Sports Roundtable: The team concept

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

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

In the middle of the action
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
How have organizations responded to fans’ increasing game-day use of social media?

Bret Werner (Catalyst): The avid NFL fan, for example, tweets eight times on game day. That whole experience starts when you wake up and 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. MetLife Central, an area right outside a main entrance, has a huge variety of content opportunities – from kicking field goals to a huge bronze Snoopy 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 is substantial.

Dan Courtemanche (MLS): Social media has allowed our audience to amplify and grow exponentially over the last five years. At a Seattle Sounders game, there will be 20,000 supporters organized mainly through social media singing and chanting throughout. Sporting Park in Kansas City, KS, is a Google Fiber stadium that allows for Web speed 10,000 times faster than normal Internet.

Jen Becker (USAA): We serve the military. Social media is a way to bring something that’s very important to them at home to wherever they are. 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 share their experiences on social and 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 and then go to the games at the stadium nearby. 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): The Babe Ruth World Series doesn’t get a lot of attention, but you’re still talking about 12 states and seven countries. We embedded college kids as reporters with each team. Every day they would tweet about the teams and 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.

Brian McCarthy (NFL): Social media is the great American sports bar on Sundays. You have an opportunity to visit with a wide variety of fans as you’re watching a game. We provide content they want to see, but we’re not shy about explaining why a particular call was correct, even if fans may not agree.

Social media is also great for feedback. We’ll know on Sunday evening the things we’ll have to clean up Monday morning.

Scott Miranda (DKC): In 2013, the USTA launched a 50-foot-long social media wall at the National Tennis Center where fans, players, and sponsors were able to interact throughout the US Open. The USTA was able to connect with fans of all ages on site, while providing interactive activation opportunities for its partners.

Andrew McGowan (UPS): UPS works with 68 of the top colleges and universities in the country. When people think of UPS, reliability and speed come to mind. And we love numbers. Starting with college football last year, adding college basketball this year, we created the Team Performance Index in the hopes of creating engagement. We also create content to come out in advance of our rankings. We highlight the seven different measures we use to gauge team performance.

Fans get insight into our company and we’ve gotten huge engagement leading up to game day and beyond, with fans getting into Twitter arguments over which team is better.

Playing to win

Prior to the Sports Roundtable, hosted by Catalyst and IMG Consulting, ESPN SportsCenter anchor Sara Walsh and Major League Soccer EVP of comms Dan Courtemanche shared some thoughts with PRWeek managing editor Gideon Fidelzeid. Below are some key takeaways:

Brand benefits of sports partnerships:
Courtemanche: Panasonic’s MLS partnership has generated tens of millions of dollars in b-to-b sales due to all the 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.

Walsh: An 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. We take Twitter questions from fans. The content is all about the fans and the branding brings it back to Coors Light.

Fans’ evolving use of social media:
Walsh: Twitter has been the difference-maker. This is a wonderful opportunity for brands if they listen to what people say. Fans have some brilliant ideas, a lot of that being running commentary during a game. You must always be listening.

Courtemanche: It has 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.

US brands partnering with soccer:
Courtemanche: MLS skews younger than any other pro sport, while 33% of our audience is Hispanic – more than double any other league. 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."

Marketing to female fans:
Walsh: If you're a fan, you're a fan – female or male. And women fans are just as hardcore as men. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that the cuts of jerseys fit us better, but you needn’t "girl things up" to appeal to female fans.

Click here for more from Courtemanche and Walsh, including what makes an athlete a strong brand ambassador, Michael Sam’s prospects in the branding arena, and unique opportunities presented by fantasy sports.

Channels of engagement
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What lesser-used digital platforms have proven effective in this arena?

Becker (USAA): Pinterest is a great platform for sharing ideas and allowing communities to interact. It’s very effective for showcasing traditions around games such as the annual Army-Navy battle, which really highlights the military appreciation aspect.

Herrera-Davilla (Marriott): Social gaming is an interesting avenue. Last season, we partnered with Facebook’s The Ville. Fans basically built a room decked out with Courtyard and NFL branding. It 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 fans. This year, we will also integrate a Reddit session with our commissioner.

McCarthy (NFL): The good, old-fashioned conference call with Commissioner Roger Goodell remains very effective, as do in-person fan forums before games.

Of course, there was a blogger from Indianapolis who was in Brazil during one of the commissioner’s conference calls. He wasn’t able to ask a question and went on Twitter to explain he got shut out. Goodell tracked him down in Brazil and had a half-hour conversation with him.

Werner (Catalyst): We live in a very visual world. You think of Muhammad Ali or the 1980 US Olympic hockey team and pictures immediately enter your head. Sports fans love and want to share that. You could easily see Pinterest as a developing medium in sports.

Susan Cohig (NHL): Whether it’s Instagram or Vine, it’s furthering the conversation. It could be a 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. Numerous organizations don’t brand their channels because they don’t understand how that impacts SEO, among other things. Another development is the digital newsroom, which enables content creation that targets specific audiences.

