Sports star in marketing game

By Published on .

Marketing to men may befuddle many. Not so for the major professional sports leagues, where marketing can be as simple as an overnight line score.

While the recruitment of new fans is a major emphasis, men 34 and older continue as a constant core.

"In terms of broadening the fan base and attracting more audience, of course we want to do that," says Ed Horne, president of the National Hockey League's NHL Enterprises. "[But] it really is men who gravitate to our sport. They're upscale, they're affluent and they're tech-savvy. As you look at our ratings in the past year, we're doing very well with [men]."

Even for the National Football League, which in the last several years has introduced such marketing formats as teaching clinics for women who are new to the game or devoting entire games to the Hispanic community, men continue to be its bread and butter.

`sweet spot'

"We still obviously do a lot for men, ranging from participation to merchandise to promotion to NFL Films and everything in between," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy says. "That's still a sweet spot for us when it comes to marketing."

Male fans have been the backbone of the top professional sports leagues since their inceptions. Baseball was a turn-of-the-20th-century game that endured as the national pastime for almost 100 years until a series of crippling labor strikes culminated in Major League Baseball's 1994 season prematurely ending in August and the World Series being canceled.

The NFL grew up in the hardscrabble 1930s; today, attendance and TV ratings back its claim as the most popular of America's pro sports leagues. The NHL began shortly after World War I. The National Basketball Association first tipped off in 1946. Two years later, Nascar held its first official race.

a male bastion

"I don't want to sound sexist, but you take those top five pro sports and look at the generation in which they started and the culture and mores of the time, and it really was a male bastion," says an executive from one of the leagues. "Look back in the vaults and you'll see a lot of marketing to men, and a lot of activation by the sponsors of that time, especially cigarette companies, that catered to men.

"Women were an afterthought. I mean look at some old archives and photographs. You rarely saw women attending games in the '30s, '40s and '50s."

So for some, the legacy was handed down and the main audience-men-was already built in. To that end, while many won't come right out and say it, some of the leagues today allocate fewer dollars to woo men than they do in marketing to women, Hispanics or the 12-to-18-year-old demographic, commonly referred to as the "next generation" of fans.

The leagues have done exhaustive research on who's attending games and events, and their marketing efforts reflect that.

"Since our fan base makeup is 60% men and 40% women, our marketing efforts are gender neutral," says Nascar spokesman Andrew Giangola.

Yet to some extent, the sports leagues as marketers are the exact opposite of package-goods companies. Package-goods marketers advertise to women as the main decision-makers in the home. In the family domain, it's still usually the women who shop for groceries and household goods, make schedules, and decide on dinners, despite their own commitments to work outside the home.

a big-ticket item

But sports leagues are still marketing to men as the head of household in terms of the earning potential for big-ticket items like attending sporting events.

And attending a sporting event is most certainly a big-ticket item.

According to Team Marketing Report, the average cost for a family of four to attend an NFL game in 2003 was $290. That included the four tickets, parking and a reasonable expenditure for food and beverages. It was $254 for a family of four to attend an NBA game, $240 for a hockey game and $145 for a baseball game.

With those numbers in mind, it's important that a marketing program still be in place for men.

"Part of the problem is that people are still having a lot of trouble finding men," says the NHL's Mr. Horne. "They're active, and there are so many different opportunities and fragmentation in the marketplace. But in this age of TiVo and the ability to freeze time, sports is something people like to watch live and sports is where men are spending their time. We believe strongly our partners benefit from that."

Indeed, in each of the sports across the board, corporate sponsors have leveraged those deals with efforts that skew toward men. Nextel Communications, for instance, ran a program with the NHL that allowed fans to vote for the greatest players of all time in hockey's all-star games. Anheuser-Busch's "Hockey Falls" campaign for Bud Light centered on a fictitious town of the same name. Coca-Cola Co. has run radio promotions featuring two women talking tongue-in-cheek about Nascar driver Tony Stewart.

In the marketing game, "from a composition standpoint sports leagues deliver the male demographic better than any," Mr. Horne says.

Most Popular