Pro Teams Score with Direct-to-SportsFan Marketing

Increasingly, professional sports teams are taking their important communication messages directly to fans.

Powered by the ubiquity of the Internet and fan tethering to social media platforms, direct-to-sportsfan (D2SF) marketing offers pro teams an unprecedented, and unfiltered, communication vehicle to their fans and season ticket-holders.

Brooklyn Nets Head Coach Lionel Hollins. Photo: Brooklyn Nets website.

Brooklyn Nets Head Coach Lionel Hollins. Photo: Brooklyn Nets website.

What is direct-to-sportsfan marketing?

D2SF is a hybrid marketing strategy designed to enhance the relationship, connection and relevance between teams and their fans, especially season ticket-holders, via the creation and direct sharing of special access, customized content.  It’s a combination package of marketing communications, content marketing, public relations, customer engagement and social media marketing.

Tactics include:

  • In-house Broadcasting.  Teams create their own reporting and broadcast content, typically with their own, paid journalists.
  • Coach-To-Fan Communication.  This takes the form of letters, short videos and recorded telephone messages.
  • Owner-To-Fan Communication.  Public letters, season ticket-holder messages and tweets are commonly used.

Communications expert Ivy Cohen, president and CEO of Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications, provides some perspective to help understand this developing marketing philosophy:

“The fan-team relationship is a symbiotic one.  Teams need fans to establish the value of their brands and keep the franchise flourishing.  Fans want to connect with their favorite teams for the psychic rewards of competition, winning, belonging, and a variety of benefits that come with entertainment, love of sport and following a season.”

Cohen adds:

“When player contracts were long-term, fans felt strong ties to individual players, the team brands were represented by a steady player roster and fans had strong team brand loyalty and player attachments.  Since that system eroded, fans need more and meaningful ways to feel an ongoing connection to a team.  Fans want to feel connected to their team and are seeking a persona to contribute that.  Owners and coaches can be strong representatives for their teams.”

Overall, as a targeted sports fan recipient myself, I like to see what the coaches or owners have to say unfiltered.  It’s a nice supplement to all the sports journalism.  And, as a marketing observer, it’s interesting to note what and how teams decide to communicate.

Let’s look at two examples from the past few weeks.

Jason Kidd Letter to Bucks Fans. Posted 7/7/2014 to Milwaukee Bucks website.

Jason Kidd Letter to Bucks Fans. Posted 7/7/2014 to Milwaukee Bucks website.

Jason Kidd is the new coach of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, having controversially orchestrated his departure from the Brooklyn Nets sideline. You can read his letter of introduction to Wisconsin fans:

Kidd writes:  “Over the past couple days, I’ve been asked: ‘Why Milwaukee?’  My answer is simple: there is no place I’d rather be.”

Really?  Given Kidd’s career management history (it would take a separate blog post to explain), even a dedicated Bucks fan isn’t going to believe that statement.

Like any other type of communication, a coach letter to fans needs to be well-executed, meaning it comes across as credible and believable.  If not, it can backfire and create problems.

In contrast, check out the fan letter from Lionel Hollins, whom the Brooklyn Nets hired to take the vacated reins of the team:

Hollins comes across as genuine.  He states that he is going to meet with key players and get their input (by the way, a great tip for new leaders of any organization).  He adds that “while we are individuals, our players will have to come together as one and make sacrifices for us to be successful.”  Another great team tip, especially in the sports world.

What’s particularly important is whether D2SF communications are guided by and connected to the team’s overall strategic brand marketing; and whether there is any indication of effectiveness.

When integrated into the team’s brand marketing and customer engagement strategy and plans, direct-to-sportsfan (D2SF) marketing can provide a unique connection point between fans and team.  Like all other marketing, though, it’s judged on its merits.  And there are risks and potentially painful consequences.

A famous example of what not to do is the letter published by the owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers following Lebron James decision to join the Miami Heat in 2010.  Owner Dan Gilbert would have been better served had he simply hit the delete button instead of releasing his emotionally ranting, scathing letter. Better yet, he should have taken the high road, expressing his disappointment, acknowledging the good times together, and wishing James the best.  (Note: Gilbert has apologized and had a mutual clearing of the air with James, who announced his return to Cleveland last Friday.)

The NFL’s New York Jets embrace direct-to-sportsfan marketing, and use it as a way to engage year-round.

Jets coach Rex Ryan breaks down the 2014 schedule for season ticket holders. Photo: video screen grab from New York Jets website.

Click photo to watch NY Jets coach Rex Ryan break down the 2014 schedule for season ticket-holders. Photo: video screen grab from New York Jets website.

Chief communicator is head coach Rex Ryan, who’s deployed in a variety of special fan communications.

For instance, when the 2014 schedule was announced, Ryan immediately filmed a video for season ticket-holders.

Not every coach could pull this off like Ryan, who provided a color-commentary assessment along with his usual enthusiasm.  The first game was still five months away, but I was pumped-up for kickoff!

Jets owner Woody Johnson also likes to speak directly to the fans.  He can struggle as a public speaker, and is a better communicator in print.

At the end of the 2013 season, he quickly and decisively informed season ticket-holders via an emailed letter that the team would retain Ryan as head coach.  He said in part:

I am writing to you, a valued Season Ticket Holder, today to address 2014 and beyond.

That is why, after today’s game, I informed the team of our carefully-considered decision: Rex Ryan will continue as Head Coach of the New York Jets.

Thank you for your intense loyalty and unyielding support for the Jets.

For maximum success, direct-to-sportsfan communications should be integrated into the team’s brand marketing strategy and annual plans.  Doing so provides a basis for evaluating, if not directly analyzing, the effectiveness. That’s because there should be some goals or objectives that the D2SF tactics are supposed to achieve or help support.  The marketing team can then asses and learn.

To help incorporate D2SF into the brand marketing plan, Ivy Cohen recommends a few starter ideas.  They’re applicable to the corporate world as well:

“I suggest that the team’s PR professionals design a year-round communication strategy for the team executive spokesperson that could include blog posts – articles or videos — or other periodic messages directed to the fan community, emails or even video(s) to season ticket-holders, scheduled appearances at community civic or charity events tied with the team’s philanthropic priorities, as well as an ongoing presence in social media.”


Pro sports teams are increasingly deploying head coaches and owners to directly communicate with fans and build/maintain engagement.  This direct-to-sportsfan marketing strategy (D2SF) offers a unique brand management tool to score points off the field.

Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who builds marketing capabilities in B2B/B2C organizations that drive customer success.

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