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Volume 23 No. 13

Marketing and Sponsorship

The NFL is taking two further steps to help its 32 teams with local marketing — hiring a new staffer to coordinate between CMO Tim Ellis and clubs, and buying software that helps teams recruit social media influencers in their regions.

Prior to training camp, Ellis hired Taryn Hutt as senior director of club marketing. Hutt, who worked with Ellis at the video game publisher Activision, is supposed to keep clubs informed of, and aligned with, league-level marketing initiatives and bring back ideas for other ways the league might help teams. 

She will work closely with both Ellis’s staff and account directors inside the NFL’s club business development division, who work directly with certain teams to improve their business operations. The club business development division has been around for many years, but the league has expanded its duties, and in 2018, assigned staffers to specific teams.

Sources said they’re hopeful Hutt can bridge the gap that’s often present between the league, which is more likely to be focused on broad brand initiatives, and clubs, which are more focused on day-to-day revenue generation and activations.

The Chargers have used Blake Wynn, shown with LaDainian Tomlinson, to reach younger fans.
Photo: twitter
The Chargers have used Blake Wynn, shown with LaDainian Tomlinson, to reach younger fans.
Photo: twitter
The Chargers have used Blake Wynn, shown with LaDainian Tomlinson, to reach younger fans.
Photo: twitter

Separately, each club will soon get access to new artificial intelligence software, licensed by the league, that claims to help find the most important online celebrities in any given city. Teams can then use that to recruit and hire influencers to help spread the team’s identity to young and digitally savvy fans, like the Chargers have with YouTube star Blake Wynn. Ellis told teams it will be useful in all markets.

After joining the NFL one year ago, Ellis named influencer marketing as one of his three pillars in a reorganization he instituted. He’s put another former Activision colleague, Ian Trombetta, in charge of that.

Influencer software still requires individual expertise, said Greg Goldring, vice president of Cogent Entertainment Marketing, a veteran of athlete and celebrity scouting for brands. The “right” influencer is not just the best-followed celebrity in any given market, but the one that carries true fandom with a broad reach and a good brand alignment. 

“It’s a great tool and a great headline, but again it comes down to how the teams are going to use it,” Goldring said. “It’s only going to be as efficient as the people using the tool, and how well they know how to execute influencer marketing.”

When the Arizona Diamondbacks want to make a sponsor pitch, they come armed with useful information from their data team.
Photo: Getty Images
When the Arizona Diamondbacks want to make a sponsor pitch, they come armed with useful information from their data team.
Photo: Getty Images
When the Arizona Diamondbacks want to make a sponsor pitch, they come armed with useful information from their data team.
Photo: Getty Images

On a steamy August day in midtown Manhattan, close to 30 sports and entertainment professionals gathered at the office of YouGov America to discuss one of the industry’s most important but enigmatic subjects: data. The group — almost all YouGov clients — was invited to talk about market research products, trends, and to learn from one another.

 

A tidal wave of data washes over teams, leagues, agencies and analytics companies every day. YouGov said that in 2019 alone it’s added 88,000 new data points to its Profiles market research tool, which holds north of 400,000 total.

“It gets uncontrollable and overbearing and there is so much out there for people to work with,” said Scott Horowitz, YouGov Sport chief revenue officer.

In the 10-plus years since the Great Recession, business decisions increasingly must be justified by more than just emotion or whim. But while data is a word on every executive’s lips, methods of collecting it and the way it’s used all vary widely among properties. 

“One question that everyone always has,” Horowitz said, “is who does it really well, who does it the best?”

The group, which represented sales, marketing and data departments, listened to presentations by the Arizona Diamondbacks and WWE, discussed trends in data capture and usage, and lamented the challenges that arise when trying to put data to effective use.

■ ■ ■ ■

The No. 1 problem discussed was a gap between sales and data teams that exists in many organizations. The issue generally stems from a lack of communication between the two departments, preventing data from being better integrated into decision-making and pitches. 

The Diamondbacks revealed how their sales and service teams work together on corporate partnerships from the beginning of a pitch. The partnerships team conducts a needs analysis and shares that information with the data team, which uses it to retrieve useful information for the subsequent pitch.

WWE’s data team provides metrics that help writers shape storylines around the company’s talent.
Photo: Getty Images
WWE’s data team provides metrics that help writers shape storylines around the company’s talent.
Photo: Getty Images
WWE’s data team provides metrics that help writers shape storylines around the company’s talent.
Photo: Getty Images

“There is that sharing of communication and information,” said Kerri White, the Diamondbacks’ senior director for corporate partnership services. “I think we’re probably better positioned than some teams that don’t have that.”

