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Sport is emotional for it lives from the emotions of its fans. Sports communication is all the more challenging, as young fans can hardly be reached through traditional media and social networks run the risk of creating shitstorms, impacting both sports clubs and their players. Which new directions must Sports-PR take to establish and expand a sustainable fan community? That's what we asked Janet Smith of the Atlanta Hawks. As Senior Director she is responsible for the brand communication of the NBA basketball club.
news aktuell: What new methods are the Atlanta Hawks exploring to retain and further expand their fan base?
Smith: The Atlanta Hawks strongly believe that "We Exist to Serve Our Fans by Creating Memorable Experiences." Our newly renovated arena is the prime example of that declaration. The venue has just undergone a complete $200MM transformation, making it built for the fans, giving them the ultimate night out whether at a game or concert. The new massive video screens, improved wi-fi, expanded locally based food options, lower fan-friendly food pricing and unique amenities like The SWAG Shop barbershop, Topgolf Swing Suite simulators along with 7 new premium clubs/suites were all focused on improving the experience of existing fans, as well as bringing new fans to the franchise.
We are also reaching out to non-traditional audiences by giving them reasons to chose to come to a game they might not have otherwise attended or develop a connection to the team that might not previously existed. That could happen through coming out to a Hawks game promotion like our Swipe Right Night - where attendees could meet Tinder users in real-time at the arena or to see a popular music artist, like Future, 2Chainz or Gucci Mane performing at our halftime and post-game concerts or even through our outreach to the LGBTQ community through the team’s participation in events like the annual Pride Parade. We are also expanding our brand with a new NBA E–league 2K team, Hawks Talon GC. This team will help us grow our fan base by creating new interest in the Atlanta Hawks by a unique audience that may not have had a previous affinity for our brand.
news aktuell: Today, a declining number of younger fans are using traditional media - their viewing habits having drastically altered from those of the older generation, at least in regard to European standards. How does this affect sports clubs? How do they reach their younger fan base?
Smith: This is correct. Social media is vitally important in reaching what we consider to be our “next-generation” target audience. Making sure that we keep abreast of the latest platforms relevant to that segment. Along with traditional media - television and radio - we are also utilizing Facebook live streams of team events, original content on YouTube or along with short form content on our IG and Twitter. Understanding the language of the internet is incredibly important for our social staffers, and that language changes daily. We typically live by the following foundations when posting: Be real, be relevant, be relatable, be regular, rock the boat from time to time, and if you don’t know ask. There are many more, but these tenants help keep up fresh and top of mind with young fans.
news aktuell: Sport is synonymous with emotion; with social media providing a platform to display both positive and negative emotions. What kind of opportunity does this provide for sport clubs when trying to establish a fan community? What risks are involved?
Smith: Social media, of course, allows us to hear from the fans immediately and gauge the sentiment at a particular time. Through social media we can respond to and capitalize on unique or pop-culture moments in real time. That can be commiserating with fans over a team loss or celebration of a victory or a nationally or regionally relevant happening or engaging with other teams or players in a humorous way. However, teams must be mindful that while social listening can provide valuable insights, you cannot fully base a marketing or sales strategy just on social media commentary, it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
news aktuell: What kind of issues can a sports club run into when engaging with social media and what should one absolutely avoid?
Smith: Potential issues can include: Posting of questionable, offensive or “off-brand” content. And also hacking of accounts.
Teams must make sure not to have negative responses to fan commentary. i.e. Don’t be baited by "trolling".
news aktuell: Some athletes already boast large fan communities on social media, having become influencers with a large reach. This can serve their respective clubs, but also has the potential for conflict. How do you deal with this at the Atlanta Hawks?
Smith: We have multiple positions on the basketball operations side that help to ensure that any player that becomes a member of the team is supplied with proper PR training, as well as informed of the brand’s core values and do’s & don’ts. This helps to avoid any overt missteps both personally and brand related. Additionally, marketing typically works to uncover any sponsor obligations on the player side, as to not create conflict in content. For example, a player may be signed on with Under Armor, while the league supplied gear is Nike. Thus, we must be aware to not produce content that implies sponsorship one way or the other.
news aktuell: What other tools are available when trying to cultivate a fan community?
Smith:Our fan experience team also known as the “Flight Crew” along with our team mascot Harry the Hawk and Hawks ATL Dancers are all consistently in the community visiting schools, business, media outlets, parks, events and more to bring to the Hawks spirit to the fans on a regular basis.
We have an enthusiastic group of fans known as the "Sixth Man Group” that have a dedicated section at every home game. This specially selected group keeps the energy up at home games. It gives the most ardent Hawks fans special recognition within the game day experience. That kind of enthusiasm is definitely infectious.
We’ve also recently created our Fan Council. This group was formed to improve and enhance all of our fan touchpoints, through an open group of fans (The Hawks Voice) and a smaller "Fan Council" that we can leverage for feedback, proactive surveys, beta tests, and input on how we can further engage and improve our brand.
We are also creating greater engagement with fans by creating opportunities for us to offer exclusive experiences through user-generated content (UGC). Our recent “Ultimate Fan Experience” gave a few die-hard fans that submitted videos explaining their Hawks ‘fandom’ the chance to spend an afternoon with the team at their private practice facility. That UGC also gives us a chance to spotlight the fan using those video submissions across social media and in-arena.
news aktuell: With what kind of content do you reach the most amount of fans?
Smith: Basketball content first and foremost. To be more specific, short form video basketball content (highlights, etc.) and score updates are king. From there, viral seeking and reactive content such as modified memes can garnish huge numbers. Additionally, we try to branch into other categories such as food, fashion, music, games, community, etc., but we will always use basketball as the common thread that ties the content together. We may show a time-lapse video of a muralist painting something that has nothing to do with the Hawks’, but he’s wearing a Hawks jersey while doing it, and that makes it relevant enough for our brand to share. We always need to rep basketball, but we must relate with our fans and future fans.
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