Sports Fanatics and the Lesson for Marketers

Patriots_bills
Patriots_bills

Are you a marketer, but don’t follow sports? Too bad, because understanding fandom can inform almost all of our work. This understanding isn’t derived from analytics, however, which are certainly vital and indispensable. Instead, I’m referring to the constantly changing, often raw and multifaceted narratives of sports that can hold even casual fans in their grip for a time. While developing a fan base may be inherently different than building a customer base, there are nonetheless lessons that can benefit marketers.

  • Your brand is a stew. Sports fans forgive, tolerate and forget, and there’s strength in that. They do this because they’ve already been given something, a curious brand stew containing fallibility, vulnerability, accountability, respectability, and so on. Sure, our favorite teams and players regularly move between these “states of being” – we’re disappointed as often as we’re delighted – but that’s all part of the balance that makes us fans. What’s in your brand’s stew? Is it really all about how you’re “first, best or only” and hollow monikers such as leading this or innovative that?
  • Consistency is great, but game scripts change. The best coaches start each game with a plan. Fans know this, but they also expect that adjustments will be made as the game changes. In fact they anticipate and often welcome it. Adversity is a strong narrative element, and even some disappointment is healthy from time to time, at least from a fan’s perspective. The trick play didn’t work, the relief pitcher was ineffective or we shouldn’t have taken that timeout. Once those mistakes occur, however, fans will inevitably put them back into the overall narrative – they are woven back into the whole cloth. Are you trying too hard to conceal what may actually be valuable to your true fans?
  • We are all people. Fans are fickle, but forgiving. That’s because we also see ourselves in athletes and teams, mistakes and all. The most beloved athletes (not necessarily the most well-paid or accomplished) show many facets. They struggle, persevere, give back, say funny things, ask for donations and share their softer sides. They are people, just like us, albeit with a special skillset we’ll never have. Do the fans of your brand like your people in the same way? What are you doing, if anything, to build up “real” affinity?

If you don’t follow sports as a true fan of a team or teams, you’ve likely read the bullets above and are finding it hard to see anything but risks. Spotlighting disappointment, acknowledging mistakes and embracing the “less polished” sides of your people can’t be a smart strategy. But it can be, especially if you acknowledge that brands no longer “control” the narratives surrounding them – fans do that. And while they may undress your hero from time to time and be critical of parts of your brand’s journey, having the freedom to criticize and cajole only makes them love you more. They don’t really know where you end and they begin – that’s what being a fan is all about.

So what can you take away from this? Look at the stories you tell across owned, earned and paid media. How authentic are your stories? Would they encourage a customer/prospect to treat you as a true fan would – as an extension of themselves? Are you reflecting them or spinning well-positioned fiction?

As you think through your content calendar for 2016 (you should already be doing this), ask yourself these questions: do all my story topics sound the same, is everything too good to be true (and messaged) and do these stories make my people seem as wooden as Pinocchio? If the answers are yes, yes and yes, think like a fan instead. Tailor your content to them and who they really want you (or their team) to be – because without them you have no story anyway.

Scott Bauman is Greenough's Executive Vice President. Follow him on twitter: @sbauman

Ready to Pounce: Tiger’s Chance to Win Us Over

Crisis brought about chaos for Tiger Woods in November 2009 and the months following, but some argue that he has since weathered the PR storm surrounding his personal life and is poised to recapture the heart and soul of the golf world. From the time Tiger won his first major championship, the 1997 Masters, through the 2006 season, he racked up twelve majors, eight Player of the Year honors and a bevy of scoring records. This prodigious production, coupled with a fiery style of play and relentless competitive drive previously unknown to the game of golf, allowed Tiger to become a god-like figure in the eyes of sports fans worldwide. Since his last major in 2008, however, Tiger has been learning a lesson in recovery—of the body, mind, and reputation. Lately one can see him as a family man, often found with his children or girlfriend Lindsey Vonn by his side. Tiger now strives to keep a lower, friendlier profile, but he still hasn’t recaptured the imagination of the world he once consumed. Before the scandals, the hatred and the struggles, only one thing satisfied Tiger Woods: winning. And, it appears once again, that winning is Tiger’s top priority.