The Diamondbacks don’t have a director of data analytics. But a company-wide edict that data will inform decision-making changed how the organization approached the subject, including spreading the data team’s contributions and influence beyond just the ticketing department. 

White’s slide deck showed several ways teams in local markets can wring the most benefit out of the data they collect, like a successful effort using third-party data to show insurance companies how many people in the Phoenix area were interested in insurance, or illustrating the health of a brand — whether a potential corporate partner, or the Diamondbacks themselves — through data. 

“I feel like there is a lot of opportunity now for some different teams to refresh the way they’ve been doing things or looking at things, or presenting things,” she said.

WWE’s powerful data team numbers around 60 people and is involved in every aspect of the company, even creative writing (WWE uses data to track reaction to storylines, helping writers shape the next story). The company has also used data to combat negative stereotypes about professional wrestling to grow its business.

Judd Pratt-Heaney, WWE senior director of global sales and marketing, presented to the YouGov group, but specifics were kept off the record.

Horowitz explained that Pratt-Heaney has become fluent enough in data that he knows what kind of information he’ll need to nail a pitch. Pratt-Heaney retrieves the data he needs on his own, whether it’s from WWE internally, or from the data platforms the company subscribes to, such as YouGov. A person with a foot, or at least some toes, in both the data and sales worlds could be an increasingly popular solution for sports properties in the coming years.

■ ■ ■ ■

Multiple attendees voiced clear interest in having more data, and better data, on the habits and consumption of two particular groups: teenagers and overseas fans.

WWE’s Judd Pratt-Heaney (left) and the Diamondbacks’ Kerri White gave presentations at the YouGov gathering.
Photo: Bret McCormick / Staff
WWE’s Judd Pratt-Heaney (left) and the Diamondbacks’ Kerri White gave presentations at the YouGov gathering.
Photo: Bret McCormick / Staff
WWE’s Judd Pratt-Heaney (left) and the Diamondbacks’ Kerri White gave presentations at the YouGov gathering.
Photo: Bret McCormick / Staff

Market research on teenagers is currently much more sparse than overseas data, and carries with it ethical and legal issues. But knowing what teenagers are consuming, who their favorite sports and athletes are, and what kind of merchandise they’re buying or wearing would give properties a heads-up on what’s coming in the future. 

Horowitz said that most market research companies poll teens too infrequently, missing out on their predictive nature. “We don’t know what the teenagers are doing because we don’t have a steady pulse on what they’re up to,” he said. 

Trends and opportunities that emerged from the workshop

■ YouGov’s Scott Horowitz said he’s seen the 30 pro sports teams that are YouGov clients throwing considerably more money and people-power at harnessing data’s potential. 
■ Data analytics teams are increasingly involved in more facets of a property’s business, not just ticketing. Example: Communications departments can easily measure buzz and public response after an event, empowering their sales teams to capitalize in real time. 
■ One example of streamlining communication between data and sales departments is creating an email data request form with 5 to 10 questions that provides the data team with an idea of what information is needed, what it’s needed for and when.
■ Information that the properties want to know about their fans: discretionary income levels, ad awareness, brand recognition and purchase intent.

As for overseas fans, access to that data is generally expensive because it takes more effort to obtain. 

Of the companies represented at the meeting, data on foreign consumption is especially important to Endeavor, Major League Baseball, WWE, the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Lakers, each of which has global reach. Interest in data concerning fans in China, Great Britain, India and Mexico will continue to increase in the coming years.

■ ■ ■ ■

This was the first time YouGov had played host to a sports-focused data workshop. Horowitz’s team hosted 30 attendees, triple what they initially expected, including at least a half-dozen from the West Coast. MLB and BSE Global each had four people in attendance.

The showing speaks to a growing understanding within the industry that data needs to be figured out, and sooner rather than later.

YouGov launched its sports product in early 2018, adding 30 teams as clients since then, and giving Horowitz a feel for how the sports industry is approaching data in 2019.

“They’ve got full-blown resources put against these things that were never there before,” he said. “And with that, you’ve got to arm these people up to get their jobs done. You’ve hired these smart people but they have nothing to do if they don’t have any tools to work on. So there is more money being invested in products and services to support the initiatives.”

