aren’t winning.

Becker (USAA): I was at P&G when the "Thank You Mom" program kicked off. It was truly created with the realization that moms make purchasing decisions. However, the emotional tie-in to women as mothers was a natural hit, as it made moms think about all the things they do for their own kids and the various P&G products that can play a part in all that. Talk about knowing your audience and how to best reach them on different levels.

Courtemanche (MLS): Title 9 had a profound impact on our league. We debuted in 1995. By that time, Title 9 enabled as many females to play soccer as males – and they did. They grew up with the game just as the boys did, so we truly market to the fan.

Werner (Catalyst): Sports is a passion of our culture, for men and women equally. Communicators have a fantastic opportunity to tap into that and leverage it for their brands.

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