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.

Dana, there’s got to be a great story behind every one of your fighters. How do you amplify that?

White: It’s one of the things that really made me fall in love with this sport. I’ve been involved in boxing my whole life till I got involved in the UFC. Every boxing guy had the same story: “I came from the mean streets of such and such, and if it wasn’t for boxing, I’d be dead or in jail.” So I get into the UFC and start to meet these guys, and about 90 percent of our guys are college educated, they come from different places all over the world. They all have different stories.

Early on, Matt Hughes was this farm boy who wrestled … he was literally a farmer. That’s what he did. And he really nailed that country music segment that people love. And then we had Chuck Liddell with the Mohawk and Chinese writing down the side of his head. He looked like an axe murderer, to be honest with you. This guy was an accounting major who graduated with honors from Cal Poly. These were the kind of guys we had and the kind of stories we had to tell. It was really the athletes that helped really launch the UFC. They all have amazing personalities, great back stories, and they’re actually just really normal people like everybody else.

You guys completely blew past boxing, which was arguably an incredible American sporting institution, by defying convention. Talk about the importance of breaking rules in sports marketing.

White: No pun intended here, but there were no rules with the UFC when I got involved. We bought a business that was dead. Not only was it dead, it was banned—it had this horrible stigma attached to it. But when we saw it, we saw what this really was and what the potential could be for this sport. It wasn’t allowed on pay per view—as a grown adult, you couldn’t opt in to buy this thing. Porn was on pay per view—the UFC was not allowed. That’s how bad it was.

Our goal was to get this thing not only on pay per view, but on free television, which seemed impossible. And we never took “no” for an answer. We broke all the rules. And it’s funny because we were always seen as these innovators in the Internet—but the Internet was all we had. I said, “Listen, pretty soon we’re going to come up with technology where you can actually watch video on the Internet.” They’d show me and it would be buffering, buffering, buffering and play three seconds, then keep buffering, buffering, buffering. I was like, “If this thing ever works, this would be fascinating for us.” There was this huge cult following that kept this thing alive through the Internet. And then technology started ramping up and we ran with it.

Fox Sports 1 is an awesome challenger brand story, going up against ESPN and a few others. Talk about some of the teaching moments you’ve had in getting that off the ground. How do you amplify it? And how do you get in front of people so they can fold it into their sports menu?

Gottlieb: It’s been an incredibly challenging and exhilarating ride. I think anytime you start a 24-hour sports network from scratch, that’s a huge, huge endeavor. Collectively we’ve worked very hard. It’s like having a kid almost. There’s that launch date, which is like the birthdate. And for the year before that, you’re working so hard to get to that moment, and then of course that moment comes and you realize, “Well OK, we just started …”

NBC Sports Group’s John Miller

Miller: Oh, you mean there’s a tomorrow?

Gottlieb: Yeah, there’s a tomorrow and a next day. So the energy and the work to get to launching is so significant. And then I think inevitably it takes a little while to kind of get your feet under you again and start moving forward again. There’s a natural cycle to these things that we’re experiencing. It’s been very exhilarating.

We definitely try to distinguish our brand [from the competition]. We had a brand position that was going to get us through launch, which was, “It’s time for sports to be fun again.” By fun we mean kicking somebody’s butt is fun, and overtime is fun, and three seconds to go and the jump shot from the corner is fun. … Nothing is more fun than those moments. That was something that we were very focused on to help us break through as we got to launch and to find kind of what the Fox attitude is. As we get older and more mature as a network, we knew that our brand positioning was going to evolve and meet new needs.

Miller: Yeah, ours is a little bit different [position]. We get a sense of where we are in the marketplace. Storytelling is very important to us, largely from the Olympic legacy. The idea of “getting closer to the sports you love” is a line that we use. But people ultimately come for the events that they want to see. Creating a brand persona is far more difficult than getting people to come for an event. And ultimately it’s the events and how you cover them that actually helps define your brand. As marketers, we love to say that we define it, but to a large degree, it’s how we cover an event that pretty much defines a brand, because it’s the brand promise.

Right now, if you watch a Fox broadcast or watch an NBC broadcast, you’re going to get a good experience on either one of them. You will get a different tone, but I think a satisfying experience in either case. And then, you know, ESPN does what they do and they do a very good job. So it’s really a grand time for the American consumer if you’re a sports fan. And it helps define that media space because virtually everything else in entertainment has become a video-on-demand platform. But sports is consumed live. It is the one thing left that has become a true watercooler event.

