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Sports Activation in a Multicultural Marketplace: Ways to Do it Right

Global engagement is more critical than ever for teams, brands, and leagues. Here are eight ways for entities to cultivate a wider, more diverse audience.


What: Global engagement is more critical than ever for teams, brands, and leagues.
Why it matters: Here are eight ways for entities to cultivate a wider, more diverse audience.

Sports business has never been more global, and fans and brands more engaged, than they are today. Whether it is Liga MX (@LIGABancomerMXexpanding its footprint more into the United States, MLB (@MLBto Japan or the NBA (@NBAto India, the largest properties in the world are spreading their reach and touching fans in ways like never before. Fandom is still celebrated locally, but the reach and level of fandom are beyond borders.

With that reach can there can be some slippery slopes. A misplayed National Anthem here, a misunderstood custom there, and clubs looking to cultivate a wider audience, especially in their home venues, can easily undo the goodwill, and the brand activations, that they were trying to grow.

With that eye to global engagement, we looked at eight ways to best engage, be it team, brand or league.

Elisa Padilla

Be Authentic. It is becoming more and more cliché, but an authentic engagement into a multicultural space is key. There were times years ago when the NBA would slap “Los” on a jersey and play mariachi music and call it Latino night. Check the box and move on. Those days are gone. “Social media today has given fans the ability to respond pretty quickly to what we are doing, and if something seems contrived, we hear it right away,” said Elisa Padilla, SVP of Marketing and Community Relations for the Miami Marlins (@Marlins) in a conversation last year.  “Everything we do, especially when trying to engage a multicultural Latino audience that may be Cuban, Venezuelan and Puerto Rican, each with their own nuances, has to be sincere. If it’s not the brand can lose great credibility and it is hard to get it back.”

Know The Audience. Also along those lines, knowing who is following, who is engaging and what they are responding to and asking about is also critical to success. Creating promotions and marketing to a community that is not as engaged in your team or your sport, or doesn’t fit culturally, can lead to issues. “The beauty of data collection today is that we know more and more not just who is buying a ticket, but who is coming into the building every night,” said veteran sports marketer Chris Lencheski, currently a professor at Columbia University. “That data now gives us great insight not just into the buying habits but into the physical makeup of who is at an event, and that can help us create programs for audiences that we may not have known a lot about. It also gives us the opportunity to survey that audience and ask them what they would like.” Those types of fan engagement platforms have led to landmark changes in areas like concessions, where teams are now selling more and more ethnic and local foods, or in how a game is presented in terms of language for public address. Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls), for example, make all announcements in both English and Spanish, something which does not happen regularly at an NFL or NBA game. Understanding who is in the seats, by asking and collecting data, gives you a great chance to serve the audience enjoying the event.

Kristaps Porzingis (Wikimedia Commons/Ed)

Build Over Time. Often times teams, or even leagues, will see a trend and rush to adapt and capture a moment, which in the end may come across as both unauthentic and contrived. Recently the New York Knicks (@nyknickscreated “Latvian Heritage Night” to try and make their young star Kristaps Porzingis (@kporzee) more at home. When Porzingis was traded, Latvian Heritage Night was canceled. While the effort to try and tie to the culture of a rising star is understandable, the ability to build and connect with an audience and culture who may be the first time in an arena is now lost. Instead of finding ways to expand a relationship, the effort seemed more contrived and some brand damage is done. Also, especially with Latino marketing in sports, trying small programs that identify with select groups: Cubans in Miami, Puerto Ricans in New York, Mexicans in Houston, and then expanding out from there, and building on success, sometimes works better than just branding “Latinos” and trying to pull from a mass that may be disconnected. “As a Latina with a Puerto Rican background, I may be able to identify with a Venezuelan or even a Dominican cultural event, but it’s doubtful I will be able to connect to more nuanced happenings from say Panama or Brazil,” added Karin Buchholz, former head of community relations for the New York Knicks. “I have Latina pride and loved seeing that pride played out in sports, but if it seemed rushed or contrived just to check the box, it didn’t work. Better to be sure and steady than to rush and try to be everything to everyone.”

Take It To The Community. In the past, many efforts in multicultural marketing were just tied to an event. Find a sponsor, do a giveaway, check the box and cash the check. These days, initiatives have to transcend the arena or stadium to be effective. ‘We only have a certain amount of people coming into a building, and multicultural marketing needs to be very experiential, especially since many of the people we want to reach may only be able to come to a game once or twice a year,” Padilla added. “Programs need to have arms and legs and go into the market, not just take place at a game. We need to show that we are supporting community initiatives and delivering value in the neighborhood as well. That’s the best way to build trust and affinity.” In addition to food and clothing drives and school initiatives, one of those efforts is an annual program run by DC United (@dcunited) of MLS. Partido de las Estrellas is an all-star match involving old and current Hispanic players as well as local celebrities. The venue is located in Columbia Heights, a part of the city with a notably large Hispanic and Latino population, and aside from the match itself, there’s music, food and other forms of entertainment celebrating the community’s value to the city. It takes the experience beyond a pitch and delivers it in the backyard of the fan.