All that’s left then is the hardest part: deciding how to put the data to use.

Several times throughout the day, when Horowitz asked the group for best practices or tips, there was silence. The immensity of the subject is often immediately overwhelming.

“Everyone knows how important this information can be and what a good tool it probably is,” said White. “I think there was great dialogue in the room and I think everyone was trying to figure out, ‘How can I use this? What are the things I didn’t know that maybe I can take back and start using?’ That was my approach.”

First Look podcast, with YouGov discussion at the 11:50 mark:

Challenges that emerged from the YouGov workshop

■ With so much data, and so many sources of it, how do properties keep it all straight? How do they know which sources are the best and most reliable? What can be tuned out? One property at the meeting mentioned having subscriptions to 60 different sources of data or market research. That raised eyebrows.
■ A lack of sufficient data on teenagers. It was noted that five years ago, 13-year-olds were streaming content more than anyone. Now that they’re 18 years old, they’re showing up in everyone’s data. Having sufficient data on teens’ consumption and fandom could provide a predictive five-year head start, though gathering that information comes with legal and ethical issues.
■ Overseas data. Nearly everyone in the room had interest in data on overseas fandom. But obtaining overseas data is expensive and what do properties then do with it? If they don’t have boots on the ground in China or India ready to pursue partnerships, is there any point to having the information?
■ Determining and defining a team’s fan base. Is a social media follower a fan of a property, or should more engagement be required to be considered a fan?
■ Industry-wide gap between data teams and sales teams. Some organizations are finding ways to close it; doing so is critical to getting the most use out of data. This was clearly the biggest issue voiced at the YouGov meeting.


ESPN devoted six hours of midday programming on Aug. 24 to canine competition, in partnership with the AKC.
Photo: nick caito / espn images
ESPN devoted six hours of midday programming on Aug. 24 to canine competition, in partnership with the AKC.
Photo: nick caito / espn images
ESPN devoted six hours of midday programming on Aug. 24 to canine competition, in partnership with the AKC.
Photo: nick caito / espn images

The world-class athletes on ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., campus executed demanding high dives into a 20,000-gallon pool built for the occasion. Their speed and agility impressed even those jaundiced ESPN employees who have produced hundreds of sports events. After the competition, the athletes were toweled off, packed into crates and loaded into the backs of cars.

Call it an updated “Dog Day Afternoon.” More than 40 years after that Al Pacino film, ESPN2 aired six hours of dedicated pooch programming on Aug. 24, two days before International Dog Day. Yes, the network that broadcasts MLB, the NBA and the NFL went completely canine for an entire afternoon. 

The story of how that happened is a textbook study of how a brand with powerful affinities can become a property.

We’ve known Ron Furman since he was selling media and sponsorship packages for the NFL years ago, and for NBC Sports after that. Since June 2018, he’s spearheaded the American Kennel Club’s efforts in combining its heritage with a membership base encompassing 5,200 clubs, thousands of grassroots events, and an annual championship show in which more than 7,000 dogs compete. The NFL is ceaselessly touting its 100th season; at 135 years old, the AKC was around long before the NFL, or airplanes, took off.

Now, we’d be the first to proselytize: Sports have powerful and deep-seated attributes that can be leveraged to effectively market products and services. That should be scrawled indelibly on the blackboard of any sports marketing class.

But sports don’t sleep on the bed with you. 

The AKC likes to point out that the 72 million dog owners in this country outnumber by 25 million those who call themselves avid fans of any one of the four big stick-and-ball leagues. (The NFL weighs in at 47 million, according to Nielsen Scarborough data.)

Maybe that’s like comparing a Dachshund to a Great Dane, but, said Furman, “I could see the passion was here. It just hadn’t been mined.”

Furman has helped to tap into that vein with the creation of AKC Properties, which includes a strong online presence — AKC claims 5 million social media followers — and an OTT network, AKC.TV, that launched last year.

When Furman and the AKC started pitching ESPN in March about carrying dog programming, it was about increasing the percentage of female viewers (AKC events skew around 65% female) and the appeal of what they call “action sports for dogs.” That encompasses the aforementioned dock diving, along with agility competitions and Flyball, a relay race with obstacles and a lot of running and jumping highlights.

ESPN soon saw the Disney crossover potential with dogs and families, and it progressed from the AKC providing content to ESPN staging what turned out to be the largest event its Bristol campus ever held.

