Commentary

Making The Leap From Sports Marketing To The Marketing Of Sport

Sports thrive on history, decades of fan loyalty, and the record-breaking moments of today. 

Sports have the power to bring people together and evoke our greatest joys and deepest disappointments. 

But sports do not exist in a vacuum. Technology, new media channels and globalization are inexorably changing the world of sports, just as they are changing everything else in our lives. 

Some organizations have been better able to keep pace with the change and their evolving fans. The National Basketball Association offers a shining example of how to absorb, adapt and thrive in the face of change. It has expanded its business model to include a significant social media presence, a widening global footprint and masterful rights deals. 

NBA teams also understand the value of cutting-edge tech, as witnessed by the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center, which offers blindingly fast Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, 17 teams have signed up to participate in the NBA 2K eSports League to capture share of mind with the growing gamer segment.  

As traditional revenue streams plateau, organizations in sport must think differently to create new ones using digital, mobile, e-commerce, influencer marketing, technology, gaming/eSports, and more. New roles must be embraced across the sports industry that are critical to capture the attention and dollars from sports fans who control where, when and how they consume content. 

We can no longer simply be sports marketers — we have to hone the skill of marketing using sport. This transformation requires us to completely rethink our approach, to be more holistic while also being content- and technology-driven. To get there, we’ll have to rethink traditional approaches to talent recruitment and capabilities acquisition while seeking out fresh pools of talent and new skillsets. 

Three major categories of change are forcing organizations in sport to take a serious look at the talent pool in order to keep their businesses relevant to the fan of the future. 

First, technology has produced tectonic change in the way sports content is distributed and consumed. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon now compete for the rights to games with traditional TV networks. Meanwhile, networks such as ESPN are finding ways to speak to their audience through their own direct-to-consumer streaming and multi-platform opportunities. 

Second, globalization has transformed American sports teams into international brands with fans around the globe. Every NBA team has at least one non-U.S. player, and the NFL regularly plays games in London and Mexico. Organizations must look for talent at consulting firms, global brands and agencies who understand how to market globally and locally. 

Finally, diversity can no longer be ignored. The sports industry must take responsibility to be more mindful of representation, community, and diversity. Furthermore, organizations must think more broadly in terms of both physical and cognitive diversity to build an organization that looks and thinks differently. Another NBA team became a first-mover when, following a racially charged crisis a few years ago, the Atlanta Hawks hired Nzinga Shaw (whose resume boasts stints at Edelman and the NFL) as the NBA’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer.

Expect the sports industry to follow the Hawks’ lead.  

In sum, no matter the sport, the game has changed irrevocably. Every sports organization needs to think like a brand marketer. The industry must take a strategic approach to mapping the market for both the leadership and capabilities they need to fuel their growth — thinking about the present and with an understanding of what their organizations need to look like in five years. It’s time to suit up with the proper skills, outlook and talent — or risk being left behind by the competition.

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