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Volume 21 No. 43


don’t envy my friend Sarah Hirshland’s task as the new CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Restoring credibility to the embattled organization will take great diplomacy and tireless relationship building with two vastly different constituencies: athletes and politicians. Sarah is well-known to SBJ and its readers from her time at the U.S. Golf Association and Wasserman. She made our Forty Under 40 list in 2008 and has played an active role at our conferences. I believe she is highly capable and well-suited for the task. Her role will be far different from the one Scott Blackmun inherited in 2010, when he and Chair Larry Probst needed to establish stronger relationships in the global Olympic community, re-engage corporate America and create trust with the turf-protecting national governing bodies. They succeeded, and while Blackmun’s tenure ended in public controversy, his accomplishments and the stability he brought to the organization should never be overlooked. Many remain huge supporters of him and his work.


The USOC faces a crisis of confidence from the athletes the organization is charged to serve, the public and Congress. Fixing that without unraveling the improvements of the past eight years will test Sarah’s skills. Look at the results of our CivicScience survey taken last month  on Page 25 as part of Ben Fischer’s extensive feature — 42 percent have either a somewhat or very negative opinion of the USOC, while only 11 percent feel positive or somewhat positive toward it. These numbers would doom any candidate running for office, but they shouldn’t be surprising considering the disturbing headlines of the past year. Perhaps the good news is that 47 percent are neutral, there to be convinced that the USOC can take the proper steps to serve its mission.


Any reform must start with regaining the respect of the athletes, the backbone of the movement yet those most affected by the breakdown in governance. Athlete voices are louder than ever, rightfully demanding change, and athletes must be first and foremost on the agenda, not money or medals. Congress can wait — they will play to the cameras during midterm elections, and Sarah would need to navigate a post-November political climate. Let’s see if Congress really has the appetite to act, but if it wants to rewrite the Amateur Sports Act, do it with the USOC, NGBs and athletes — not in a vacuum. Remember, Congress is not immune to the current problems: It provided the current organizational structure, yet doesn’t financially support the USOC effort, leaving the USOC on its own to fundraise, which led to bonuses based on money raised and medals won, which of course took the focus off the athletes.


If I were writing to Sarah, here are a few of her skills I’d suggest she focus on and use:


Diplomacy — she must be able to navigate the acrimonious relations and conflicting interests of the various governing bodies, their members, athletes, agents and legislators. She will need transparency in dealing with constituents and media. She’s well-suited for that. 


Legal skills for time in court, before Congress or on compliance. She will need a thick skin, able to take the arrows from the grandstanders in Washington and each sport’s vocal advocates who want more change.


Effective sales skills to restore confidence in the corporate sector, which will have a big role in the effort to restore credibility. She will need to be deliberate, yet decisive; listen respectfully to the various voices but be ready and willing to make the hard decision. And she must mix swift urgency with patience in letting the difficult decisions play out.


I’m rooting for Sarah to be that effective leader and return the USOC to be a positive force for sports. There is precedent. Many of us remember the Salt Lake City bid scandal in 2002, which exposed the unethical practice of bribing IOC members. The American public understood the USOC was an administrative organization of bureaucrats that failed, but the true Olympic Movement was not affected. Let’s hope that holds true after the current crises.


The position I’m watching most closely on the team side is who becomes president of the Carolina Panthers. I’m told new owner David Tepper has narrowed his list and is looking for specific qualifications: A former team leader who can keep up with him on the business numbers; has experience in leading an organization and in sales and revenue generation; and has either built or renovated a facility. Few executives can check all those boxes, but there’s great interest in the opportunity as it’s a franchise with considerable growth potential.

Abraham Madkour can be reached at

When MLB threw out its Opening Day pitch this spring, it missed. ESPN reported the lowest viewer ratings in 10 years. This isn’t a surprise, given the volume of games that day, but it fits the pattern. People still love sports but they aren’t tuning in in droves. From the 2018 Super Bowl (viewership hit an almost 10-year low) to NASCAR’s decline, the numbers are shrinking. Flat overnights are now a cause for celebration.

But here’s the thing: The way most leagues — including the NFL, NBA and MLB — tout the “value” of their fans’ love is through impressions. And impressions are about as valuable a measure of “sport love” as calculating the success of a date by the number of people who were at the restaurant. In short, it’s not about how many people are “there” — it’s about how “there” the people really are.

Last year alone, combined sponsorship spending with the NFL, MLB and NBA topped $3 billion, generating trillions of impressions. And consumers ignored or tuned out the vast majority of them.

So why are HUGE deals, with impressions as the biggest “benefits,” still getting done with some of the biggest and smartest marketers on the planet?

Because media equivalency continues to reign. Because the focus continues to be on the outputs — media exposures and digital impressions — when it is the outcomes that really matter. And because impressions are easy to sell, and easy to buy. For marketers.

But fans are not buying. Because all impressions can buy is their awareness. Their affinity, preference and loyalty all require much more. Yet, it is precisely this connection that brands are after. Read any announcement about a new sponsorship and the CMO will inevitably point to making a connection with the passionate fan base as the primary reason for why they are partnering with a league or team.

And they’re right — connecting with the fans is the core promise of a sponsorship. It’s why brands ink these deals. So, why isn’t it the yardstick for how they are valued?

What does true connection look like?

Chevrolet connects with Detroit Tigers fans at Comerica Park by providing free Wi-Fi, all the better to take and post selfies.
Photo: getty images

It starts with “permission to play.” This brand fit, the reason for why we’re crashing this party, begins to unlock the real value of a sponsorship and that powerful connection with fans.

Now, this is easier for some than for others. Some brands are born on third base and have an endemic fit to the property. Nike’s logo on NBA jerseys makes instant sense to fans because Nike makes athletic gear.

