Top Sports Marketers Think Beyond ‘Butts in Seats’ to Grow Their Franchises

How NBA, Call of Duty and Nascar are courting new fans and players

Top sports marketers at Adweek's Women Trailblazers event discussed the evolving ways they reach fans and players online and offline.
Sean T. Smith for Adweek

The way fans want to experience live sports is changing, and the esports world is only growing more and more rapidly, creating a challenge for marketers to capture and keep their attention.

At Adweek’s Women Trailblazers Summit this week in New York, top marketers from Activision Blizzard, the Philadelphia 76ers and Nascar said they’re spending more time not just on broadening their audiences but also recruiting the next generation of celebrity athletes.

“If you’re focusing on butts in seats or the eyeballs on TV at the exclusion of these new opportunities, then you’re going to be left behind,” said Nascar CMO Jill Gregory.

esports winning team
Esports leagues are only getting more popular.

The value of listening to the fan base

These new opportunities don’t always come with new budgets. Katie O’Reilly, CMO for the 76ers, said her digital marketing budget is “zero.” That’s led the team to think more creatively, such as relying on user-generated content from fans. Meanwhile, Johanna Faries, commissioner of Call of Duty Esports at Activision Blizzard, said she wouldn’t have her job without Reddit and Twitter, where she could listen in on conversations between esports enthusiasts.

Athletes are also playing a bigger role in marketing the leagues. Faries, who was previously at the NFL, said esports athletes already have large fan bases on social media because they grew up as entertainers within the gaming industry before it attracted mainstream attention. But to work with them, Activision Blizzard first has to gain their trust.

“As we are shaping a new narrative as a company around city-based franchise leagues, it’s a shift where they, too, are a consumer,” Faries said. “So they’re kind of looking at us saying, ‘Uh-oh, here comes the corporate strategist to take what has always been purely a grassroots-driven community experience. What are they going to do to it?’”

That means the league has to be transparent about the esports athletes they partner with, because if players don’t like where their league is heading, they’ll be vocal about it online.

The 76ers are doing more than just thinking about esports—in 2016, it became the first professional sports team in North America to own an esports team when it acquired Dignitas and Apex. O’Reilly said she sometimes spends half her week on the company’s esports league.

All of this is blurring the lines between online and offline sports. Esports leagues are having more in-person tournaments, while Nascar is experimenting with virtual and augmented reality. Gregory said technology is also helping make the sport more accessible by bringing the race “into people’s hands.”

“When know, and all of our research shows, that once you get to a live race event and kind of see the spectacle of it—the size, the sound, the noise—that’s kind of our gateway drug,” she said. “But you can only do that [for] so many people, so you’ve got to make sure that that event experience is the best it can be.”

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