Get buy-in from those on the field. Sometimes the best programs are those where coaches and players, not just marketers, have input. Listening to the stories of the players; their traditions, the places they spend their time, is also essential. “Often times we would look at a team makeup and ask if they looked like us, like those in the community,” added Buchholz. “Especially in leagues like MLB, MLS and the NBA, the players are coming from such diverse cultural backgrounds that their stories can relate to an audience we may not have thought of. Taking the time to listen to the players and the coaches and then building programs around their interests makes the connection so much stronger, and that becomes an even great win than just trying to randomly force an initiative.”

Join us at PORTADA LOS ANGELES on March 15, 2019 at the Loews Beach Hotel Santa Monica, where we will dive deep into sports and soccer marketing’s preeminent topics. Attendees will also be able to benefit from Portada’s meet-up service of three-eight-minute meetings with top brand executives!


Identify New Partners: The unending quest to find new revenue sometimes can lead teams back to the same safe places again; categories are limited, and especially at the five elite leagues in North America, the prices paid for exclusivity in a category can be exorbitant. However multicultural marketing gives the chance for teams to bring in custom brand categories for programs and events, sometimes at a lower price point, than could be done in a general marketing environment. “We see it more and more, an entrepreneurial salesperson sees an opportunity around a player or a cultural event, and goes and finds brands willing to come in and activate around it that may not have been able to find their way in any other way,” Lencheski added. Case in point was the Philadelphia 76ers and their rising star, Australian Ben Simmons (@BenSimmons25). The Sixers created a niche with the Australian Company, Four and Twenty Meat Pies, an Australian favorite, to give them the ability to come in and sample and do an “Australian Heritage Night.” In a traditional environment, Four and Twenty (@FourntwentyUSAmight have been blocked from being in the building by larger vendors and sponsors in a food category. However by creating an Australian flavor (no pun intended), a carve-out for exposure was created, buzz generated, and exposure grew. In many other markets, ethnic brands like Goya Foods (@GoyaFoodshave found Latino or Hispanic culture nights as their way into an arena or venue to start a conversation about partnership and story tell, and often times those brands help take that experience back out to the market in a consumer promotion. By looking deeper, and being smarter, teams and leagues can re-slice and dice a category that was once whole, and everyone involved can win.

Speak the Language: Another sometimes overlooked nuance is being able to not just act in a multicultural environment but to also deliver materials and programs in the language that is not English. The Oakland Raiders in recent years have worked closely with Native American groups who are loyal to the team, and out of that came the ability to broadcast games in Navajo. The Detroit Tigers do all outreach in both English and Spanish, as do a growing number of MLB teams, and built their annual “Fiesta Tigres” event as a way to celebrate Spanish language first fans. “It is essential that we have programs that don’t just address culture, especially Latino culture, but take that culture and deliver every element in Spanish,” Detroit Tigers (@tigersVP of Communications Ron Colangelo said. “We need to make the transition to fandom easy, and sometimes the easiest way to do that is to take the language of sport, be it radio, TV or in print, and literally deliver it to the fan base in a way that they can easily understand. It builds great trust and shows no matter how subtly, that no matter what your language is, we are here for you as a team and as a brand.”

If It Doesn’t Fit, Don’t Do It: We kind of end where we started; with authenticity. In a copycat business world, the rush to do something for the sake of doing it, or because the concept can be sold, is not always the best. There are many teams, despite pressure from a league, do not do all forms of multicultural marketing because at this point, their audience, and their community, is not as diverse as others, or doesn’t have a large makeup as certain other cities. The Houston Rockets (@HoustonRocketsfor example, have a vast program marketing to the Chinese community; it worked very well and has a natural fit in the culture of Houston. A team like the Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewersmay market heavily to a German or Polish fan base because of the traditions in that city. It does not mean that you are culturally closed off; what it means is that you need to take the time to do programs right, keep them authentic and deliver to the community which you are in. trying to do too much every time is tough, and often leads to failure. Listening and being engaged in the community means you have the ability to see, hear and feel trends, especially with emerging ethnic groups. Taking the time to know when to engage, how to engage, and where to engage is not just good business, it’s good human nature.

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Cover image: Partido de las Estrellas/DC United

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