When his personal life unraveled in 2009, Tiger was already facing questions surrounding his health and the state of his game. In the five years since his infidelity became public, he has faced endless criticism and skepticism regarding his health, swing, and drive to regain his former glory. Despite all of his struggles, Tiger insists that he is ready to win on golf’s biggest stages again, a belief that will be tested next week at The Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. No one has ever questioned Tiger’s confidence, but what’s become increasingly clear this year is a simple fact that is troubling to some: golf NEEDS Tiger to win, as much as Tiger needs Tiger to win. If not next week, then soon, or else the game may have to face some harsh commercial realities.

Ever since he began dominating the game in the late ‘90s, Tiger has driven the commercial aspects of the PGA Tour, sparking television ratings and driving up the prize money totals in both the men’s and women’s games.  In the months since his March back surgery, Tiger has proven his worth to the game of golf without swinging a club, as CBS and NBC have been left unable to use golf’s most recognizable face in marketing coverage of the sport’s main events. Ratings reflect this burden.

In April, despite boasting a resurgent Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth’s effort to become the tournament’s youngest champion of all time, The Masters final round coverage produced its lowest ratings since 2004, a year in which the final round fell on Easter. Spieth failed to claim the title, but it remains shocking that fans didn’t tune in to see his battle to break the record for youngest Masters victor held by…Woods, of course. At The Players Championship, arguably the PGA’s most notable non-major, the final round coverage attracted ratings 54% lower than last year’s finale, which ended with Tiger on top. After winning the low-rated Players, Martin Kaymer—already a major winner in 2010—went on to obliterate the field in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Now runaway victories tend to lack in the ratings department regardless of the sport, but note that this year’s tournament saw a healthy decline even when compared to 2011, when Rory McIlroy delivered a performance even more dominant than Kaymer’s, and delivered the lowest ratings since at least 1996.  For a sport that undeniably falls somewhere on the spectrum between slow and boring, stars are the crucial cogs in establishing an exciting image for the viewing masses. Tiger’s blistering run in the first few years of the new millennium set a precedent that now looks increasingly unrepeatable, considering the present abundance of talented young players but dearth of catalyzing superstars. McIlroy may still represent golf’s best chance at a “new Tiger,” but he has yet to sustain the sort of dominating play that made Tiger a phenomenon.

So what does all of this mean for Tiger as he seeks to reignite his quest to break Jack Nicklaus’ record for major victories? People are ready to root for him.

Kaymer now has two majors, a gracious personality, and a marvelous swing to his name, yet fans don’t seem ready to embrace a reserved German as their next golfing demigod, due perhaps to his subdued demeanor, the polar opposite of Woods’ fist-pumping supercompetitor. Spieth may be the most exciting young golfer since Tiger himself, and even he can’t draw people in. For someone as scorned as Tiger, the passage of time may be the best PR practice of all. Nearing next week’s Open, the headlines no longer question his morals or mental health but instead his physical stability and potential. Last year, controversy arose after a Nike ad featured Tiger with the quote “Winning takes care of everything.” But as we await his Liverpool return, is it even possible to pretend that the statement doesn’t ring true?

As a commodity, Tiger revolutionized his industry when he burst onto the scene. Like an Apple or a Facebook, he innovated the game in unprecedented ways, and as a result, we are reluctant to turn away from him, no matter how enticing the Kaymers and Spieths of the world may be. People like what they know, things and people in which they can trust. Tiger tested their patience, but it appears now that the value he provides may outweigh the risks of rooting for him. Is the time for redemption now? Can Tiger refill his own shoes?

Contributed by Greenough intern Brian McMahon. Send him an email: bmcmahon@greenoughcom.com

Forgiving Fans: PR Disasters in Sports

Did anyone know that the major league Chicago Cubs baseball team created a new mascot? Intended to be kid-friendly, he’s a pantsless bear named Clark with a backwards cap. I guess Clark beats the Cubs’ former mascot, a mangy bear that could have passed for a rabid squirrel. Nonetheless, comedic backlash immediately flared up, mostly on Twitter, as fans made fun of the silly cartoon. Though unanticipated but quickly evident, the introduction of Clark proved an unpopular marketing decision among Cubs fans. The story didn’t exactly make headlines—perhaps a blessing for embarrassed fans—but the commentary on social media sites attracted enough attention for sites such as the Huffington Post to publish a brief article quoting funny tweets and remarking on the ever-intimidating new mascot.

