Q&A: Playing to win

Tapping into fans' evolving use of social media and the keys to identifying the right brand-ambassador athlete were among topics tackled as ESPN SportsCenter anchor Sara Walsh and Major League Soccer EVP of comms Dan Courtemanche spoke with PRWeek managing editor Gideon Fidelzeid prior to the roundtable.

Gideon Fidelzeid: What are the biggest benefits of sports partnerships for brands?

Dan Courtemanche: Many of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) corporate partners focus on brand awareness, especially as our core demographic skews toward Millennials and Hispanics. Volkswagen’s main goal is to drive people to dealerships. Panasonic’s MLS partnership has generated tens of millions of dollars in b-to-b sales due to all of the TV and video boards in our stadiums.

Brands also seek a strong connection with philanthropy. Wells Fargo supports community initiatives in every MLS market, to the point it became the presenting sponsor of the MLS WORKS Community MVP award.

Sara Walsh: Authenticity resonates with people like nothing else. It is essential when trying to sell something or simply impress a message upon people.

Peyton Manning and Buick are an example. Whether you believe he’s driving that car or not, when he talks about the GPS system and the like, he's funny, witty, and makes you believe it. That’s authentic.

Another example of an effective brand partnership is something we do on the 6pm SportsCenter broadcast – the Coors Light Cold Hard Facts. It's presented as a six-pack of NFL questions – an obvious connection to the brand. We take Twitter questions from fans. The content is all about the fans and the branding brings it back to Coors Light.

Fidelzeid: How has fans’ use of social media evolved? How has it affected both your organizations’ and brands’ engagement efforts?

Walsh: Twitter has been the difference-maker for everything. I’m amazed by the many immediate comments I get about things I do on air. This is a wonderful opportunity for brands if they listen to what people are saying. While ESPN is not like consumer brands, how we listen to social chatter is not different from how brands should.

Let’s say we’re airing a highlight of some college running back and we note something interesting about him. It is not uncommon for some random fan in the tiniest town to tweet us about another interesting fact we did not know about that player. We learn so much for those interactions. You can’t listen to everything, but it is any brand’s job to identify the things to which you should pay attention.

Fans have some brilliant ideas, a lot of that being running commentary during a game. You must always be listening.

Courtemanche: Years ago, when our commissioner would do a state of the league address, it was done via teleconference call. Last year, to both open and close our season, we did a Google+ Hangout because that's where our audience is now.

The way we do business and who we target has completely changed, too. Back in the day, it was all about getting on SportsCenter. The priority now is ESPN FC.com. Our audience is going to the content at any time of the day, not just when SportsCenter is on.

Fans’ social media use has also impacted the way stadiums are built. Sporting Park in Kansas City, KS, opened in 2011 and was built in a Google Fiber town, where it's 10,000 times faster than normal Internet speed. Stadiums such as that incorporate all the technology because if fans can't tweet, go on Facebook, or text, it's a hindrance to their desire to go to a game. That challenge must be addressed at all stadiums and arenas.

Fidelzeid: Athletes are often a central element of the brand-sports partnership. What makes an athlete a great brand ambassador?

Courtemanche: It truly is case by case. Pepsi, a sponsor of US Soccer, has a big World Cup program this year. It is working with global footballers and Clint Dempsey was chosen from MLS. Great player, but he’s edgy. He’s a hip-hop guy with a progressive look and feel. It was a distinct direction they sought.

Mondelez aligned with Omar Gonzalez, the 24-year-old central defender for the Los Angeles Galaxy. He’s a tall, good looking Mexican-American who fit a specific profile the brand sought.

A crucial element is the role MLS plays to facilitate and recommend to our brand partners who would best fit. As brands ponder athlete ambassadors, the communications teams at leagues have a key role to play that could benefit all parties.

Walsh: The point made earlier about authenticity remains relevant, but brands still want recognizable names, particularly for broader programs not centered on an event. Look at Danica Patrick. She doesn't win a lot of races, but she’s immensely recognizable.

Years ago, Kobe Bryant had a huge scandal. He was aligned with all sorts of brands because he’s a winner. While that controversy should never be minimized, brands still work with him because consumers know him.

A key consideration for brands working with athletes now, though, is the amount of monitoring necessary. More than half the content you get from athletes today comes directly from them on social media. Sports stars are now their own PR machines – and brands must account for that.

