When teams market upon one star, not all dreams come true

Sports Business Journal (August 30 - Sept 5 Issue)
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By Prentice Howe

Congratulations, Wizards. You’ve got your man. In John Wall, you have the total package: A versatile point guard with freakish athleticism, he has great lateral quickness, can create his own shot, and get to the free throw line. But wait, there’s more. Wall’s got a face the camera will love, and he’s well-spoken, which means Washington’s marketing department is just as thrilled with this pick as the coaching staff that’s drawing up the X’s and O’s. Time to start plastering him all over the Verizon Center and throughout D.C., right?

Not so fast.

As tempting as it might be for the Wizards to declare Wall their Marketing Commander In Chief, let’s hope they show some restraint. Using him as the centerpiece of a marketing campaign may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s probably the riskiest move they could make. And my words of caution aren’t Wizards-centric. This advice applies to all pro teams, including the Wizards’ crosstown neighbors, the Nationals and Redskins, as they draw up and fine tune their respective marketing game plans around rookie sensation Stephen Strasburg and Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb.

This cautionary tale can be summed up in eight words: Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Gilbert Arenas.

No, I’m not saying all pro athletes are villains. I am saying it’s time to re-evaluate how we market our teams.

From this point forward, I’m asking for a moratorium on the “sell the star” approach. Who’s with me? I’m sensing intrigue, but I see few hands. Let me make my case.
In sports, winning or losing is determined by the effort of the team, not any one individual. (Just ask Allen Iverson.) So why doesn’t this same “band of brothers” mentality apply when it comes to the team’s marketing efforts? It should.

The default for most teams is to plaster a larger-than-life photo of their best player or hottest prospect on as many print ads and bus shelters as possible. And who can argue? It’s your highest scorer! Your leader! Your greatest asset! Merely showing his or her face will drive fans in droves!

Perhaps to a degree, but at what cost?

Tens of thousands of dollars are spent on photo shoots, TV spots, billboards, program covers – you name it. This is all well and good until that star heads into a bar’s bathroom with an underage co-ed or gets caught with an arsenal of firepower in a locker room. Then what? From a marketing perspective, the brand is dinged for sure, and guess what player’s image hangs on a three-story banner aside the arena? Yep, the one who got busted with the Glock.

Murphy’s Law states that trouble and high-profile athletes are two things that find each other. Yet marketers of all kinds – from sports teams to big corporations – are routinely unable to resist the temptation of pushing product by pushing personality. The most powerful recent reminder in the corporate world came in the form of Accenture. After the Woods debacle, they used one hand to flush away their multimillion dollar investment while using the other to scratch their heads and wonder why they ever approved the headline, “Go on. Be a Tiger.”

Beside the fact that it’s a potentially expensive mistake that can be catastrophic to the brand, isn’t it also the easy way out? Does a face, alone, sell game tickets? I don’t believe so. Fans cheer for players so long as their guy is wearing the uniform, but it’s not the player that endures. It’s the logo, the lore, the stadium experience, the brand persona. Your star player isn’t your greatest asset; your brand is.

If we can sell dishwashing soap without showing the detergent and vodka without showing the spirit, why can’t we sell the game experience without defaulting to a huge image of a player dribbling down the court?

I bring these views to you from experience, because even the best-intended ad campaign can hit a snag. When our agency, Door Number 3, created the 2008-2009 Dallas Stars campaign, we paired individual player portraits with determined headlines like, “Part man. Part brick and mortar.” for goalie Marty Turco, and “Leads the league in testosterone” for winger Brenden Morrow. While these players certainly didn’t find the same type of troubles that those mentioned above did, we didn’t anticipate when creating the campaign that Turco would hit a career-low slump and Morrow would go down with a season-ending knee injury. Fortunately, the campaign narrative was broader than any one player so we tweaked the messaging and rolled on. But lesson learned: Don’t invest too many marketing dollars on any one guy.

Some teams have cracked the code. Check out the hilarious 2009 Boston Bruins Bear Rules playoff campaign or the emotive Chicago Cubs 2009 campaign anchored by outdoor boards and print ads portraying the classic ballpark experience. Oversized imagery of teammates were paired with inviting headlines framed within the iconic Wrigley marquee. Such headlines included, “Wrigley Field. Home of the brick and ivy time machine.” and “Wrigley Field. Home of working from home today.” I can almost smell the Cracker Jacks from here.

My plea for a moratorium on the “sell the star” approach wasn’t created in a vacuum. I’m only echoing the best sports marketing advice I ever read. It came out in the early 17th century, before baseball, basketball or football were even invented. English poet John Donne’s words: “No man is an island.”

Mr. Donne, let’s hope the Wizards, and other teams, heed your advice.

Prentice Howe (phowe@dn3austin.com) is senior vice president and executive creative director at agency Door Number 3 in Austin, Texas (www.dn3austin.com).