Sports Marketing – Toning up our top sports campaigns

The most competitive six weeks of the Australian sports marketing calendar start in October each year.

Racing’s spring carnival gallops into action, cricket, basketball, baseball and the A-League launch their seasons, and the AFL and NRL clubs kick off their membership campaigns for the following year. And on top of that, the major sponsors of all of them vie to leverage the dollars they’ve spent.

After sports marketers had brought us cricket’s “Come on Aussie, Come on” campaign in 1978 and the AFL’s “I’d like to see that” in 1994, the past 20 years have seen few highlights. The famous creative campaigns of the past have been replaced by a formula — rapid cuts of sports action intertwined with the rah-rah cheering of supporters, a big music track, and a warlike tagline at the end. The formula was popular in the 1990s with the TV stations that had paid big bucks to have these sports on their channel, but 20 years later it is the default of lazy sports marketers. The new 2014/15 campaigns for Cricket Australia and the A-League only add to the mundane, well-worn, formulaic path of previous sports like the F1 Grand Prix and tennis’ Australian Open.

Compare that to some of the major sponsors of these sports that invest in creativity to get it right. Nike has produced some great campaigns around the recent soccer world cups. Toyota has successfully leveraged its decade-long AFL sponsorship with its famous “Grand Final Legendary Moments” campaign. And last summer KFC changed their store colours from England’s red and white to Australia’s green and gold. All compelling campaigns that connected strongly with consumers, and not a sports highlight or music track to be found.

While they might have struggled to invest in quality campaigns to promote their sports, it is clear that their marketers are investing more into their product. More into players, the coaches, the game as a spectacle, and the venues where the consumer experience takes place. And in the AFL and Cricket Australia’s case, much like Major League Baseball, more into their own content.
But it’s one thing to have a great product, and another thing to promote it. Marketers can’t invest heavily in their product and skimp on promoting it. And many of these organisations have fallen into the trap of hoping that the sport’s content and newsworthiness will promote itself at little cost; that the owned and earned media can carry the promotional burden. Unfortunately, marketing sport requires an investment across the entire media mix. It needs an investment in paid media and compelling communications to succeed.

One of the shortcuts to feign investment in promoting sports is the age-old contra deal. There is a litany of examples of sports organisations doing a deal with advertising, media or production businesses: “Do our campaign on the cheap for us, and we’ll give you a corporate box for the season.” Unfortunately, more often than not with cross purposes involved, you get what you pay for. It’s a mindset within sport that needs to change.

There are some great examples of those that are investing, both in Australia and overseas. NASCAR has a strong history of promoting its sport well and differently. Its last two campaigns have drivers front and centre aiming to attract the next generation of fans, focusing on their personalities and inner thoughts instead of the cars, fans or racetracks.

BBC ran a campaign two years back for the rugby Six Nations tournament. It tapped into the patriotic side of the game, with supporters from five of the nations putting up England as the team they’d like to see lose the tournament. It was quickly banned by the oversensitive types, but made a comeback virally two years later prior to the 2014 tournament.

Closer to home, the Australian Baseball League’s Melbourne Aces ran a campaign last season showcasing their players’ different skills in other ball sports. The TV spot showing one of their players pitching in a ten-pin bowling alley went viral around the globe, with ESPN’s USA Sport Central giving it their play of the week. It drove membership sales up by 20 per cent. And in launching their 2015 membership drive recently, bottom-of-the ladder AFL side St Kilda created a very different campaign promoting the re-signing of 19 of its best young players over the first 19 days of September. Targeted specifically at Saints fans, it was a campaign to reiterate the future of the club and why their supporters should become members in 2015.

All of these campaigns are a great reminder of the basics behind all successful communications — a single-minded idea executed well. A compelling campaign that stands up against the best communications in any category, not just within the category you play in. A calculated risk to do something different as opposed to the safe option of doing more of the same. And an investment in creativity to transform and promote the brand.

As top-level sport has become a business over the last 20 years, the investment in those sports’ product has certainly outweighed the investment in promoting it. Those sports organisations that find a better balance over the next decade will be the ones that succeed.