How Sports Leagues Put Fans in Control

NFL, Nascar, UFC, Others Use Twitter, Panels to Let Enthusiasts Shape the Action

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Who powers the marketing message for sports brands? The brands themselves? The corporate partners they do business with? Sports leagues? The ad agencies who deliver their campaigns?

None of the above. "We're no longer in control of the message," said Peter Moore, chief operating officer for video game giant Electronic Arts. "The consumer is in control of the message."

Mr. Moore spoke Tuesday at the first annual Sports Media Marketing Summit and Awards, held at the Millenium Hotel in New York City. The day-long event was sponsored by PromaxBDA, an association for entertainment marketing professionals, and Sports Illustrated.

And while they're not quite to the point of ceding control of multi-million-dollar ad budgets to the fans, chief marketing officers for the major sports leagues tend to agree with Mr. Moore.

"The brands that are most comfortable are the brands that allow fans to talk," said Brian Jennings, exec VP-marketing for the National Hockey League. "The biggest thing we can do is keep our ear to the ground to our fans, because 99 times out of 100, they'll drive you to a good place."

Said National Football League Chief Marketing Officer Mark Waller: "Consumers have always been in control of our message. They do it by buying our brands."

Mr. Moore talked about EA's cross-platform campaign with ESPN that promoted a contest in which fans got to choose who should be on the cover of EA's ultra-popular "Madden Football" game, now in its 23rd year. A bracket-style competition among 32 players produced the winner, Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis, after a five-week contest that drew 13 million votes.

"Engagement is what you should be thinking about now," Mr. Moore said. "At EA, we track how many people are playing our games but, more importantly, how many people are talking about our games. We can then change and adjust -- and, quite frankly, exploit -- what's going on and make major changes to (online) games overnight."

Steve Phelps, CMO for Nascar, said the racing league has actually used its "fan panels" to make changes to the competition. Double-file restarts -- where the drivers start two-by -two after race stoppages instead of in a single file -- were the result of "the fans having a voice about the product," Mr. Phelps said.

This fan engagement is critical going forward, especially the use of social media. Mr. Moore said EA only uses TV as an appetizer, or, as he noted, "We still do TV, but I call that attracting the sharks. It's chum in the water for everything else we do."

J. Russell Findlay, CMO for Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, and Bryan Johnston, CMO for UFC mixed martial arts fighting, both said they take advantage of Twitter. "When we introduce players at certain stadiums, clubs have put up the name, head shot, but also their Twitter name," Mr. Findlay said. He joked that it wasn't going as far as a club in the Mexican soccer league in which players' Twitter names were on their jerseys, "but it's certainly involving the fans and a way to engage players."

Added Mr. Johnston: "We have a summit every year with our fighters, and we spend 80% of the time on social media. They're in power to control their brand. Every time a fighter steps in the octagon, their Twitter tag goes up."

That's not to say traditional media is dead. On the very same morning as the Sports Media Marketing Summit was being held, the NFL announced the launch of its own brand-name monthly magazine starting in December. NFL Magazine debuts with its collectors' edition on Dec. 13. The monthly will be available by subscription and on newsstands as the league becomes the first of the four major professional sports leagues to deliver its own magazine. The title is being published by Dauphin Media Group.

Jim Buckley, a veteran NFL Publishing editor and author, will serve as the magazine's editor. Mr. Buckley reiterated that there's still a place for a monthly print product -- "We know that 140 characters is not enough to tell the stories that NFL fans need to read about their heroes," he said -- and Mr. Waller agreed.

"There clearly is a market for quality sports publications," he said. "We have to make sure it's differentiated and tells the story to the target market we're after. We feel magazine readership is a core component of our market."

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