Interview: Sports Marketing Tips from Expert Eyal Gutentag

Sports fans cheer wildly for their favorite teams and individual athletes. For avid fans, their lives revolve around athletic events, and they proudly display their devotion in many different ways—from verbal support and special cheers to banners and flags. Merchandise licensed to display official symbols ranges from trash cans to pencils to mugs, and all manner of clothing displaying team logos is always popular, whether scarves and socks or jerseys and T-shirts. Fans want to show their support of a team to the world.

A great deal of effort goes into promoting athletic teams and athletes and fueling the desire for specific goods. Sports marketing is a subgenre of marketing concentrated on promoting athletic teams, sporting events, and individual athletes. This field also promotes leagues such as the NCAA, or National Collegiate Athletic Association. Global events such as the Olympic Games carry sports marketing to the highest level.

The first athletic endorsement in the United States was finalized in 1923 with golfer Gene Sarazen. In 1928, the Coca-Cola Company partnered with the Olympics to sponsor the Summer Games, and it is still a sponsor.

Successful sports marketing is a complex mixture of business and creativity, and it requires marketers to keep a finger on the pulse of fans. Long-time professionals such as Eyal Gutentag have much experience in this particular industry, and they have earned it from skill as well as hard work. Sports is a mercurial world. Athletes can be injured or retire or change teams, and collegiate athletes have a finite career in the NCAA. Teams also can be sold and move locations.

Sports marketing veterans such as Eyal Gutentag know they must keep a constant watch on the athletic world to stay competitive because marketing sports is as much a contest as the events themselves. In this focused industry, as with athletic technique, knowledge is as important as stamina. We had an opportunity to ask Eyal Gutentag a few questions which you can read below:

In the fast-paced and ever-changing world of sports, how do you keep track of market trends?

– Like most people I use a number of tools and publications to keep track of trends – some I particularly like are Google Trends which tells me what people in various geographies are searching for, Sports Media Watch – which tells me what people are watching on TV, and Sports Business Journal which dives into the business side of sports.

When it comes to developing campaigns, are there any processes or methods that you follow?

– I see Sports Marketing campaigns in ways similar to other marketing campaigns. Therefore I tend to follow a similar approach:

  • Figure out what customer segments you are targeting – their demographics, geography, etc.
  • Various factors must also be taken into account when choosing the right sports to tie in, to begin with – some sports are more popular with certain ages, locations or ethnic backgrounds – so mapping those affinities to your target customer segments is critical.
  • Build out creative and corresponding sports tie-ins in this case that appeal to select segments
  • Flight your media such that as much as possible you are targeting the right creative to the right segment.
  • In sports, this often means geographically targeting creative with corresponding audiences to highlight local teams or players. This is often done at the MSA or metro area level depending on the sport.

What factors do you take into consideration when determining your target audience?

– Usually, this is very company specific. Each company has a different set of customers or prospects that it is trying to reach. Some aim to speak to businesses or business owners (B2B); others are trying to reach individual consumers (B2C). Often there are subsets of those markets that are most important to a company – either by gender, geography or age.

How do you ensure everyone on your team is completing the tasks you gave them in time?

– I am a fan of creating cross-team accountability to keep projects and tasks on schedule. I have adopted at least 2 primary means for achieving this: 1. A weekly update report was written by team leaders that is shared and visible to the broader team, 2. Regular leadership meetings.

In your opinion what constitutes a successful sports marketing campaign?

– Successful sports marketing campaigns often require at a minimum achieving the following:

  1. An authentic use of sports IP or content that both avid and casual fans will respond favorably to; and 2. A transfer of brand equity from the sports property being marketed around to the company. This can be measured in various ways, and in the case of sports sponsorships is often measured either by surveying fans about their likelihood to purchase a specific product before and after a sports marketing campaign, or their general awareness of a sponsor brand before and after the campaign.

What would you say was your most successful campaign?

– One of my favorite campaigns was a national direct mail campaign which targeted fans of over a dozen different college teams.

– The goal was to get them to sign up for an online service.

– My marketing team built a fairly extensive database of every zip code in key states and the most liked college teams in each zip code based on Facebook data.

– Once we had that, we used it to target specific versions of postcards with the logos of the most popular local NCAA football team and sent them out to these targeted fan bases across the country.

– It was a great example of a scalable national campaign with local smart targeting to improve response rates.

What would you say are the most effective marketing channels for the sports marketing industry?

– Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat have really evolved the ability of sports marketing campaigns to reach target fan bases. These platforms can often identify and segment fans based on the teams they love and follow – which makes it easier for marketers to put the most relevant content in front of them.

– On the other hand, TV remains the largest reach platform for viewing and engaging with sporting events, so marketers desiring a large or national reach must also consider TV.

