Aug 3, 2023

Promotional Tips from U.S. Professional Sports Teams

By Jason Sherman, SHERMAN communications & marketing, Chicago, Illinois    


While our sports clubs have a great resource with TicketCo as a unified payment platform, the job of selling a ticket and filling a seat is still up to them. It’s not always easy to light a spark inside someone to purchase a ticket with so many things competing for their time, including having many choices of sports teams to watch.

With that in mind, we looked to our neighbours to the West. We identified and spoke with marketing practitioners with three professional sports organisations in the U.S. for ideas that could translate well here in Europe. Apply any of these approaches, or put your own twist on them, as you come up with something that distinctly works with and for your fans.

We chose these professionals because they represent various spots on the budgetary and market-size spectrum: a smaller, grassroots minor league baseball club (Kane County Cougars), a high-level minor league baseball club whose players are just one rung below the Major Leagues (Rochester Red Wings), and a professional hockey team (Anaheim Ducks) in one of the largest metro markets in the U.S.

Though they are separated by thousands of miles and other obvious differences, the three teams share common ground that likewise surely resonate with European clubs. Foremost among them: 

  •   Balancing the desire to reap immediate results (get fans to that next game) with nurturing loyalty and developing a connection with fans over the long haul.
  •   Not settling for just getting fans to their games – but identifying creative ways to produce a fun, memorable experience that makes the team’s success almost an afterthought.
  •   Extending the experience well beyond the field of play. The athletic action lasts only a few hours at a time, but what are the best ways to win over your fans’ hearts in the days, weeks and even months that come in between those matches?

Think Long Term

In the National Hockey League, an entire season (2004-2005) went down the drain when owners and players couldn’t come to an agreement. That’s 1,230 games, with all 30 teams playing precisely ZERO / NONE of their usual 82-game slate.

We spoke with Jason Cooper, senior manager of fan development marketing with the Anaheim Ducks. The team rebuilt from the ashes of that lost season with a focus on community outreach that emphasised developing partnerships with schools in their area.

They actually created a curriculum to teach the sport of hockey through subjects like maths, science and language arts.

At first, they focused on private schools (with higher net-worth families that had the financial means to attend games and have their kids play ice hockey and roller hockey). In recent years they expanded to public schools.

“We figure that if you introduce young people to the sport and help them become players, they would almost certainly become fans,” Cooper said. “We have also cast a wider net to inspire fans through science classrooms, language-arts classrooms, or simply a booster club kit.”

Annually, the team holds about five or six programs that engage 60,000 students. Its booster club offers highly discounted tickets to help reduce barriers of entry and introduce children and their families to the Ducks brand and “experience.”

New call-to-actionCross-Promote

You scratch my back, I scratch yours. It’s simple—just look around and see what potential, appropriate partners may be close by. 

The Ducks do cross-promotions with two other notable organisations: the Los Angeles Angels professional baseball team and Disneyland (who actually created the Ducks). The Angles and Ducks occasionally send their players to the other team’s games. 

“There is a lot of research on the crossover of fan bases,” said Cooper. “Both clubs designate nights with blended logos and cross-branding. This generates excitement and helps us reach fans who have a positive view of both clubs.”

And, Cooper added, “Disney is an institution, and anytime we can partner with them it is effective.”

Bobbleheads are Big

In the suburbs of Chicago, the Kane County Cougars are a minor-league professional baseball team that has been around for 30 years and helped launch the careers of the likes of future Hall of Fame candidate Miguel Cabrera. The team has 18 theme nights per season, and three or four of them involve offering fans bobbleheads – a collectible doll that is a cartoon-like version of any given individual that makes repeated bobbing movements when it is touched.

The Cougars’ Director of Public Relations and Promotions Claire Jacobi, said the announcement of a bobblehead promotion invariably sparks keen interest.

On those nights, people arrive hours early, lines snake outside the gate, and re-sale postings of the coveted items show up online even before the day arrives, she said.

Echoing that sentiment is Rochester Red Wings General Manager Dan Mason, who has been with the team since 1995. The Red Wings are a Triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals.

“Bobbleheads are one of our most popular giveaway items, so much so that we have done not only players and former players but local icons or popular ballpark employees or characters,” said Mason. 

“For instance, for our bat dog we did a “bobbletail”; for our most popular beer vendor we did a talking bobblehead; and we did a “bobbleshell” of one of our most popular players who was nicknamed `The Turtle.’”

Community Marketing

Hitch your wagon to and support a cause, whether a philanthropy or a subset of the population that you’d like to turn the spotlight on.

This is really a mix of marketing and community relations. For the Ducks, said Cooper, the goal is to have authentic interactions within diverse communities in Orange County, California, such as end-game promotions and theme nights like Hispanic Heritage Month, Dia de Muertos or Green Night for climate initiatives that bring new people into the arena.

In September 2022, the Cougars hosted a Guinness World Records attempt for the largest dog wedding , with the benefit to raise money for animal shelters. When the Red Wings have honored players from the old Negro Leagues, they have built stronger bonds with African-American residents in the region.

Make Lemonade

A key element is to have an exciting, compelling product. If the team has a star player, that provides more to work with and makes it easier to sell tickets.

But when you get lemons, turn them into lemonade.

Years ago in Rochester, the team was in last place. With a full month of the season remaining, Mason and his staff hatched a plan. Mason would sleep in the bullpen until the Red Wings won a game. 

Unfortunately (OR NOT), they lost five more consecutive games. The publicity stunt meant Mason was marooned in the bullpen for longer than he anticipated. 

“It got our media talking about our team. Instead of talking about how bad they were, they were talking about this idiot GM who was sleeping in a tent in the bullpen,” he recalled.

