How the World’s Top Sports Marketers Learned to Love Mobile, Social and Female Fans

Industry's leading execs say rapid evolution is key

The business of professional sports has never been bigger or more complex. Games are seen via multiple media and screens, and are time-shifted. Social and mobile have become first-string players. And sports is the last true collective viewing hearth at scale. Ours is a golden age for the avid sports fan and casual spectator—and a busy and intense inflection point for sports marketing teams.

Four executives stand at the leading edge of this transition. They also happen to be judges for this year’s inaugural Clio Sports Awards, to be presented in New York on July 17. They are Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC); John Miller, CMO of NBC Sports Group; Lisa Baird, CMO of the U.S. Olympic Committee; and Robert Gottlieb, evp, marketing for Fox Sports Media Group.

They took time out from their Clio judging duties in New York last month to talk about the state of sports media and marketing now. Following are some highlights from the roundtable.

Adweek Editorial Director James Cooper: Your audiences are diversifying at a rapid pace, and are digitally sophisticated and highly mobile. How do you keep pace and in touch with them?

John Miller, NBC: Well, they use virtually every device you can because the audience is so diverse and so spread out. And one of the things we’re judging today about the Clio Awards is creativity. To a large degree, there’s a lot of ways you can reach the media and everything else, but still the magic bullet for prime marketing and reaching the American public and getting motivated to do something is a creative message. And everybody here has creativity at the heart of what we do. There’s all sorts of ways to reach people, but a great creative message, wherever it happens to be, is the real stopper and the equalizer.

UFC head Dana White  

Dana White, UFC: Since day one, we’ve been out there, in tune, in touch with our fans, whether it’s social media or whatever platform we’re on. We’re on pay per view, we’re on Fox Sports 1, we have our own over-the-top Internet channel now, UFC Fight Pass, we’re on phones. We are everywhere our fans are. It’s been very interesting and fun and a unique adventure for us over the last 13 years. We’ve kind of run alongside technology as technology gets better. When we first started this thing, our options were pay per view and sometimes television. And now with the Internet and social media, we take advantage of all of it.

Robert Gottlieb, Fox: With the UFC it’s really interesting too because the demographic, your audience is so young and male and probably more tech- and social-savvy than traditional league audiences. So being an early adopter to it made perfect sense. What you were doing, you were way in front of a lot of this stuff with Twitter and live tweeting.

White: Yeah, I was one of the first guys on Twitter. We’re different from all the other leagues. We embraced social media. Our fighters would tweet in between rounds if they could. We would let them do whatever they want with social media. And it’s been very successful for us. There’s been very few problems.

And with the technology, it’s really helped us in our initiative to go global. I mean, our people probably don’t realize this, but we’re in 175 countries and territories in 23 different languages and over 1 billion homes worldwide on television. [Besides] our deal with Fox here in the United States, we have a 50/50 [joint venture] with Globo, the biggest television network in Brazil where we started our own channel down there. We just started UFC Network all throughout Latin America, and we’re continuing. Like I say, as technology gets better and better, we’re running right along with it. And our content is perfect for it.

Let’s talk about audience quickly. How are you monitoring the people who are watching your platforms, and how do you stay in touch with them and deliver what they’re really looking for?

Miller: Technology, and how people are utilizing it to watch shows, is sort of changing how people consume sports. For the Olympics, if you watched the Sochi Games and you’re between 18 to 24, 60 percent of your consumption was on a smartphone. If you were my age, which is 50 to 64, 75 percent is on a television screen. We’re reaching younger people for the Olympics—which is thought of as an older group—largely because there’s a device that is attached to their hand at virtually any time. And so you can now reach people and, because of social media, be closer to them than you’ve ever been before.


U.S. Olympic Committee’s Lisa Baird

Lisa Baird, USOC: I think the next frontier is for us to put aside everything we know about measuring what sports fans are, because what’s happened is technology is exploding, but also sports is mainstream social currency. It’s not, “Well let me go watch this game,” or, “Let me tune in for 70 days.” It is every day all the time because it’s become a mainstream topic that Americans talk about. And how we start to measure that and what new insights we found out, to me that’s the next interesting thing.

I happen to be one of those people that play fantasy football. Who would have suspected that a woman like me would be an avid fantasy football player? You don’t know that if you just look at demographics. I’m breaking those paradigms because I’m such a passionate person and engaged in the game. We’re going to find this explosion is going to help us define a whole new metric of how we as marketers can really get engagement—which is what we all want.

With the Olympics, you have to be a master storyteller. You’ve got to tell the story about the athletes, sometimes slightly obscure sports, but also the host city. Tell us about the importance of storytelling.

Gottlieb: Well, the Olympics is a little bit different than virtually any other sport. There’s two sports that actually skew female. One of them is the Olympics, the other is the Kentucky Derby, which is a little bit more about hats and dresses and mint juleps. But in the case of the Olympics, it’s about the journey, because it’s a special story. You train your entire life for maybe 10 seconds and then poof, it’s over. So there’s a fabulous thing about that. It’s far more about the journey than the result. Almost all other sports, it’s about who wins and who loses. In the Olympics, it’s less about that. People sort of forget that, but they do remember those miraculous stories. And it’s part of the building of the characters—of the play that is the Olympics—that sort of makes that an interesting one to promote.

Baird: And there’s always that “why” factor, as I call it, with what we do. Because we just can’t forecast as well. My favorite stories out of Sochi were [U.S. hockey player] T.J. Oshie and [U.S. gold medal snowboarder] Sage Kotsenburg. Where did they come from? Let’s quickly get on that because all of a sudden they emerged as people that we wanted to know about. And it challenges us to really get up and tell those stories really well, not just in advance, but in real time so that you have the ability for America to connect.

Fox Sports Group’s Robert Gottlieb

Gottlieb: Americans connect with characters.

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