The Marketing of Sports

Something that has fascinated me the last few years is the marketing of sports. What is better – pro football, hockey, basketball, baseball or golf? Why do some athletes in baseball make way more than athletes in hockey?

According to this article on Forbes, the AVERAGE team’s value rose 16% to $605 million, based on an ever increasing demand to show live games. That is a huge number and you can only imagine what they are able to pay their players.

Contrast this number to the AVERAGE value of an NHL team which is around $250 million and you have a pretty clear answer why the salaries for players are higher in the MLB in the NHL. Obviously with double the number of games, there is potential for more revenue in all areas – advertising, fan tickets, concessions, etc.

But, just because a sport is more marketable and capable of making more money, does that make it more popular? The answer I would say is, yes.

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Let’s pick a few athletes who might be considered the most popular in each of the 4 main pro sports: LeBron James, Sidney Crosby, Peyton Manning and David Ortiz. If we look at their Facebook fans, a fairly good measure of their influence, we see the following numbers:

LeBron James: 15 million
Sidney Crosby: 500 thousand
Peyton Manning: 1.3 million
David Ortiz: 1.3 million

*Note: What I found interesting is that only Ortiz and James are doing something with their pages. Manning and Crosby’s pages are just a community page with information pulled from Wikipedia. It seems that many athletes are doing less online connecting with fans. If we think back to athletes before the internet, it would be much the same way so I’m sure many athletes aren’t seeing much return in building their brand online other than having their names, photos and stats available for fans to see.

This isn’t all that surprising if we look at the sports. Basketball is the most intimate of the sports. Fans are sitting a few feet away from the court and the players sometimes jump into the crowd. There are 5 players on the court at a time and the top players play the majority of the game. When a basketball player makes a big play, you can see their facial expression and the fan experience is much more immersed than in other sports. Hockey players are wearing a helmet and many have a face mask and the fans are separated by plexi-glass so it’s much harder to feel a part of the action. And also, basketball is much more influential on trends such as haircuts, tattoos and clothing styles than the other sports because of how little gear they wear compared to the other sports. There is more room for endorsement since basketball shoes sell a lot more than do hockey skates.

Having worked in marketing for over 10 years, I find this all to be very interesting because many fans buy into all of the hype and that’s the goal of any league, team or 3rd party company who is sponsoring an athlete. The more of a face they can put to their product, the more popular it will become.

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Why I am so fascinated by all of this? It’s because I’m working on developing the sport of frisbee to not only get more people playing but also to get more companies to take notice. In order to get sponsors to put money behind the sport, we need to figure out a way to make it more marketable – whether it’s ultimate frisbee, disc golf, dog disc, or overall competitions.

We’re a sport that can be very intimate like basketball, have lots of players and tournaments all over the world like golf, have some separation between field and fans like football and the potential for clothing and shoe sponsors is huge throughout all of the disc sports.

So what is holding us back? We’re seeing the evolution of 2 professional ultimate frisbee leagues in North America. However, it needs to be made more accessible to the everyday fan – who doesn’t play or is just a casual player, sitting at home looking to be entertained. As great as it would be to have everyone playing sports, it’s not going to happen. Many people like being entertained by athletes who are playing a sport at a skill level that they will never play at. We need to start capturing that market. Television stations have huge budgets so in order for our sport to start attracting the big players like Nike, Reebok, Gatorade and Adidas, we need to start getting more people watching the sport, while at the same time teaching people to play so that when we do have the various disc sports televised, we have the best athletes representing the sport.

Disc golf has been doing a great job as far as video coverage of tournaments goes and other than saying I think they’re on the right track, I’ll leave the rest to be said in this fantastic article by Discmania CEO Jussi Meresmaa titled On the Edge of Professional Disc Golf.

My good friends Lawrence Frederick and Todd Brodeur both make a living entertaining and teaching frisbee. Lawrence is a multi time World Champion and runs Disc-Connected K-9‘s, a frisbee dog entertainment company and has been traveling North American doing shows for over 20 years. Todd runs World Class Frisbee Shows where he entertains kids and teaches them how to play frisbee in schools all over the United States and is a World Champion Frisbee Freestyler. They have both figured out how to do what they love while at the same time making income from it. However, what they do requires years of practice so in order to make this more widespread, we need more people like Lawrence and Todd.

If you tell people what they want to see, eventually they will believe you. But the unique thing about frisbee compared to most sports is how accessible it is – so if people see our sport on tv, they can easily start playing it. There isn’t any sport easier than throwing a frisbee and catching it. So, although we are essentially telling them what they want to see through showing it on tv, they will become attracted to the sport through it’s basic fundamentals and the beauty of a disc in flight. I might be a bit biased but I have played pretty much every other sport but I fell in love with frisbee because I was allowed to explore it on my own.

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