Whenever you have come across a complication during a campaign, what steps do you take to fix the problem?

– It really depends, some complications can be fixed immediately and others provide learnings that can be implemented in future campaigns.

– For example, I once led a college sports campaign that circulated direct mail marketing pieces across virtually the entire state of Oklahoma featuring Oklahoma Sooners messaging. Once the campaign was in market we realized that we had also sent those mailers to the school’s rival within the state – Oklahoma State. Clearly not a wise move, we later researched the zip codes with the highest #s of fans of their rival and promptly removed those from subsequent mailings.

How do you feel the NFL national anthem issue has impacted their marketing strategy, if at all?

– I believe the issue has forced the league to think differently about its positioning. I believe the NFL contending with the national anthem issue is actually their version of what many companies and brands face more often in today’s polarized political climate.

– Historically, it was far easier for brands to remain above the political and ideological fray that divides segments of the population. Recently that has begun to change, and consumers are increasingly demanding that companies take positions on polarizing issues, something that inevitably risks alienating portions of the customer bases they serve. For example, advertisers are being held to account for supporting ultra-conservative (Tucker, Hannity on Fox News) or ultra-liberal programming (Maddow, Chris Hayes on MSNBC) on cable news channels. Some are being challenged for tolerating polarizing statements or even affiliations of their board members or CEOs (eg SoulCycle, Equinox & Stephen Ross).

– The NFL over decades has established itself as a brand that bridged virtually all slices of the American population – liberal & conservative, rich & poor, urban & rural, etc. As a result, NFL games command audiences of millions or tens of millions on TV and local teams have served as unifying forces for communities across the US in good times and bad.

– The national anthem debate became even more challenging for the NFL when leading political leaders, including the president and vice president, targeted the league for its policies. This became a lightning rod that drew far more attention and scrutiny. It was one of the few times I can remember that a major sports league was faced with taking a position on such a divisive issue –not just to its fans but also to its players.

Do you feel that the new ruling here in California on college athletes being able to profit from their image, will have a broad impact on sports marketing moving forward? What type of impact, if any do you see this as having on NCAA marketing efforts moving forward? Do you see this as being a positive for sports marketing in general?

– The NCAA is a multi-billion-dollar sports business wrapped around a labor force of students designated as amateurs. Their status may be amateur, but for many the economic impact has become far from that. Especially the rewards reaped by universities, media companies and coaches.

– I believe it will take time until the marketplace sorts out how to value and leverage individual college athlete endorsements. One of the challenges is that it is by definition hard to build campaigns over years, as players have limited years of eligibility and star players typically play fewer years than average in college basketball & football at least.

– As a result, any campaigns centered around college athletes will probably be shorter-term in nature and necessitate rapid execution to be successful in market.

– Initially, I do not expect this will have a material impact on sports marketing, and maybe even on college sports marketing. Over time, innovative brands will undoubtedly discover ways to leverage this new category of endorsers to meet their marketing goals.

– One asset that will likely come out of this new law, if it is widely adopted, is that telling the sponsorship story for NCAA and university partners will add another element of authenticity with the ability to include current athletes in those campaigns. Fans, and especially avid fans, will appreciate this in my opinion.

The explosion of social media platforms has changed all facets of the world of marketing, and it has certainly affected how sports marketers reach fans. Marketing professionals such as EyalGutentag can easily target specific ages and groups of fans based upon who they follow on social networks, which makes marketing easier in many ways.

However, technology can create new challenges to overcome in the quest to design the most effective campaigns possible. According to marketing professional EyalGutentag, while social networks more easily distinguish audience segments, specific creatives must be chosen to develop messages that appeal to extremely precise populations. Since marketers are not mind readers, they cannot always gauge the reaction of fans.

Another issue sports marketers face involves reaching the largest number of fans possible to deliver the best return on investment, or ROI, for their messages. While specific campaigns can be focused upon smaller fan groups, marketers still want to reach the huge audience of sports fans that television delivers. Therefore, successful sports marketing campaigns must have multiple facets—one wider for large audiences, and the other more specialized and focused on smaller but potentially extremely loyal fan groups, sub-dividing into ages and even residential zones within a targeted area.

As with any marketing campaign, those marketers who flourish ultimately have a flair for presenting the right message to the right people. Once the demographic have been studied and the logistics planned, the bottom line for a thriving campaign is how well the messages resonate with the audience.

Winning marketers devise profitable strategies based upon what they learned from previous campaigns—what they did right but also mistakes they made. They bring their discoveries forward into each successive campaign. Even though technology is ever evolving, which means sports marketing is constantly changing as well, basic principles do not vary. Sound knowledge based upon experience keeps sports marketers winning again and again.

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