Three of the Most Powerful Women in Sports Say It’s All About the Fan

Marketing leaders of the NBA, NHL and MLB pioneer new ways of engaging their audience

Headshot of Luz Corona

“It’s all about the fan.”  

This was the sentiment echoed the most in today’s Sports in the New World Order panel during Day 1 of the Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit and Upfronts. Adweek chief community officer Nadine Dietz sat down with Kate Jhaveri, CMO at the NBA; Heidi Browning, CMO of the NHL; and Barbara McHugh, svp of marketing at MLB. They discussed exactly how these three leagues pivoted in times of need and what we can expect from the future of sports in the “new world” post-pandemic. 

Jhaveri reflected on the NBA hardships of 2020 leading up to the Covid crisis, with the passing of former longtime NBA commissioner David Stern, Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi, as well as social injustice: “Fans have a greater expectation of brands and are holding them accountable to address issues around the world. They’re looking to brands to move beyond rhetoric and into action.” 

The NBA leveraged its platform to engage fans as well as to raise money for social good. For instance, the association generated over 45 PSAs to really remind people how to stay mentally and physically fit this year. In bringing to life the organization’s principles of equity and diversity, the NBA Foundation was created to address economic inequalities. It needed to be long term to have impact, Jhaveri explained. (The foundation will work to spur economic growth in the Black community with an initial contribution of $300 million over the next decade).

Browning discussed the positives that came out of having to pivot content strategies. Her team of “content DJs” worked to adapt, go back into the archives and mix them with today’s highlights—honing the second screen experience and leveraging creator culture. Those two areas will remain a priority heading into 2021.

“For the NHL, it’s been an exercise in ‘taking the helmets off’ of players and changing the culture so that players know they can be all about team while also engaging fans and giving them a sneak peek into their lives.”

McHugh shared the key MLB pandemic strategies: prioritizing as many digital platforms as possible (meeting fans where they are), showcasing players and their personalities, and empowering players to engage with fans. Such examples included the launch of MLB Originals on YouTube (almost 30 pieces of content about MLB players), and more Mic’d Up content. 

“We had to think bigger and stronger,” she elaborated. “This year we kept the focus on those connections and … really meeting our fans where they were.”

The Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit was a mini reunion for this panel. In the early months of the pandemic, they worked together on The Real Heroes Project, where 14 leagues came together with 72andSunny to create, plan and launch a massive campaign across all leagues. For the first time in history, these leagues combined forces in the hopes of providing their fans with the inspiration typically drawn from sports by having athletes turn their jerseys over and create video tributes by replacing the name on their jersey with that of a doctor, nurse or EMT fighting the pandemic. The campaign generated 3.5 billion impressions, and the Adweek cover story went on to win Folio Eddies’ Best Single Article in the B2B Media & Entertainment category. 

These Most Powerful Women in Sports see hope, agility, reimagination and perseverance in store for the year to come.

Tune in to the rest of Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit this week for more insight into the sports marketing world and what’s up ahead in 2021. 


Luz Corona is the community content manager at Adweek, curating trends, tips and advice from top brand leaders to help marketers grow.
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