An insurance brand like State Farm has to work harder. But it can create fit — and has done so successfully. By focusing on the core brand benefit of assistance, their “Born to Assist” campaign created a relevant connection with NBA fans.

Assist is a good word here. Because beyond relevance, the second step to connection is to provide value to fans. Brands that choose to sponsor a league or team need a selfless, generous, giving streak. We can’t be there just to take. So, while impressions are countless “asks,” engagement is one, big, generous “give.” Fans need to feel that a brand is bringing them tangible value. For example, Chevrolet provides Detroit Tigers fans free ballpark Wi-Fi, a highly valued perk, that they’ll just happen to also find inside every Chevrolet equipped with 4G LTE.

Activation is what cements the link between the ballpark benefit and Chevy vehicles. It’s essential that brand activation has a fan experience at its core that delivers a benefit, demonstrating why it’s a fit and why it’s a value. Virtually any benefit can be effective: entertainment, information, access, a chance to win. What’s most critical is that the benefit is well-aligned with brand fit, reinforcing how the brand belongs in the fan’s eyes.

Establishing brand fit, cemented by providing clear value through experience activations, gets the brand in the club and seen as “one of us” by the fans. The outcomes CMOs covet will follow — lifts in competitive differentiation, perception, preference and shopping actions. We see it validated in academic studies, such as Kirk Wakefield’s research, “How Sponsorships Work,” which looked at the psychological processes involved in effective activation, as well as in our client brand health studies — brands that achieve connection through fit and engagement have significantly higher outcomes.

Without experience activations, brands are just another fan in the bleachers — blocking the view and taking up space.

So, impressions, it’s been a good run. But the truth is, you’re just too superficial. It’s not all about just you anymore. It’s time for a real relationship.

We all deserve better.

Patrick Heffernan is the senior vice president, director of strategic planning, in Jack Morton’s Detroit office and oversees the strategic direction of clients including General Motors.

The second-division United Soccer League is expanding to more cities this year, including Nashville and Atlanta, with an eye on several more, among them Memphis and Austin, in 2019. It has also taken on two additional teams this season — North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven — that have chosen to stake their future on the growing USL.

The constantly improving American athlete means major leagues are getting increasingly competitive. As a side effect, second-division leagues continue to benefit from the abundance of talented players. Combine that with the smaller, high-quality facilities being built around the country, and you have a recipe for top-shelf sports experiences. Smaller leagues are also benefiting from innovative sports executives who are determined to take advantage of their resources to produce the best product possible.

Challenges Create Opportunity

Because they can’t command the huge budgets bestowed on major league franchises, smaller teams must rely on their creativity and knowledge to attract and sustain adequate fan bases. They may not have the best players or facilities, but they do have a higher degree of flexibility with their promotions, messaging, and branding. It’s critical that smaller teams use this to their advantage to differentiate themselves.

One thing these small teams do have in abundance these days is data. Data is an amazing tool in both sports and sports marketing. You may not be familiar with the 2002 Oakland Athletics team, but you’ve probably heard of “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” The book (made into an acclaimed film in 2011) told the story of A’s general manager Billy Beane, who used advanced metrics that flew in the face of traditional scouting views to build a team that won the American League West with the second-lowest payroll in baseball.

A traditional mentality dictates that smaller teams and smaller budgets mean more limitations, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Instead, smaller leagues are an excellent platform for showcasing the innovative strategies that will drive success no matter what budget you’re working with — and there are a few things the big leagues can learn from their smaller, scrappier counterparts:

1. Take Chances

The aspect I admire the most about well-run smaller teams is that they take chances and realize that things might not always work out. What taking risks will do, however, is provide opportunities to gather huge amounts of data on the behavior of fans. This experience will allow these smaller teams to have a deeper understanding of their fan bases and create more successful campaigns down the road.

Major league teams are often more corporate and structured, and as a result, their relationship with fans feels less organic. Ultimately, forging a genuine connection with fans is the key to a successful franchise.

2. Build an Emotional Connection With Fans

Fans want to know that you care and that you’re thinking about the same things they are. A sports team might be a business, but it can’t always be about making money. Fans should feel like an important part of your brand.

It’s critical for teams to distribute their content in the channels where their fans are consuming it, but it’s equally vital for them to know how to engage their audience. Fans are in the digital realm, so teams need to meet them where they are.

3. Invest in the Proper Infrastructure

As TV ratings continue to decline for leagues — even the ever-popular NFL — teams are beginning to understand that social media is crucial to their success. While their core audience might come from their geographical home base, fans are all over the world, and social media is a great way to reach them.

Small teams that can’t afford expensive air time for advertising campaigns have been relying on social media as a far cheaper way to spread their message. It might not happen often, but a well-crafted tweet or Facebook video can become a viral sensation and spread across the globe overnight. And compared to an ad that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, the price of sharing on social is right.

Applying the same strategies in a large organization doesn’t have to be difficult as long as you put yourself in your fans’ shoes. Not all fan bases are alike, but historically, owners have treated them largely the same with the one differentiating factor being their ticket category.

Today, fans have plenty of options when it comes to spending their money. They’re increasingly fickle and want true engagement with the teams they’re passionate about. To win the hearts and minds of fans, sports teams need to offer a customized experience that demonstrates a higher degree of personalization and meets fans in the proper channels. After all, according to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: “We are not in the business of selling basketball. We are in the business of selling fun.”

Robb Heineman is the co-founder of FanThreeSixty, a sports consulting and technology company that helps sports organizations develop their fan bases. He is also an owner of Sporting Kansas City and sits on the board of governors of Major League Soccer, and has twice been named to Sports Business Journal’s Forty Under 40.