White: I was going to jump in before, but he said most of the things that I was going to say. Working with them in launching Fox Sports 1, it’s really about the content and bringing in the right content to bring in the right viewers and conditioning them. We have a massive bar business with the UFC—the biggest other than the NFL. Now we’re starting to market to bars because we want these guys, the bartenders, conditioned to go to Fox Sports 1 for Saturday for their UFC events or whatever it is. These bartenders and these people that make these decisions in the bars on what channels go on, we want them to think Fox Sports 1. Because everybody thinks ESPN. So we have this real big initiative to get the consumer and these people who make decisions to know where Fox Sports 1 is.

  The other thing is, we live in a generation where kids consume content like crazy, and they don’t have to be home to watch it. They go on Apple TV, they can go on YouTube, they can DVR it, they can [skip] through all the commercials, they can do all this stuff. The one thing you can’t do that with is a live sporting event. Nobody wants to go back and DVR it. You need to see it live, and it’s all part of the excitement and the energy. You normally have a group of people around you. This guy hit a home run, this guy got a knockout. Live sports is where it’s at right now.

Do you have to layer that live sports component into your offering to bring people into your tent?

Gottlieb: It’s everything. During March Madness, truTV [carried several] games. Over 4 million people watched. If you put on a live sporting event that people want, it doesn’t matter where you put it—they will go there and watch it. So for our network, and for John’s network, the accumulation of live sports and how valuable those are will determine our future. That’s where we’re going to win and lose. 

As marketers, live is the connective tissue to that spine. Once it’s there, the stuff around it—the magazine shows, the news shows, the shoulder programming—can create a vibe, can create a brand, can create a sense of this place that is unique and different than what your competitors are. That’s the space where we have a chance to be most effective.

Lisa, what kind of cues and learnings are you going to take from the World Cup and how it unfolds down there?

Baird: A lot. We’re watching very closely. With the U.S. Olympic Committee, we do marketing and branding, but our primary mission is actually to prepare the teams to go. So a lot of what we are doing is learning about the logistics and everything it’s going to take to have a successful delegation transition through Rio. Many people don’t know this, but we’re down there for two full months, making sure that everything is aligned for 36 sports while we’re there. So that’s a big piece of it.

From a marketing perspective, what I’m seeing, which is great for all of us, is the sponsors are taking their marketing to every big event there is, whether it’s the World Cup or the Olympics. Marketers are really embracing sports in ways that we have not seen before. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but when Nike launched their first ad for World Cup, they launched it online. And in four days, they had 78 million people.

So the marketing around it has become integral to how we’re doing it. I’m watching the marketing, and we’re watching the logistics. And then, obviously we’re going to watch Rio in particular and how Brazil really is embracing sport.

 Miller: Yeah. We want a happy Brazil. One thing I would say about how you grow the sport and how you use the Internet or digital platforms right now to get your message out: Television is largely still 30-, 60- or even 15-second spots. It’s still very pervasive and you have to utilize it. But you can do things on the Internet that can really vastly change the landscape. For Premier League, our goal was to engage the core and then try to get a whole bunch of people that really didn’t know about soccer too much, and we did this thing with Jason Sudeikis and Ted Lasso where it sort of was a way of explaining that it’s football—just not as you know it.

Baird: It was fantastic.

Miller: It was funny to some, and [it got] 7 million hits. It was a viral piece that just simply took off and did an awful lot of work for us for a small amount of money.

Dana, one group that's probably very interesting for you to look at is women … you have woman fighters now.

White: Yeah.

You were sort of resistant to that, right?

White: I was very resistant to it.

So, how has crossing that barrier affected UFC? And how do you bring the Hispanic audience more fully into your tent? That’s a very loyal boxing pocket.

White: The Hispanic [audience] was always a no-brainer for me because of the big boxing following. We went into Mexico and we found the most talented guys, took them out of Mexico, brought them into the United States and had them start training with one of the best camps. Now we’re literally halfway through the first season of The Ultimate Fighter Latin America. So it ends up being Mexico versus all the other Latin American countries. 

Thirteen years ago, I was trying to sell men fighting on TV and pay per view. Women just seemed so far away, but the sport has come so far so fast, and obviously Ronda Rousey changed everything for us. My first meeting with her was 15 minutes. As soon as I walked out of the room, I said, “She’s the one, and I’m doing this thing.” The thing that I’ve noticed is, women like to see women do well. So Ronda Rousey has become this female hero to little girls all over the world. She is one of a kind in combat sports. She is literally the biggest star or the second biggest star in the UFC right now. No woman in the history of combat sports headlining a show pulls in the gauge she pulls in, and nobody pulls in the pay-per-view numbers. And the media, sponsors, you name it—she’s an absolute home run and a superstar for us.

