Things Probably Not Learned in Sports Marketing Publicity Classes (and Definitely Not at the Sports Bar)

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After more than 30 years in the news business, both as a journalist and PR practitioner (including a couple of decades at Burson-Marsteller), my resume includes work related to plastics, politics, labor relations, beauty contests, food, health, men’s and women’s grooming products, the U.S. Army, and numerous international and national accounts in the area that jock communications school grads often mistakenly feel is the easiest: sports marketing.

During my tenure at B-M, my responsibilities included managing or playing key roles in many sports marketing flagship projects: working on the General Electric sponsorship of the baseball demonstration sport at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, working on the Gillette fan balloting for baseball's All-Star Game, traveling the world as a strategist with Korean and Australian Olympic and government officials (plus being the key person working with the media for these projects), managing the U.S. Olympic Committee account, speaking at an International Olympic Committee sports press seminar, and, after B-M, being sent to Barcelona by Coca-Cola on a special creative media assignment for the 1992 Summer Olympics and working on sports-related projects for Andersen Consulting, Kodak, Liberty Mutual, and others.

All of this experience — together with my prior B-M scorecard, which included creating the publicity thrust of a long-running TV sports marketing series and spending several years on the other side of the aisle as an editor and reporter at sports and non-sports desks — has given me a pretty good idea of what works for both the client and the media.

Thus, I was always amused that recent college hires immediately "knew it all" when it came to sports marketing accounts just because they had participated in sports or were avid fans.

So here are some of "Professor Solomon's"* sports marketing rules of the game that you probably didn't learn in PR school or at the sports bars:
  1. If you're after frequent TV and print publicity, don't be a ground seeder. It's been years since marketers were first told to get in on the ground floor "before soccer takes off." Stick with sports that get continual coverage. If a "new sport" ever takes off, you can always "buy in." (Hockey was supposed to be the blockbuster sport after the "miracle on ice" U.S. win at the 1980 Olympics; track and field and figure skating get impressive Olympic-related news coverage, but that's only for a few weeks every four years.)

  2. If your sports marketing publicity effort is aimed at a national audience (not in niche marketing), tie in with a sport that media in all areas of the U.S. cover throughout the year; baseball, football, and basketball, in that order, are my choices.

  3. If your sports marketing program will not work without a high-priced star spokesperson, go back to the drawing board. A good program should have interesting feature/news value regardless of who you use to tell it.

  4. If you want to use an athlete for publicity purposes, don't select one who is so newsworthy that the individual becomes the story at the expense of your message points. Also, beware of athletes identified with other products (even those not in competition with your client's). Your message loses creditability with the media when your spokesperson has more endorsements than companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

  5. Using current athletes for publicity purposes, while sexy, can be troublesome, given the frequent news stories about substance abuse, automobile accidents, spouse abuse, etc. To be safe, use someone who has a long history of not getting into trouble — like a retired athlete who has a clean slate. (Yes, there are many.)

  6. Think at least a zillion times before automatically deciding on an athlete for your sports marketing publicity purposes. Often an athlete limits the publicity potential to only sports journalists. Depending on your message, a sports physiologist, trainer, historian, or physician expands publicity opportunities to more than just the back pages or sports radio and TV programs. (And by using a non-athlete, you often can negotiate directly and save big bucks, which can be used for additional publicity purposes, thus adding to agency account profitability.)

  7. Beware of the agent who tells you, "I assure you that Joe Athlete fits all types of publicity programs." Use the "horses for courses" approach. If you're not familiar with the phrase, stop by your friendly neighborhood OTB store and ask a customer, but please don't bet yourself. As a recent college grad, your salary probably doesn't leave much for disposable income.

  8. Relax if your first choice of spokesperson (or even your third, fourth, or fifth) is not available or affordable. As your mother might have told you when an early romance went sour, there are plenty of fish in the sea. This is true, at least when it comes to choosing an athlete as a spokesperson.

  9. Speak to your sports media contacts to gauge an athlete's reputation. A well-liked athlete is an easier "sell." There's a famous story about Bob Museal, a very good player for the New York Yankees during the Babe Ruth era. (No, I wasn't there.) In the twilight of his career, so the story goes, he had a personality change and became nice to writers covering the team. Frank Graham, who is credited with helping change sports coverage, wrote the still-famous line about Museal "He learned how to say hello when it was time to say goodbye." Also, if you have established close and trustworthy relations with your contacts, they can tell you rumored negatives about a prospective spokesperson that have not yet received news coverage but might pop up during your campaign.

  10. Don't come on like Eliot Ness when speaking to the media or pitch as if you're selling the cure for cancer. Remember that the newsman you're pitching has probably heard it all before, many, many times. Before you make your pitch, make sure you have several alternative angles so you're in a position to immediately say "What about...?" and not "But..." if an editor/producer doesn't like your initial story line.

  11. It's very definitely not a good idea to have your office sports junkie accompany an athlete on media interviews. Use someone who remembers that the client pays your agency — not an athlete or sports organization. You want a media savvy staffer who will critique each interview and not be afraid to make suggestions prior to the next one instead of engaging in sports talk.

  12. Remember the business we are in. Even though we should think as if we were members of the press, we are not print editors or electronic media producers. Our job is disseminating the client's message, not just providing interviews for journalists. Be up front when you get a receptive ear. Discuss how the interviewer wants to handle your message. Some will insist that your athlete has to work in the "plug." Others might say, "I'll see your client gets credit." That's great, but just a client mention is often not good enough. It's up to your spokesperson to work in the message points when the opportunity occurs. When doing a print interview, you can speak to the reporter about key message points at the conclusion of the session if your athlete doesn't work them in, although this is not possible in live TV and radio interviews. (Important: some print outlets will edit out what they consider "commercials," even if a reporter includes them in the story. Know the policy of the paper or wire service before booking. Often there are ways of getting around this, but that's how I make a living.)

  13. Unless you have personal knowledge of how a program uses taped radio and TV interviews, try to avoid them. It's not possible to eliminate the client message in the production room if the interview is "live."

  14. Remember that arranging interviews for an athlete to talk sports is not that difficult. But all the publicity hits in the world won't do your client any good if message points aren't included.
*"Professor Solomon" also taught at the U.S. Army Information School, where he never flunked anyone who outranked him.

About the Author

PR consultant Arthur Solomon is a former Burson-Marsteller senior vice president who handled Olympic PR programs from 1980 to 1992 and Gillette's All-Star fan baseball elections for eight years. He can be reached at 914-472-6598 or
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