Building Sports Brands Beyond the Stadium

Another NFL season is here – and the bloggers, pundits, talking heads and oddsmakers have already selected who they think will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at Met Life Stadium next February – it’s a good time to consider some of the basic contradictions often found in the marketing of major league sports teams here in the US. 

When you consider that some team valuations are nearing the billion-dollar mark, and that the regional cable networks they control are major players in sports television, the marketing of these brands shouldn’t be an afterthought, yet it often feels that way. 

I’ve worked on professional sports team brands in the NFL, MLB and NBA. What I’ve learned over the years when it comes to marketing teams is that fans want to get closer to the players and ownership, in general, wants to move further away from the players.

Ownership’s point of view is that it makes little financial sense to focus marketing dollars on individual players who might not be with the team next year, might get traded mid-season, or worse yet, could be accused of some horrible deed. To date, over two dozen active NFL players, including Aaron Hernandez from the New England Patriots, have been arrested since the last Super Bowl. 

If that last point makes anyone pause -- I still say promote players as much as you can – players are your best marketing assets. When professional sport teams properly identify and consistently nurture their brand’s DNA, they have more freedom to promote the revolving door of talent that walks through their doors. Owners of powerful sports brands typically worry less when their popular talents leave or are released. 

For example, the Baltimore Ravens won their first Super Bowl back in 2000 and what did they do? They released their winning quarterback for a guy named Elvis. They won their second Super Bowl and what did they do? They released their star receiver, Anquan Bolden, who signed with the San Francisco 49ers. 

Sports brands are bigger than the players on the team. Players come and go. Brands stay. 

The Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Giants don’t display players’ names on their home uniforms. (Some even leave them off their road uniforms.) This is silly. New visitors to the ballpark are more likely to come back if they have an attachment to a player, and it’s easier to achieve this when you know someone’s name. 

Another challenge: sports marketers have to stophitting the redo buttonat the end of each season, treating each season as if it’s entirely new. They have no five-year roadmap to help them grow their customer base. They dispose of what they were trying to build last year in favor of what they believe will happen this year. As a result, pro teams introduce a new tagline every year.

I had the great fortune of creating a five-year communications plan for the San Francisco Giants. Year after year, we stuck to the playbook of turning San Francisco into a real baseball town. Whether it was the general manager, president, coach or the team’s announcers, everyone was on the same page. Everyone believed in the messaging and everyone stayed consistent.

It didn’t hurt that on the fifth year of the plan the city won its first World Series. But what really made the Giants’ communications work so well was that we thought beyond the season. We realized it's not all about revenue-generating marketing, it’s also about brand building marketing.

And we realized it's not just about today's fan – it's about the future fan.

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig recently called Major League Baseball a “social organization” with a responsibility. Well, whether you’re the NFL, NBA, or MLB, fans want transparency, fans want to engage with players more and fans realize you’re as much a media brand as you are a sports brand. So professional sports owners everywhere, it’s time to start leveraging the full power of marketing. It’s time you grow your customer base.

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