Winn (MetLife): It’s definitely about content generation, but we don’t have to be the delivery mechanism every time. For example, I often engage bloggers if I’ve got news and hope they deliver content for us. This year, we had the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium. We engaged a cadre of bloggers – super fans – around the US. We delivered content to them – all under "The Road to MetLIfe Stadium" banner – but they pushed it out to their own audiences. It wasn’t MetLife speaking directly to the fans because that’s not quite as authentic.

The bottom line
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What is the true business impact of sports partnerships?

Miranda (DKC): With many clients, it’s just about providing that 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 Open, it could be a mobile service provider setting up chargers so people can power their phones. Such things are very important for a brand to consider when leveraging the sponsorship.

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

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

Winn (MetLife): Our stadium sponsorship puts us in front of people every day, but it’s much more than just our name on the stadium. We took a very deliberate approach to how we positioned signage. We created cloth versions and installed them in different locations to see where they would end up on cameras.

[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.

We also found the needle moves as high as 50% up in terms of brand preference with people who are actively engaging in branded activities compared to those who don’t come to the stadium.

Courtemanche (MLS): Red Bull owns the New York Red Bulls. That’s the ultimate branding experience. They have Red Bull Arena. When Thierry Henry and Rafael Márquez were signed to play, both had a personal service arrangement with Red Bull to help increase market share in France and the southwest US and Mexico, respectively. This was about boosting business in specific markets.

McGowan (UPS): I worked for New York Red Bulls before UPS. The company doesn’t usually sponsor, it owns all the assets so it can run things its way. Red Bull Media House was built so the company can control the digital assets and programming because the brand is so important to them. They then look at the metrics at the back end and the value gotten from it.  

Herrera-Davilla (Marriott): Driving bookings is always our end goal, but before that you must influence preference, consideration, and an emotional connection. Our affiliation to the NFL helps us draw 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. We live in such an evolving environment, things will constantly come up you never accounted for in the original deal. Both sides must recognize the ongoing need to bring their assets to the table. And when the teams who play in that stadium see us spending a lot to deliver this broader fan experience, they appreciate that because they know it benefits them.

Cohig (NHL): The complexity of sponsorships is incredible when you factor in media, rights, signage, and customer interaction. It starts with ROI and that means beer sales for MillerCoors, car rentals for Enterprise, and so on. And 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 gets created.

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, it’s sometimes best to move on.

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

Drafting a champion
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
How do brands determine the best athletes to work with? How is the relationship impacted when they notably struggle on the field?

Becker (USAA): Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III had a great rookie season, but struggled in year two. What’s interesting, though, is his performance is somewhat secondary in our relationship.

Both his parents were active military and stationed at Fort Hood, TX. Our connection with athletes focuses on what they represent, who they are as people, and how they connect to our customers and members. RG3 is an incredibly valuable ambassador, even if he didn’t have a great year on the field.

Werner (Catalyst): You must focus on what athletes bring to their community, how will they represent your brand, and their personal interests. It can’t be all about on-field performance because nobody knows what will happen. Injuries 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 is a key figure in a program with Transitions Optical, going around the country doing clinics for inner-city kids. He might not get the same traction as a modern-day star, but he’s safer. In many cases, that’s the better way to go.

Miranda (DKC): Leagues and teams do a ton of investigating into players. Brands must do just as much, if not more. In an 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 associated brands – forever.

Herrera-Davilla (Marriott): 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." If they get a question pertaining to their relationship with the brand and can’t provide a quick, authentic response, it’s the wrong athlete.

Courtemanche (MLS): We always try to recommend and facilitate. We know the players best, so we’re in a perfect position to suggest athletes that would work best for all parties.

McGowan (UPS): College sports are a huge part of what we do. We can’t use amateur athletes, so we have taken the route of media people. It has worked very well, particularly on media tours as these individuals excel in that environment.

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): Phil Pritchard, the Keeper of the Stanley Cup, has an incredibly authentic connection to the game. We’ve created terrific content around the Cup’s travels with him, as well as partner programs, all while avoiding certain challenges that can 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 "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.

We still have our Football 101 classes for women who want to learn more about the game. We conduct many safety programs for kids with USA Football – and we fully understand that moms are often the key figure in that.

Miranda (DKC): Moms are the CEOs of the family, the decision makers, the ones taking their kids to practice. I will often look to mom and parenting blogs, as they lead many relevant discussions and have built an audience that leagues and brands must engage.

Becker (USAA): 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.

Cohig (NHL): We don’t assume that because a fan is female she doesn’t know the rules of the game. A fan is a fan and you must speak to them as fans based on their knowledge. The same holds true when it comes to merchandise and products.

Still, when it comes to messaging to the female fans, one tack that works is telling more of a full story about the athletes and how they got to where they are. P&G’s "Thank You Mom" Olympic campaign has been widely lauded. It is a perfect example of why sports partnerships are among the best ways brands can reach consumers on a relatable, emotional level.

Becker (USAA): I was at P&G when the program kicked off. It was created with the realization that moms make purchasing decisions. However, the emotional tie-in to women as mothers was a natural hit. 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. Talk about knowing your audience and how to best reach them on different levels.

Maroon (Maroon): Working in Maryland, I must note the Baltimore Ravens do a particularly good job of telling that story of community and their players’ back-story. 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 in town.

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. 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.

For more from this roundtable, click here.

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