Marya Ketchell Marya Ketchell 

Public relations and marketing disciplines in virtually every industry are being disrupted today, and nowhere is this more evident than in sports. Athletes are disintermediating traditional sports marketing channels by creating their own personal brands, finding their voices and using their influence like never before. This means sports marketers, brands, leagues and teams are navigating a whole new world.

As a professional in the sports marketing arena with 17 years of experience — including six years as the in-house communications director for a top American professional cycling team — this is one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in our industry.

Athletes from high school (several high school basketball players have more than 30,000 followers on social!) all the way up to the professional level now communicate directly with fans through social media, effectively cutting out sports organizations, leagues, sponsors, brands and traditional media.

O'Dwyer's Dec. '17 Entertainment & Sports PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Dec. '17 Entertainment & Sports PR Magazine

Technology has changed the way we root for teams, consume news and express opinions. It gives everyone, especially athletes, the opportunity to interact with fans, brands and teams in new and different ways. Moreover, it allows fans to be increasingly connected to their favorite athletes. So, what does this mean for sports marketers?

It’s time to break out of the traditional mindset. For example, sports marketers may need to invest less money transforming athletes into influencers and more resources in engaging with athletes who are already influencers. Instead of trying to start a conversation to raise the profile of an athlete, team or sponsor brand, look to join the conversations that are already happening.

Here are three ways sports marketers can become more relevant amid all the disruption.

Strive for authenticity

Slapping a logo on a uniform or inside a stadium, or hosting a staged event with an athlete showing off a sponsor’s product, are no longer the best options. Ultimately, athletes want to be authentic to match fans’ rising expectations to know them as people, not just the stars they watch on game day. Sports marketers will be effective if they embrace this reality and help athletes promote themselves as real human beings (who are also incredibly talented).

Giving fans a closer look at athletes’ lives — their successes and their disappointments, their best moments and their biggest failures — prompts real and, ultimately, more valuable conversations. That means sports marketers need to push boundaries and create content that drives this type of storytelling.

It’s also time for sports marketers to get more creative. Take Pepsi MAX’s series of commercials that star NBA player Kyrie Irving in disguise as Uncle Drew, a senior citizen who suddenly becomes a playground basketball phenomenon. Fans 
connect with and remember the character. The spots displaying Irving’s immense 
talent and sense of humor have been viewed almost 100 million times on YouTube. Earlier this year, a production company bought the film rights to Uncle Drew and will release a movie starring several professional basketball players in summer 2018.

Be prepared to react to anything

We’re living in a new era of political and social volatility. Although sports marketers may be tempted to steer away from controversial topics like doping, staying silent may be the wrong choice.

Not all brands have a definite and articulated purpose. Those that don’t should identify one, because it becomes a common rallying cry when responding to any crisis. When a brand chooses to react to a situation, the response process should be quick and aligned with its purpose. It’s time for brands to rewrite the crisis playbook with a sophisticated protocol that takes into account everyone involved — athletes, fans, consumers, the league, other teams and other athletes potentially from different sports.

This protocol should enable a calculated but swift reaction. One example is Dannon’s decision to drop NFL player Cam Newton after he made sexist comments to a female sports reporter. In this case, the brand’s clear purpose and understanding of its audience made the decision easy to comprehend. Severing ties with Newton within a day of the comments made the right impression and maintained target consumers’ trust in the brand.

Create true partnerships

As more athletes build their own brands, sports marketers have an opportunity to act as their partners. Athletes speak out because they feel it’s the right thing to do with their elevated platform. When sports marketers can align the values of their brand with an influential athlete and a target audience, the synergies among all parties can drive success.

There isn’t a better example of athletes supporting a brand’s values and vice versa than the NFL controversy around the national anthem. Brands sponsoring the NFL and its athletes have been expected to take a stand on the protests occurring on fields across the country. Nike was applauded for addressing the issues head on, with a consistent voice and point of view, while Under Armour’s response fell flat with fans and consumers alike for seeming to waffle between one side and the other.

The stakes are high in today’s environment. Fans demand brands take a stand on important political and social issues. Athletes are bypassing sports marketers and going directly to fans. The way people consume sports is changing. Platforms and content strategies are ever-evolving. Everyone from athletes and teams to brands are going live with content to bring fans closer to the game and the stars. But one thing remains constant: the inspirational and aspirational nature of athletics and the athletes themselves.

Leaning into the reasons we all love sports and care about athletes — to feel inspired and connected — will bring positive results and create new experiences for partnerships. The upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics is a great opportunity for brands and athletes alike to take advantage of this collective psyche.

The sports business is not about just winning championships anymore; its new purpose is to be a bigger part of the community, to be more human, to make athletes and teams more accessible. Marketers must embrace this reality to succeed.

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Marya Ketchell is senior director at Peppercomm.