Thursday, December 13th, 2018 | 15 min read
Are the Dallas Cowboys the most well-marketed sports franchise in the world, or is the team’s marketing outstanding because it’s coming from, well, the Dallas Cowboys? I get in this type of argument with friends over drinks a lot.
The Cowboys, according to Forbes, are the most valuable sport franchise in the world at $4.8 billion. But take away their marketing and where would they be? In my opinion? $4.75 billion or so.
Keep in mind, I’m not just a novice marketer throwing out a number. I spent the first 15 years of my professional career as a sports journalist and college sports information director. My master’s degree from West Virginia University is in sport management. So, my opinion isn’t just that of a random loud mouth at the bar – though I’m often that.
When the marketing of sports is the subject, I take a firm and passionate stance: It’s not the marketing that makes the sport. It’s the sport that makes the marketing.
Marketing a sports team or franchise is vastly different than marketing any other product for two primary reasons. First, you can’t control the outcome. The other? Sports is almost totally driven by emotion.
And not just any emotion – the kind that erases almost all sense of reason and rational thought. It’s a customer base that will almost always buy your product, but is almost never happy with it.
Sports fans are loyal because they either attended the institution in question, grew up attending games with parents or siblings, or because the team fuels pride in their neighborhood, community, region or state. These situations drive personal, emotional bonds, and when you deal with emotional bonds, you don’t want to come between the person and their obsession. Even if you sell access to the obsession itself.
Yet there are valuable lessons the sports world can teach – from both on the field or court, and off – to remind marketers to deliver the best possible marketing efforts to our stakeholders and for our businesses. These are some I learned in 15 years as a sports industry professional.
In 15 years, I saw many a wide-eyed freshman come in and vie for playing time, more often than not overshadowed by their more seasoned, upper-class teammates. The upperclassmen who saw the field weren’t necessarily better athletes or players, but they often spent more hours in the gym or on the practice field working with the coaching staff, learning the system and getting better – put them in a better position to perform.
My favorite example was a baseball infielder at Birmingham-Southern College named Pat Mizerany. I’m doubtful Pat was even on scholarship, but he redshirted his freshman year for Brian Shoop’s Panthers. As a sophomore, he played about half the games as a fill-in. By his junior season, he was a regular, if not a starter, playing in 42 games and hitting .336. He started regularly as a senior, hit .287 for the year and wound up with a solid, three-year career at BSC with a .294 average, a .386 on-base percentage, one home run, 34 RBI, 46 runs scored and eight stolen bases. All that was because of grit and work.
Like athletes, marketers aren’t first string the first time we build a strategy, develop a campaign, or even write a headline. But going performing these professional drills over and over, for days, weeks, months, and years makes us good at it. Some of the first social media strategies I wrote were great tactical plans, but lousy strategies. Now I don’t include anything before I understand the overall business objective and map out how the social activation can ladder up to it. That only came from writing countless plans over a dozen years or so.
In the handful of opportunities I’ve had to lead departments or teams in my career, I’ve used a catch phrase from athletics: “Consider me a quarterback, not a coach.” That was a way of telling my team that I’m in the trenches with them, not barking orders at them. We are in it together and will learn, grow, and tackle together.
The phrase also hints at the idea that everyone plays a role. The best teams function well when the guards and tackles want nothing more than the running back or wide receiver to score all the touchdowns. The running back and wide receiver, conversely, want nothing more than to give the guards and tackles the credit for making the play happen.
No better position sums this principle up than the basketball point guard. I had the honor of working with a true gem in Carldell “Squeaky” Johnson at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). He was a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award for the nation’s top point guard, averaged over six assists per game – a stat that is all about helping your teammates shine. He went on to play several years in the NBA’s Developmental League and earned a short stint with the New Orleans Hornets in 2011-12.
Squeaky knew his role and lifted up his teammates, making him the star of the team. Of course, cool dreadlocks and a killer smile didn’t hurt, either.
Knowing your role can make you the star of your marketing team, too. In recent years, I’ve had to give up the day-to-day tactical execution tasks to focus on building our department, developing strategies, and helping grow our agency’s business. Everyone at my agency knows that the real social action is handled by Madison, Chelsea, Allen, and TeAsiah – all members of my team. So much so, that sometimes I’m even left off meeting invites.
Rivalry games are always intense. Such was the case when No. 5 UAB battled cross-town, but former lower division foe Birmingham-Southern in men’s soccer in 2003.
Both soccer programs were steeped in winning tradition, but BSC, a former NAIA (small college) school, had only beaten UAB (a big college, NCAA Division I program) a handful of times since each entered the modern era of men’s college soccer. Yet, with just minutes to go in a 1-1 tie, little Birmingham-Southern scored on a free kick just outside the 18-yard box, stunning the Blazers and winning 2-1.