Besides the recent pro-sports blooper that is Clark the pantsless cub, the world of sports—both professional and collegiate—suffers public relations disasters quite frequently. And most aren’t as humorous as Clark. From LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s overt racism to controversy regarding Native American mascots (e.g., Washington Redskins) to University of Michigan football players accused of rape, we read about these things. We watch the reports on the news. And we gossip about them. But sports fans with similar attitudes as those who will never excuse the 1919 Yankees for taking Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, suddenly know how to forgive and forget. It’s all hush-hush from the time of the incident, to the time when someone leaks it, and beyond that to the time when the public knows but is too loyal and dedicated to take actions to punish the perpetrators.

Maybe there are simply too many fans to mobilize and build a large-scale boycott of sports viewing or purchasing of paraphernalia. Maybe the passion inspired by decades of sporting traditions overpowers the voice for justice against crimes and discrimination; that being angry at a beloved team or player is more of a crime than say, rape. Maybe a drive to the net is more valuable than a drive for integrity. I won’t launch into a lesson on morals, but isn’t it curious that what news outlets would deem “public relations disasters” seem largely to be ignored by fans? In fact, many of these scandals that should make fans embarrassed, often seem to be glorified in fierce defensive allegiance. I recently had an argument online with someone who thinks the Red Sox cheated their way to the World Series with David Ortiz’s clutch grand slam at the end of game two of the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. I found myself an angry belligerent Bostonian, telling him to stop being a sore loser, that David Ortiz is too dignified to ever take performance enhancing drugs. (Needless to say, he was a Tigers fan, and we never spoke again.) Another example is when Michigan basketball star Mitch McGary failed an NCAA drug test and subsequently joined the NBA draft to avoid the harsh NCAA penalty. Michigan fans applauded McGary’s decision and congratulated him on his future. But, he failed a drug test. Too soon forgotten, if you ask me.

Social media lends a great deal to these sports scandals, as fans often tweet or post about their opinions. But rarely do those sentiments leave the cyber scene, and never are they transposed onto game attendance records. While shameful happenings of sports teams are publicized, saving face is not necessarily a priority. There is no shortage of spirit for American sports teams; and public relations disasters, as the news categorizes them, fail to threaten most fan bases, whether they are disasters involving racism or disasters with Clark the Cub.

Contributed by Intern Francesca Sands. Reach her via email: fsands@greenoughcom.com or follow her on Twitter: @simplyfrab

Kickball: The Way to a Young Adult’s Heart [and Wallet]

Photo: Jess' Kickball Team 2012
Photo: Jess' Kickball Team 2012

Confession: I play adult kickball. That’s right, that game that you played during elementary school recess is now a part of my Sunday routine. And, no, this isn’t some pickup kickball league; this is the World Adult Kickball Association (WAKA). I’m talking playoffs in Vegas. You get the picture.

Adult kickball may sound silly, but frankly WAKA has created a nationwide community unlike any other. With more than 20,000 Facebook likes, an active blog and a presence on Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Google+, Flickr and Foursquare, WAKA may just be the most vibrant amateur sport you’ve never heard of.

As it happens, WAKA is a goldmine for local businesses as well. In addition to hosting weekly kickball games, WAKA partners with local bars to hold after-game “socials,” a lucrative partnership that turns an otherwise dead Sunday afternoon into a win-win.  And thanks to start-ups like LevelUp, players don’t even need pockets when they head to Tommy Doyles, a Cambridge bar which partners with WAKA.  Patrons can use their smartphones to purchase food and beverages (while also receiving deals and other incentives).

Photo: LevelUp - GigaOm 2012
Photo: LevelUp - GigaOm 2012

WAKA’s success is due in large part to its ability to make connections. And these connections become even more meaningful as they span different types of media, and people.  WAKA has a mobile-optimized site that streamlines registration, it partners with bars that my friends and I already like, and it embraces new technology that mirrors our on-the-go lifestyle.

