How Olympic Sports Build a Following in the Off Season

Three Questions with Sports Marketer and CMO Strategy Summit Speaker Matt Farrell

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Matt Farrell, chief marketing officer of USA Swimming, doesn't beat around the bush when asked if he'd like Michael Phelps to launch a comeback in time for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

"As a marketer, when you have the chance for the greatest athlete in the history of the sport to be 'in' or 'out' of the pool, I'm going to choose 'in' every time," Mr. Farrell said with a laugh.

Matt Farrell
Matt Farrell

Mr. Phelps, who won 18 gold medals and 22 total medals during his Olympic career, has downplayed rumors of a comeback. But that hasn't stopped fans from hoping.

More than anybody, Mr. Farrell knows what a superstar like Mr. Phelps can do for advertising and sponsorship revenue, not to mention TV ratings. Except for a pit stop at Warner Bros., he's spent most of his 20-year career handling communications and marketing for Olympic sports organizations.

Starting as an intern at USA Swimming in 2003, Mr. Farrell shuttled between USA Swimming, the U.S. Olympic Committee and Warner Bros. before rejoining USA Swimming in 2005. He was promoted to his current CMO role in 2009. Now, he's spearheading an initiative called "Swim Today" that aims to grow long-term participation in the sport.

Swimming has the same problem as many Olympic sports. Consumer, viewer and sponsor interest spikes during TV coverage of the Summer Olympic Games -- then declines when stars like Mr. Phelps are not on primetime TV every night.

Mr. Farrell wants USA Swimming to pursue a "laser-focused" marketing campaign to convince parents of children aged six to 12 years old to get their kids into the pool. There will be particular emphasis, he noted, on multicultural moms. Only 1% of USA Swimming's membership is African American vs. 12% of the U.S. population. And only 2.8% is Hispanic vs. 16% of Americans.

Ad Age talked to Mr. Farrell, who will be speaking at the CMO Strategy Summit on October 16 in San Francisco, about the ad campaign and the state of swimming -- with or without Mr. Phelps.

Ad Age: What kind of budget are we talking about for this campaign?

Mr. Farrell: By the time we get to Rio 2016, the goal is to get it north of a million. With that, we realized very, very quickly we're going to have to be laser-targeted and very smart with our dollars. The direction we're going is very, very targeted on moms…and taking that down further to multicultural moms.

Ad Age: Why moms and not dads?

Mr. Farrell: From our research, we feel mom is making the decisions in the household, probably 80% to 90% of the time, on the kids' sports activities. No disrespect to us dads, but we really think mom is driving the bus on this decision. …Would it be different if it was baseball or football? Yes, I think so. In our case it's a very highly mom-driven decision.

Ad Age: How has swimming waxed and waned in popularity over your career? And how has the decline of newspapers impacted media coverage?

Mr. Farrell: In the 1990's we were doing everything we could just to answer the phone fast enough from a sports information and media relations standpoint. Olympic sports and newspapers were hot. If that was the 1990's, the 2000s transitioned into, 'You have to pick up the phone and dial now.' You discovered the dial pad on your phone. That's what happened with Olympic sports. As you know with changes in budgets in the newspaper industry, now we're in that digital transition where, in many cases, we are the media as sports properties when it comes to Twitter and social media. So I've seen three defined eras in the sport. At least in Olympic sports.

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