Fidelzeid: In early February, Michael Sam, star football player for the University of Missouri and a solid NFL prospect, announced he was gay. Should this scenario have a tangible impact on organizations working with such athletes?

Courtemanche: We were the first US league to have an openly gay player in Robbie Rogers, who debuted last May for the Los Angeles Galaxy. What pleased us most was that most people only judged him by his on-field performance, which is how it should be. And leagues can certainly help foster an environment for that to happen.

Walsh: It shouldn’t matter, but in this day and age it could actually be an advantage – for him and potential brand partners.

Sam is being widely lauded for his courage because he is still one of the very first top-level athletes to come out. Of course he has the athletic credentials, but how many people nationally knew his name before this? Not many, but they do now. That will only grow as we near May’s NFL Draft.

Frankly, companies will likely be applauded for aligning with Sam. And if a brand has an athlete under contract who comes out, again, it could be very advantageous.

Fidelzeid: What are the key factors leagues focus on in working with brand partners?

Courtemanche: Such partnerships must start with determining the metrics and deliverables that can be monitored throughout the contract. The key factors are sales, increases in b-to-b business, changes in brand perception, and so on.

MLS is 19 seasons into its existence now, so we can be a lot more selective about brand partners. Ten or 15 years ago, we had a partnership with a check-cashing company. That’s probably not a brand we'd align with now. Both sides have to deliver on the measurables. If either doesn’t, there are numerous other opportunities.

Fidelzeid: Sara hosts Fantasy Football Now, ESPN2’s highest-rated show during the NFL season. Fantasy football is played by 33 million people in the US. Where do you see some unique opportunities for brands?

Walsh: Fantasy football targets a very specific audience, which is incredibly valuable for any brand. People who watch our program aren’t casually flipping through channels. They stay with the show throughout looking for any edge to help them win.

We go 25 or 30 minutes "delivering" commercial free because of Papa John's, the show’s sponsor. Fantasy football offers brands potential consumers who are attentive and personally invested in the content.

Fidelzeid: Where should soccer rank for US brands in terms of being a sport to partner with both during this World Cup year and beyond?

Courtemanche: MLS skews younger than any other pro sport, including NASCAR, the PGA, and the four majors. Brands certainly see the advantage in that. In addition, 33% of our audience is Hispanic – more than double any other pro sports league.

MLS also has a separate organization, Soccer United Marketing, that manages all the commercial activity for the Mexican national team in the US, which is immensely popular here. Two years ago, El Tri played Bosnia-Herzegovina in an exhibition match in Atlanta. Lousy weather and 56,000 people showed up.

As for the sport’s popularity in the States, look no further than the American sports fandom poll conducted by Rich Luker for ESPN. Of 18,000 people surveyed in 2012, more than a third identified themselves as fans of MLS – a nearly 25% increase from 2007 and 33% up from 2002. Avid fans totaled 7.3%, up 35% from 2007 and 43% from 2002, growth that outpaces all the other leagues.

Soccer penetrates certain demographics in ways other sports don’t. Among US Hispanics, it’s more popular than the NFL. Among those 18-30, soccer in the US has already "made it."

Walsh: Brands must note that it’s more than just the US soccer team and MLS. As Dan said, the Mexican national team is a huge factor in the States. When Mexico plays, ESPN shows the games. We show Premier League highlights prominently. And neither was the case a few years ago.

Soccer has become mainstream in this country. It will always be bigger in a World Cup year, but the strides made between the 2010 tournament and now are clear. ESPN’s soccer coverage has notably changed – and brands have to respond similarly.

Fidelzeid: Another demographic skyrocketing in importance is the female fan. How is that impacting the sports marketing landscape?

Courtemanche: We're fortunate that a good segment of the female population played the sport at a high level. That doesn't necessarily translate into fan avidity all the time, but it helps with the education process. Even when we MLS debuted in 1995, we had a good amount of female fans. A lot of those women are now in decision-making roles and that makes a big difference. It positions soccer as an attractive sport for brands.

Walsh: If you're a fan, you're a fan – female or male. And women fans are just as hardcore as men. In fantasy football, for example, just as many women play – and they’re beating the guys. Everyone is watching the same game. The thought of having to appeal to female fans with a specific message is taken way too far.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that the cuts of jerseys fit us better. However, you needn’t "girl things up" to appeal to female fans.

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