Mobile payments technology by companies such as LevelUp, Paydiant, ROAM Data etc., are just part of the story. I, for one, am excited by new ways that old (the corner bar) and new (mobile technology) are changing how we socialize, stay active and network.  For its part, WAKA is hitting a home run by understanding its audience – twenty-somethings – and catering to it on so many levels.

Interested in joining my kickball team in the spring? Shoot me a line: jboardman@greenough.biz  or send me a tweet: @J_Boardman.

Is There Such Thing as a "Green-Hearted" Company?

The 2010 FIFA World Cup which kicked off in South Africa this past weekend, marked the first time in history in which many World Cup players sported sustainable jerseys as they proudly marched onto the fields for the much anticipated event. So which athletic apparel company came up with the idea for this bold marketing move? I’ll give you a hint: This company is very famous, it has four letters, and begins with “N”. You guessed it: Nike has done it again. The company’s marketing and PR gurus put their heads together, took the ever-so-relevant concept of sustainability, attached the Nike name to it and brought the idea to life at the most world’s biggest sporting event, The FIFA World Cup. 

Nike, which is the sponsor of nine teams in the World Cup including the United States, designed and created the 100% recycled jerseys to be worn by these teams. Nike made the jerseys by intercepting at least 13 million plastic bottles that were headed to Japanese and Taiwanese landfills. These bottles were then melted down to create a type of fabric which was ultimately used to make the jerseys. This process reduced energy consumption by 30% compared to the process that is required to make traditional polyester clothing.

Nike was one of the first sporting companies to initiate efforts towards “greener” behavior. The company has a slew of green initiatives under its belt over the past 15 years, and this project is the latest example. On the one hand, there is no denying that Nike’s latest green project is a positive action towards environmental sustainability. However, the question is, how many people will view Nike’s efforts as a good step in the right direction, and how many people will view the efforts as just a publicity stunt and a way for Nike to gain some positive exposure and praise?

An article that appeared in the New York Times talked about this very topic, discussing Nike’s recent sustainability efforts at the World Cup, as well as sustainable initiatives other companies are making. The article explored the idea that for companies, sustainability is not only good PR, and a way to appear socially responsible, but actually a way to save a significant amount of money. According to the article, Wal-Mart saved more than $100 million in 2009 due to a switch to more sustainable cardboard for shipping purposes; Wal-Mart admitted that the sole reason for the switch was to save the company money.

This brings up an interesting point: do companies REALLY care about sustainability? Or do any and all efforts encompass ulterior motives? Most people, including myself, would probably take a more cynical view believing that big companies such as Nike could care less about being environmentally friendly. These companies only do what is beneficial to them, and any efforts that seem socially responsible at first glance actually help the company in significant ways which are not apparent to the public eye.  However, it is also my feeling that you could debate relentlessly about companies’ sustainability efforts and where their true intentions lie and come to no agreement or resolution. But when it comes down to it, does it even matter? There’s no doubt in my mind that Nike marketing execs sat around and discussed how great this initiative would be for the company from a PR standpoint.  And, I’m sure there are plenty of other advantages this project is providing for the company that we’ll never be privy to. However, at the end of the day, a sustainable initiative such as Nike’s recycled World Cup jerseys is, simply put, a good thing. By intercepting these 13 million plastic bottles, close to 560,000 pounds of polyester waste was spared from going into landfills – not to mention the amount of energy that was conserved during the manufacturing process, or the benefits associated with intercepting the plastic bottles in the first place.

Sure, a best case scenario would be that every individual and every company big and small pulls together and advocates for sustainable behavior, with the very best intentions at hand. However, this is a far from perfect world and I think most people know that this idealized solution is simply not feasible. So at this point, we’ve got to take what we can get. If a company such as Nike is willing to initiate sustainable efforts - even with a hidden agenda in mind - then great, we’ll take it. It’s coming to a point where we almost don’t have a choice. It’s a waste of our time and energy to argue intentions behind an effort like this one. Instead, why not give Nike a little bit of credit? Let’s encourage them and other companies to continue initiating these types of efforts and really step it up when it comes to sustainability.

-Contributed by Jessica Boardman. Follow her @jboards