It was German striker Karem Dietz, largely immune to the emotion of the rivalry and the narrative of a “big” vs. “small” school, who drilled the game-winner. Dietz was just playing soccer against a strong opponent. He was the cooler head. Everyone else was probably tensed up.
Sports can bring out an incredible range of emotions, but it is typically the player, coach, and even fan that can stay calm, centered, and focused that winds up winning the moment. They don’t let the highs and lows get in the way of executing the play, calling the right formation or remembering there are kids around so an expletive isn’t cool.
In marketing, when someone pops off about the crappy service they had on Twitter or a competitor makes an irritating claim in an advertisement, the emotional, snappy response is going to get you in more trouble – or waste more of your money – than a calmer, more calculated approach. Anything that peaks your blood pressure is worth counting to 10 … or 100 … over, before you make a call.
One of my duties was to keep statistics at home athletic events. I am of the generation that learned to keep stats on paper, but transitioned my schools to computerized stats software. On three occasions in my 15 years, learning the old way came in handy.
The first was during the 1999-2000 Mid-South Conference basketball tournament in Frankfort, Ky. The NAIA’s No. 1 ranked Georgetown College (Ky.) Tigers were about to face No. 3 Campellsville (Ky.), then coached by future Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford. A ball careened over the scorer’s table and knocked a full cup of soda on the primary statistics computer.
Fast-forward four years and the stat computer malfunctioned in the middle of a volleyball match at Birmingham-Southern College between the host Panthers and Alabama A&M. Two years later, the stat machine stopped working midway through the second quarter of a UAB-SMU nationally televised college football game.
In each instance, I calmly directed two of our stat crew to write everything down exactly as it would be input in the computer while I or another member of the crew got the computer running again or replaced it. During time outs, halftimes, and between games in volleyball, we furiously caught up so the stats were available after the match as expected.
We can bow down to and even capitalize on technology all we want, but I’ve always maintained that even in marketing automation, if we lose our humanity, we will eventually fail miserably. The human touch will always be needed, even if just to make sure we didn’t screw the transaction up.
Whomever first said, “The customer is always right” certainly didn’t deal with sports fans. Because they are often very, very wrong. Or at least out of line. But the point of that quote is that the customer should always be led to believe they’re right. Take care of them and make them feel superior and they’ll be loyal to you.
The truth is the customer isn’t always right. The press box is a sports information director’s domain in a football stadium. And typically, you have to be credentialed as a member of the media to gain entrance. On more than one occasion, I had to ask player parents, faculty and staff, alumni and boosters, and even hot-shot recruits and their families to leave the press box because they were not allowed there. Almost always, I was met with, “I am so too allowed to be here. Why, I am …” so and so Important Fancy Pants.
And then I would show them the difference between a media credential and a luxury suite credential and show them the door.
But that was where I was wrong and where marketers can learn from my mistake. Yes, I needed to ensure they didn’t cheer in the press box. But instead of being a territorial jerk, I could have found a more tactful way of redirecting them to where So and So Important Fancy Pantses have better views, food or luxuries.
And marketers should take that advice. Let them be right. Let them feel superior. It keeps the peace and makes you the unsung hero, not the jerk SID who no one likes.
What can I say? Word got around. Heh.
“CAN I GET A FRICKIN’ BOX SCORE?”
That came streaming out of the mother of a women’s basketball player who burst – Fancy Pants style – into the media room on my first ever road trip representing Morehead State in 1992. Embarrassed, I asked her to step outside and I would bring her one as soon as I could. I explained to the Wright State staff some of my parents weren’t yet acclimated to the fact they weren’t entitled to official stats like the coaches.
But it was a precursor of things to come. Whether it’s stats, game stories, injury reports, video clips, action shots, media guides, game quotes or conference standings, nothing happens in sports without content. Fans want to read what’s going to happen. They look over the shoulder of the stat crews on press row during the game to see what’s happening and then demand instant gratification at the buzzer to know what happened.
And the same is true of your audiences. While they don’t (yet) have the same fervor for your brand as they may for the Eagles, Tigers, Bulldogs or Panthers, they crave content. They want information. They want education. They want entertainment.
Feed them, Seymour.
A friend asked me not long ago if I missed college athletics. Honestly, I only miss being a part of a sports team, getting on the bus after a road win and celebrating with the guys or gals. The camaraderie of a sports team is special and different.
And while I learned a great deal in my formative marketing and PR years there, I don’t miss much else. College athletics and professional sports are a grind. Games happen on nights, weekends and holidays, so that’s when you work. And often, your boss expects you to do that on top of a 40-hour work week.
That said, I wouldn’t trade those 15 years for the world. The coaches, student-athletes and even parents and fans I worked with over the years are still near and dear to me. I’m friends with several coaches, athletics directors and other staffers at schools all over the country. I seldom sit in bad seats, no matter where I see a game.
And, as it turns out, I learned a few things about marketing along the way that helped me out. Hopefully, they can go down as an assist on my stat sheet now. Just go score the rock, would ya?
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