We have the UFC Network in all these countries. And you know the rivalries down there and the machismo between the men in those countries with combat sports. This thing is going to be a huge hit. The ratings we’ve been pulling in there with our fights have been astronomical.

Who does sports marketing well? Who do you admire in media in general, who have you looked at and said, “Wow, they do a great job?”

Gottlieb: A lot of people do a great job. There’s a high bar. To Lisa’s point earlier about the World Cup and the Olympics, I think the big brands, which not surprisingly have the big budgets and the big access, really set the bar. The Nikes, the Gatorades and the Cokes. When you have these global events like the World Cup or the Olympics, they’re able to get into the zeitgeist and pop culture in a way that we don’t have the muscle or the budgets [for]. So we’re really depending on them to carry some of the mail to make these events really punch through. And from a creative standpoint, obviously I think that they’re setting the bar very high, and I think we probably all aspire to have work that’s as good as the big brands now.

Baird: We recently brought in P&G as a sponsor and that was a little different. They’re not a sports company. But I think they found something that they had to say about themselves that was very athletic. Which is, “Listen, we’re not in the business of sports. We’re in the business of moms, why don’t we figure that out?” And it really brought in a whole new level of different fans’ interest. But back in 2009, we said we’ve got to figure out a way to make Americans care about the Paralympics. The first thing that people say is, “Isn’t that the Special Olympics?” No, it’s really different. There are some true athletic stories to tell here.

It was a journey of five years to get people to embrace that. And it started with talking to our sponsors and saying, “You know what? You’ve got to sponsor Paralympic athletes just as you’re sponsoring Olympic athletes.” NBC came in for Sochi and now for Rio with a much expanded schedule of Paralympic sports coverage. One of the decisions we were thrilled to see is the sled hockey team when it was doing well—not because it was sled hockey, but because it was great sport—they chose to put it live on NBC with three or four hours notice. It was pretty tight.

Miller: It turned into just simply a great sporting event. Forget it was a great Paralympic event.

Baird: It was a great sporting event.

Miller: It was a great sporting event. In addition, it was a great story. And it was something that we just felt compelled to cover and give it the largest broadest audience. And it did really quite well for us.

Robert, I thought it was interesting that you’d actually looked at Fox News Channel as an example even though they’re not sports—how they positioned themselves.

Gottlieb: When we were launching Fox Sports 1, obviously we looked at other challenger brands such as Samsung versus Apple, and the history of challenger brands—what have they done right, what have they done wrong. In the television space, Fox News was a challenger brand to CNN, and obviously were very successful, given time, at challenging that dominant brand. And I think the big take-away from that was … people love characters, people love personalities. There’s a strong argument to be made that in general entertainment or in sports, people tune in to see people they like, the characters and the people they want to spend time with—something that Fox News figured out early on. They had big personalities, O’Reilly or whatever. It’s not like, “Oh, I want to see a show about a guy talking about the news.” It’s, “I want to see Bill O’Reilly.” The same things that sell a fight, the same things that sell anything.

Is there a technology or innovation out there that you’re sort of intrigued by that you haven’t used yet? And how do you stay on that edge?

White: As soon as something new comes out—it might be social media, it might be an over-the-top way to get the product to more people, it might be something new in production that we want to look at and try. We tried 3-D; we’re looking at 4K. Earlier, when we were struggling, one of the big mistakes we made—and we really learned a lesson from it—was we didn’t jump on HD quick enough. It was crazy expensive and we were treading water and trying to make this thing work. But that was a big lesson for us. We’ll never let that happen again. Anything new that comes out, we are all over it. The whole 4K thing, we started working on that probably six months ago.

Baird: To me, the next big thing that will make us better is how we use smart data. Not big data, because big is not necessarily better. But smart data from all these devices. How can we tap into that smart data to really make better decisions.

Miller: We have the ability now, through technology, to know who watches us, and we can have a one-on-one connection with them even though we don’t necessarily know their names. Ultimately, with all the technology that we can come up with [and] how we present it—whether it’s super slow-mo or it’s super close—it is ultimately the human drama that takes place in front of the screen which captivates the American public.

Graphics: Carlos Monteiro

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