Few topics send advertisers and media folk into a lather faster than online sports marketing. The mere mention of those three words, in fact, tends to prompt an onslaught of euphoric banter about current and future success stories, breathless rhapsodizing about the ability of sports-themed programs to enrapture otherwise flighty young men, and the spewing of more data about unique visitors, return on investment, and page views than one can possibly ingest in a single sitting.
In short, everybody loves online sports marketing. This we know. To better define its appeal, however, proves a slightly more elusive task. Pressed for the top online performers, pundits point to a handful of smartly executed programs (ups's longstanding nascar online tie-in, the Denver Broncos' savvy Game Day Experi-ence for fans not at the stadium) as well as two A-list media properties (the National Basketball Association's newly launched NBA TV Broadband and ESPN.com's Motion player and espn360 offering). Yet those same experts seem unable to pinpoint the appeal of these entities beyond saying, "Well, um, they just get it right, y'know?" We don't, actually. So we went straight to the sources to glean their collective wisdom.
THE BRAND: When ups debuted http://racing.ups.com in 2001 to hype its just-inked affiliation with Dale Jarrett's number 88 car, the company became the first nascar sponsor to launch a team-specific site. At the time, the shipping giant merely wanted to create an affinity in the minds of the nascar fans who were online. Four years and some 600 million hits later, ups can lay claim to having been among the first companies to leverage an A-list sports sponsorship online.
Asked if ups realized what it had on its hands at the time, vice president of global brand management and advertising Larry Bloomenkranz shrugs. "The Internet provided an opportunity to tie ourselves in a technologically advanced way to the sponsorship," he recalls. "It seemed to be one of the best mediums we could use to surround the audiences we were hoping to reach."
Bloomenkranz is quick to warn other would-be online sports marketers against sharing the bounty: ups has rejected overtures from companies hoping to claim some real estate on its racing site. "No banners, no tie-ins, nothing like that," he stresses. "If you open up [a site] to other sponsors or advertisers, you lose that spirit of exclusivity. With all the clutter online, that's one of your biggest assets."
THE LEAGUE: The NBA has rarely wanted for marketing partners since the troika of Magic, Larry, and Michael re-energized the sport in the 1980s. So it's not too surprising to learn from Steve Grimes, the league's senior director of interactive services, that the biggest challenges facing the November rollout of nba tv Broadband were not commerce-related but logistical -- like having first-half highlights ready to roll by the middle of the third quarter.
From a marketing perspective, NBA TV Broadband is already approaching juggernaut status. It counts Toyota among its sponsors, and brands like Sony, Nike, and Reebok among the initial wave of advertisers. "Video on nba.com was part of our subscription service for the last few seasons," Grimes says. "But now that broadband has become a mass medium, there's an economic model that makes sense for advertisers who want to be a part of our online video presentation."
Grimes notes that NBA TV Broadband has ad frequency capping and promises a marketing-to-programming ratio that is "no more intrusive" than television's. "Our fans understand the rationale for ads," he says. The league won't stop there: Its video podcasts and video RSS feed will offer opportunities to marketers by the end of 2006, Grimes says.
THE TEAM: The Denver Broncos have sold out every home game since 1970 and have thousands of names on their season-ticket waiting list, so using online marketing techniques to get butts in the seats is not a high priority. Attending to fans without tickets is. To that end, the team partnered with online firm Creation Chamber to produce Game Day Experience (GDX), a Flash-only site that attempts to bring cheerleaders and tailgate parties to the desktops of faraway fans.
While GDX attracts a mere 2,000 users per game and only recently cemented its first marketing tie-in (with Kraft, to provide recipes to the site's tailgating section), Bronco director of marketing communications Steve Harbula believes that marketers eager to enter the sports arena don't need to deluge every available online venue to make their presence felt. "This was never designed to be a lucrative endeavor for us," he explains. "There are a few areas where we have tie-ins, like a concession stand in gdx that takes you right to an online store. Third parties may not see a lot of cash in that, but sometimes they discount the value of an especially loyal audience."
THE MEDIA BEHEMOTH: It goes without saying that ESPN.com remains among the preeminent mainstream online destinations for sports fans. Yet the company's brand and technology minions don't seem content merely to generate boatloads of dollars through simple site promotions; innovation still seems to be at a premium. espn's Motion player was revamped to accommodate a glut of video and ads, while the ESPN360 customized broadband service started offering full-game broadcasts and exclusive content (interviews, video games) in January 2005.
ESPN's vice president and general manager of new media, John Kosner, says that ESPN.com's continued upgrading of video content has resonated with sports fans and advertisers alike. Indeed, he wonders if those online sports venues that have hesitated to offer clips and related content could soon find themselves left behind. "The ideal is true interactivity, both within the video and whatever ad unit that's directly adjacent to it," he says.
ESPN's goal from a marketing perspective, then, is to think outside the banner ad. As Kosner says, "Video is the hottest advertising inventory we have." In the months ahead, he expects video quality to become more of an issue both with would-be advertisers and sports-crazed fans, especially younger ones who have grown up viewing clips and events online. "There's tons of video on the Internet, but not a lot of it right now at the level of quality people have come to expect," he continues. "The technology is there, so there's no reason not to take advantage of it."