Drawing on the “Save Ferris” theme from the cult-hit movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a “Save Tent Boy” cry developed. Extensive national coverage ensued, including CNN and famed morning show Regis and Kelly.

Another year, in 2000 – a tough season with a big losing record – the Red Wings brought in a racehorse with the most-ever losses, Zippy Chippy. Zippy Chippy and a centerfielder (Jose Herrera) had a race, and Herrera won. There was a later rematch with another player, and the race aired on ESPN. Meson explained that the stunt “catapulted us through the rest of the season...as a fun, positive place to go and be entertained.”

“My title is GM but it could just as well be director of fun. Our job as a front office is to exceed expectations – for parking, tickets, concessions, in-game promotions, the videoboards, watching the game, having laughs with friends…you name it,” Mason added.

“We try to make coming to the stadium more of an entertainment experience than just a baseball game. We want to make sure that, win or lose, fans leave the game feeling that it was well worth their time and their money.”

Get Fans into the Action

Video content is an increasingly dominant force on social media and other forms of engagement. The emergence of easy-to-shoot-and-distribute video has been a big asset.

“In the past, we relied so much on the media to tell our story,” said the Red Wings’ Mason. “Now, with social media, we have the ability to tell our own story.”

One such example came when announcing that Kate Flannery, the actor who played Meredith on the hugely popular sitcom, The Office, was coming to sign autographs. The Red Wings staff re-created a popular scene from the show when Steve Carell’s main character, Michael Scott, ran over Meredith with his car.

Polling: A Key Way to Score Points with Fans

Keeping score is at the heart of any athletic competition, and there’s a way to have fans quite literally see their points make a difference: conduct polls on just about any imaginable subject.

Some of the basic ones include picking the biggest play of a game, choosing their favourite player, or picking your team’s top moment from the past. But the possibilities are as endless as your imagination.

Also, rather than simply posting polls, think of ways to illustrate your poll – whether it’s taking a poll of fans or reporting the results of a poll through multimedia engagement. The weekend of the NFL Super Bowl in mid-February, the Ducks had a simple video of players filing off the ice after practice and declaring which team they thought would win the contest. With each prediction, a graphic scoreboard updated the prognostications.

Another way to connect with fans is via the second-screen experience. Retired football quarterback greats and brothers Peyton and Eli Manning have had great success with this during Monday Night Football games. Essentially, they act as virtual companions who comment on the action with fans as the game unfolds.

Through its mobile gameday fan experience provider, Xeo, the Ducks have begun pursuing a digital second-screen experience. Fans can have their phones out and a host in the arena is poling them, sending content, extra videos, games during intermission, and moderating a live chat function.

Make Good use of Down Time in-between the Action

With baseball, the game is perfectly suited to ongoing engagement, with 18 breaks (two per inning) to get more food and drink. Teams often build promotions around food – happy hours, discounted beer, one-dollar hot dog days, and even 50-cent hot dog days in the case of the Rochester Red Wings. 

Convert these approaches to soccer, for example: what are some themes you can build around the common terminology of the sport – goals, shots, saves, passes, headers, offsides, and so forth. Is there a food item you can use to have fun with regarding, say, the notoriously common practice of players “flopping” to try to coax a foul call from the referee?

Other fan-engagement ideas could include having them guess online how many yellow or red cards are called, fouls, headers, or whatever may occur during the game. Create a system for them to register and put this on your website. Then they get a “voucher.” If they guessed correctly, they get a free or discounted food or small souvenir item.

Celebrate fans on your site and via your social media that had the best guesses / predictions during each game.

New call-to-actionConsider an Alter Ego to Spice Things Up

In Rochester, the team seized on a famous meal called the Garbage Plate (home fries, macaroni salad, hot dogs or burgers, Rochester meat hot sauce, onions, ketchup and mustard). (We know, not for the faint of heart or stomach.) During Thursday night games, the team’s name becomes the Rochester Plates. It’s become so popular that jerseys and hats with this theme imprinted on them have sold to people in all 50 states.

In Kane County, the Cougars play near FermiLab, a particle physics and accelerator laboratory. Their identify for special games as the Atomic Porkchops, a nod to their renowned sandwich offering. On those occasions, “Cougars' ' is stripped from stadium vocabulary and the team shifts to accompanying Porkchop merchandise: hats, T-shirts and so forth

“It’s fun to have something different – it brings fans in,” said Jacobi.  

Mascots Reign

Especially popular with kids are team mascots. The Red Wings let children run the bases on Sundays, bringing in mascots Spikes and Mittsy to join the fun. The Cougars have a brother-sister combo: Ozzie T. Cougar and Annie T. Cougar, and they always attract the longest line for photographs and autographs—when they’re not dancing on the field or frolicking with fans in the stands, Jacobi shared.

Pay Heed to Pop Culture

The actor portraying Meredith in The Office was not the only time Rochester tapped into the hit television series. Actor Leslie David Baker (who portrayed Stanley Hudson in The Office) greeted 3,000 fans who lined up to meet him in 2019. In all, the attendance of 12,000-plus was among the team’s highest ever.

“The line to meet him was the longest line up to that point that we’ve had for any appearance of a celebrity guest since I’ve been here — more than any football, baseball or entertainment icon,” Mason said. 

In Summary

In this overview, we have laid out ample common ground that exists among not only these U.S. teams, but any team or even organisation, anywhere.

Some of these tactics are of the last-second variety, designed to spark spontaneous trips to the game; others involve long-term approaches to nurture loyalty that transcends wins or losses, championship seasons or longtime losing streaks.

Permeating it all is the recognition that your success will come much the same way as that of a standout athlete: the more nimbly you adapt to changing conditions, the more you hold the key to thriving in your particular arena. We wish you – and the teams you represent – many wins, happy fans, good luck and full stadiums


New call-to-action

Get the latest news and insights straight to your inbox