Engagement, Engagement, Engagement

The key to a successful sports franchise is winning games, right? Actually, this is not necessarily the case, so don’t be so fast to jump to this conclusion. While spending time in the win column is undoubtedly one of the best ways to build a strong team and fan base, a series of other victories must occur within the program itself. The internal decisions that a sports organization makes can create just as powerful an impact as the performance of the players who compete day in and day out.

Michael Grahl, Vice President of Digital Platforms for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, provides a detailed account of this idea in the following video. If you would like to watch it, you may do so below:

Grahl gave this speech in 2014 at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to students attending the American Marketing Association Regional Conference. At the time the Bucks were struggling through their season, finishing with an underwhelming 15-67 record and last in the NBA. As a result, the organization was forced to come up with creative new ways to gain and maintain fans despite the actual performance of the team. Grahl said that he responded by focusing a majority of the team’s marketing efforts on the young talent that would be on display in the next season, headlined by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker. Antetokounmpo, better known as “The Greek Freak”, is a 6’11” forward and ultra-athletic big man from Greece. He was drafted 15th overall by Milwaukee in 2013. Parker, a well-rounded point guard from Duke University, was selected by the Bucks as the second overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Together, these two highly-touted prospects helped generate a great sense of excitement among Bucks fans, providing them with a renewed hope for a bright future. In fact, Grahl said that the buzz around these players was so significant that the official team website experienced a 10% increase in traffic following the 2013-14 season, despite the fact that they only managed to manufacture 15 wins in 82 games.

Parker and Greek Freak.jpg

Jabari Parker (left) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (right) are positioned as the future of the Milwaukee Bucks in this 2014 social media advertisement.

Another important point that Grahl continuously emphasizes throughout his speech is the need to make players accessible to the fans. One way the Bucks accomplish this is through social media. For example, every season the team’s Instagram activates a countdown for the home opener, posting a different photo each day of a Bucks player holding a sign with the number of days left. This helps capture the personality of the players which helps fans to identify with them on a more intimate level. Also, players are periodically given access to the Snapchat account throughout the season. Meet-and-greets and autograph sessions are also very common as they present fans with the opportunity to physically interact with players on a one-on-one basis, leaving a lasting impression in the individual’s mind. All of these tools are extremely useful in building relationships with the fans, which is a crucial step in improving the overall perception of the organization.


Milwaukee Bucks forward Thon Maker meets with a young fan at the “Own the Future” tour in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

Division II colleges like West Virginia Wesleyan might want to take notes from the Bucks’ genius marketing strategy. In general, sports at the Division II level are highly competitive and enjoyable to watch. The financial resources of these athletic departments, however, are usually not as substantial as the larger and more popular Division I programs that are able to allocate their money toward more advanced marketing tactics. Therefore, it is highly beneficial for these schools to practice grassroots techniques that focus on improving the fan experience in as many facets as possible.

One way Division II programs might achieve this is to fully take advantage of the opportunities that social media presents. Millions of people in today’s society use these platforms to stay connected, so they should be put to use as catalysts for exposing the messages that the athletic department is looking to convey. Upcoming games, promotions, statistics, and behind-the-scenes footage are just a few examples of a plethora of approaches to reaching the target audience digitally.

Another aspect of Grahl’s speech that Division II athletic programs should emphasize is the importance of offering frequent athlete-fan interaction. The possibilities are virtually endless when it comes to providing fans with a quality and memorable experiences. Autograph sessions, halftime contests, free t-shirt giveaways, and events within the local community are only a few ways that this can be carried out. Doing so is not only an effective way to get fans through the doors; it also supplies them with an added incentive to attend more games in the future.

Whether marketing sports at the Division II or the professional level, a majority of the success seen by the college or organization boils down to how well the experience is sold. No matter the situation, bonding with fans and giving them reasons to be enthusiastic about the team will forever be the leading way to build a strong and loyal fan base, win or lose.



-Collin Wallace


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