Sports Marketing and PR in the Digital Age Gets Complicated

Among the latest sports news, Chad Ochocinco is going to the Patriots. Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

“It wasn’t that long ago that fan and media access to athletes came through sponsorships,” said Ben Trounson, SVP, director of marketing communications at Hill & Knowlton here in the U.S. “That was one of the main conduits. If you fast-forward just five years, fans get access to these athletes through Twitter.”

This is just one of the major changes impacting sports marketing and PR. With a seemingly neverending stream of sports news over the past few weeks — the NFL lockout, women’s World Cup, players breaking the law — we decided to speak with a couple of experts in this area to get a sense of some of the trends and major issues. As evidenced from the quote above, digital communications is definitely on top of the list.

“We’ve all seen athletes that are tweeting left and right, saying inappropriate things,” Trounson continued. “The leagues need to have their own social media policies. Essentially, it’s become harder to manage day in and day out because of the slew of information.” In addition, using athletes’ social media activity in a campaign has to be done seamlessly rather than simply tacked on.

Andy Sutherden, who was just recently named the lead of Hill & Knowlton’s global sports marketing and sponsorship practice out of the U.K., noted that this is a big issue for mature markets where digital communications are prominent. And it’s in those markets, too, where standing out has become more difficult.

“With athletes being more accessible to sports fans, the challenge that sports publicists have is how do I, on behalf of the brand I’m representing, become distinctive in a market that’s unbelievably cluttered.”

Moreover, with all this errant tweeting and Facebooking and whatnot happening all over the place, having a crisis plan is important. Sutherden says H&K maintains access to the issues management team just for this purpose.

On a global level, Sutherden has noticed a lot of experiential marketing in London during the lead up to next year’s Olympic Games.

“In the absolute tsunami of brand activity, unless a brand has found white space in the way they’re relations to the Olympics, they’re vanilla, surround sound,” he said. “Brands tend to be more rifle-like in their efforts,” he added, saying that reaching a smaller audience is more important that blanket statements that reach no one.

Which ties in with the results from these campaigns. Sure, making sales is fantastic. But reaching whatever objective has been set out is really of greatest importance. Oftentimes to do that, like in other areas, PR needs to work closely with other disciplines to get the job done.

“Sports marketing has been a key accelerator of the idea of holistic marketing,” said Sutherden. “In terms of skill set, people who traditionally just worked in sports PR have had to become adept at other parts of the marketing mix.” In other words, questions “require integrated responses.”

Finally, and anecdotally, we’ve noticed an increased interest in soccer/football in this country and we were wondering if that might be a trend for the future. Whether it does or doesn’t depends on, what else, cash.

Trounson, a huge soccer fan and former coach, says U.S. soccer players will only make a fraction of what players of other more popular sports, like football, will make. “Some families move to Europe [so kids can] get signed by the time they’re 15 or 16. Soccer is increasing in popularity, but players keep hitting that wall.”

U.S. women’s soccer, however, is providing opportunity and even inspiration for European women, Sutherden says. For both sexes, international travel done as part of sponsorship deals is bringing the sport to more people. Which could mean more opportunity for all the football/soccer fans out there.