Playing The Field
The mention of sports marketing may call to mind images of giant foam fingers waving in a crowded NFL stadium, or thousands of Yankee jerseys dotted through jammed subways before a playoff game, but there is more to athletic promotions than these professional teams can offer. From minor leagues and recreation organizations to high schools and colleges, there are numerous avenues for sports promotions as viable as their professional counterparts, if not more so.
The wide range of smaller athletic teams, combined with their accessibility and deep need for strong marketing programs, gives them excellent potential for sales opportunities. Approaching them doesn’t require any special insights or connections either, just an understanding of the particular league’s nuances and how best to serve their specific needs.
From sport to sport and league to league, there is going to be great variety amongst patrons of athletic events. Even with groups that presumably would be very similar, like minor league and professional baseball teams, making such assumptions can be a mistake. Richard Langer, president of Diversified Novelties, Linden, N.J., pointed out some major differences between minor and pro teams, using the example of an arena football venue he was familiar with. “Saturday afternoon they had a 15,000 foot arena for arena football, and it was all teenagers,” he said. “You can’t think of that type of football game the way you think of a Lakers’ playoff game with Jack Nicholson in the audience.”
This difference in audience isn’t a negative one, however, as Langer also highlighted the opportunities at minor-league games. “There’s always something going on besides the game,” he said. “If you go to any minor-league ballpark, there’s face-painting, almost an amusement park set up on the side in some ballparks. It’s much more of a family outing than specifically a baseball game at a lot of minor-league parks, so you can tie into that.”
The old college try
Like minor leagues, colleges are another large point of interest for sports promotions. They have their unique demographics and needs just as minor-league teams do, but with an additional caveat. Most colleges not only require athletic promotions to advocate for a particular sport, but also use them as a means to promote the institution as a whole. As a result, there are going to be multiple departments within the school with parts of their budgets set aside for marketing.
“Alumni departments tend to have money to spend,” said Langer. “They’re looking for ways to reach out to their alumni, and sports is a big part of that because alumni come back for games … and that ties them to the school long after they graduate.” Langer explained that alumni outreach is important for a university or college because its ranking is partially dependent on what percentage of graduates continue to donate to the university, making alumni relations an important point for the recruitment of new students. He mentioned other areas where schools may have open budgets, like prospective student recruitment or gift shops, and cautioned that said budgets are going to vary from school to school. “At the university level, it’s getting to know everybody,” said Langer. “There’s a process, and the advice I can give is know who’s the decision maker, know who has budget to spend.”
Little big leagues
Sports leagues that are perhaps largest in number are those of high-school and youth-recreation teams. They can also be a complex market, existing as a mix of elements from the professional, college and minor-league worlds, as well as having needs all their own. For example, in some ways, youth teams mirror the professional world, like with the popularity of football. “I think that football, at any high school, anywhere in the country, is always kind of a rallying point for school spirit,” said Kippie Helzel, vice president of sales at CPS/Keystone, Erie, Pa., adding, “I think there’s a lot of booster effort around football, it probably has the highest visibility of any given sports team, in any given market.”
Helzel also pointed out an area where youth sports diverge from their counterparts. Some sports, which may not bask in the limelight in professional leagues, can still be very popular at the youth level. “There are a lot of soccer clubs, and I think that’s a really strong segment of the youth-sports market in particular.”
Besides varying sport popularity, another important and unique facet of youth sports is the reliance on fundraising. Without corporate sponsorship or advertising revenue, high-school and recreation leagues can be heavily dependent on salable promotions as a source of revenue. Helzel suggested using items that are quick and affordable, like megaphones with accompanying stands. “You can have those megaphones out on a table by the popcorn machine, already filled up, [as a] cash-and-carry fundraiser,” she said. “Just have it right there on the table, ready to go, people give you the $2.50, take the megaphone and go.”
Langer gave some final advice on the fundraising process. “You have to educate the buyers as to the possibilities, potentials, new products and innovative ways to tie it in,” he said. “You have to be taking ownership of that fundraising process to make yourself important to the school.”