11 Sports PR and Marketing Lessons Not Taught in School

Arthur Solomon

As the London Olympic Games (July 27- Aug. 12) draw closer, many PR account executives will envy their colleagues who work on what is considered by many the “sexy assignments” such as the Olympic games.

Yes, a mega-sports marketing assignment may seem glamorous, but because of its high visibility, failure on the project can often derail what was a promising career at your agency.

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

The sports marketing assignments always draw the most second guessers. Just because someone watches sports, reads the sports coverage or can play a sport, young account executives think they can do a better job than their seniors, who can no longer run down a long fly ball. What they fail to realize is that because of the clutter of sponsorships during mega sporting events, it takes techniques not used in traditional accounts to achieve client media attention.

Before, during and after my tenure at B-M, my sports marketing role included managing or playing key roles on many sports marketing flag-ship projects: the General Electric sponsorship of the baseball demonstration sport at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, 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 a International Olympic Committee sports press seminar, 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, Liberty Mutual and others.

So, based on my years of experience, here are some sports marketing lessons that you probably never learned in communications school, or at the sports bar.

  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, skiing 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 U.S. audience (not in niche marketing), tie in with a sport that media in all areas of the U.S. covers throughout the year; baseball, football and basketball, in that order, are my choices.

  3. If your sports marketing program will not work without a budget-breaking 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. Your message loses credibility 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, wife abuse, etc. To be safe, use someone who has a long history of not getting into trouble—like retired athletes who have a clean slate. (And remember, nostalgia is a big part of sports coverage.)

  6. Relax if your first choice of spokesperson—and 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 choosing an athlete as spokesperson. 

  7. It’s 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.  

  8. Remember, arranging interviews for an athlete to talk sports is not that difficult. But all the publicity hits in the world doesn’t do your client any good without message points being included.

    And, perhaps the three most important lessons about achieving publicity for your client during the Olympics season are:

  9. Start your publicity outreach even before your client’s overall marketing campaign begins. That’s because many newspapers prepare a special promotion section around the Olympics. Getting them your story early offers a better chance of it being included.

  10. A common mistake by those new to Olympics publicity is to concentrate on pitching stories during the games. Not a good strategy. Because once the competitions commence, reporters are mainly concentrating on the events and athletes performances; marketing and feature stories are much more difficult to obtain.

  11. Remember, the closer it is to the Olympics, the more hard news emerges. So do your feature pitches to media contacts months before the games begin.

There are many other lessons that probably don't get covered by academic communications classes. But the above are free of tuition charges. 

Arthur Solomon was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles on some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com