Cliff Shoemaker, ESPN’s senior manager of digital programming and acquisitions, is allergic to dogs, but he quickly became a fan of their appeal. “Internally, the more we talked about it, the more support we got,” he said. “That’s the power of dogs.”

At Bristol, there were hundreds of spectators watching around 150 competing canines. The programming block, 2 1/2 hours of which was produced with the AKC, started with a 30-minute digital “pregame show.” ESPN2 led off with an hour of competition from Bristol; an hour of dog features culled from old E:60s and SportsCenters; a dog-themed version of “Always Late with Katie Nolan”; yet another hour of dog competition; followed by Disney’s canine farce “Air Bud,” from 1997.

Photo: nick caito / espn images
Photo: nick caito / espn images
Photo: nick caito / espn images

With a corporate directive to make ESPN’s audience more diverse, Shoemaker was happy that female viewers doubled from 25% to 50% near the end of the afternoon.

“We’ve always said there are very few things closer than the bond between a person and their dog, and people got to watch that play out in a televised competition,’’ said Gina DiNardo, AKC vice president and executive secretary. “ESPN validated everything we felt about our content and how broad our reach is.” 

We aren’t suggesting that “Monday Night Football” will be replaced by “Monday Night French Poodle,” but we’d expect to see more canine competitions on the “Worldwide Leader.” And the connection between human athletes and their dogs is one that also intrigues ESPN.

In fact, the AKC’s demos and passion are intriguing enough that it has agency CSM casting about for non-endemic sponsors.

“Like a sports property, you’ve got your TV, your live events and your digital/social,’’ said CSM vice president Charlie Severn. “Unlike sports, you don’t have a focus on fandom for a particular team or sport. Everyone loves dogs — that’s something marketers should be able to use.’’

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

MLS said one out of every three matches this season has included a review, with an average time of three minutes.
Photo: Getty Images
MLS said one out of every three matches this season has included a review, with an average time of three minutes.
Photo: Getty Images
MLS said one out of every three matches this season has included a review, with an average time of three minutes.
Photo: Getty Images

Major League Soccer is actively selling a new piece of sponsorship inventory that some industry experts believe could be worth at least seven figures a year. 

 

Starting this summer, MLS senior vice president of business development Carter Ladd and his team began exploring how to commercialize the stoppage time caused by video assistant referee, commonly referred to as VAR. The league had unveiled the replay system in August 2017 and waited until now before approaching the marketplace, in large part because it needed VAR to first materialize as a successful in-game component. 

The league said one out of every three matches this season has included a video review, with an average length of three minutes. Potentially, a brand could be on screen during the entire length of that review, as well as get mentioned by broadcasters.

“There’s very, very few opportunities where a brand can become part of the fabric of the sport in a meaningful way,” Ladd said of a sponsor being potentially tied to VAR. 

MLS will handle in-house the selling of video review. While the official sponsorship designation depends on the potential partner, there’s a possibility that a brand could have a direct affiliation for video review. 

A partnership is customizable, Ladd said, so an integrated program could include a portfolio of assets. Among the possibilities are a branded environment around the referee review area; fan engagement and a digital content series; a strategic relationship with the Professional Referee Organization in the further development of VAR; and a relationship with the league’s broadcast partners. 

Ladd pointed to the league’s current relationship with Tag Heuer, the official watch and official timekeeper, as an example for how a brand could be integrated into the match in a similar way around VAR. The luxury watch brand is visible on PRO referees’ wrists and jerseys along with the substitution board, among other match integrations. 

“If there’s going to be some sort of product integration [with VAR], it’s got to be authentic,” he said. “It’s got to be endemic.”

Ladd declined to specify targeted companies, categories or who the league’s “couple of ongoing conversations” are with, but he did highlight that MLS doesn’t have a technology partner.

Zack Sugarman, senior vice president of properties at Wasserman, which represents a few of the league’s official sponsors, mentioned Intel and Microsoft as having an authentic tie-in. Insurance firms, eyewear companies and data shops, which could be more integrated into highlighting what’s occurring on the pitch around VAR, are also possibilities. 

Sugarman said there’s the potential for a hefty amount of earned media for a brand, given the possibility of replays going viral. However, he also cautioned that this “could be a polarizing asset” because of the negative sentiment that is often tied to video replay and its potential to decide the outcome of a match. 

“A brand needs to be ready and know that there’s good, bad and ugly that could potentially come with VAR,” he said. “It’s not going to be a piece of inventory that’s right for everyone.”