12 Days of PR Bliss: How to Be a PR Playmaker in the Sports Industry

Written by: Shannon Murphy
Edited by: Raechel Allen

sports article

Public relations play a critical role in an industry as substantial as professional sports. The two-way stream of communication between the audience and the multiple levels of production are vital in creating a unique atmosphere that only sports can provide. Through history, public relations arose in the sports industry out of a necessity to connect residents to their respective regional team (we often see this in the Olympics). Today, public relation is distinguished from marketing and advertising by conveying a specific message or image FROM the team TO the fans. Five of the most recognized sports leagues in North America include: the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, Canadian Football League, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer. These five areas of professional sports collectively generate hundreds of teams, thousands of jobs, and billions of dollars in revenue.

Sports reflect a certain sense of passion that brings people together, reflecting the value in competition and communal support. To further explore the role of PR in this industry, we will connect one aspect of public relations to one stream of professional sports.

Considerations regarding PR effectiveness that are commonly used are: community outreach , recovery (lockouts, lawsuits, charges), audience feedback , and player/event promotion. These concentrations are vital to the image of the team or league, and their representation in the media. Nearly all organizations follow a specific formula to convey their message; this encompassing the following classic PR stunts.

  1. It is illogical to believe that situations will always go according to plan. Whether a player has committed a crime, or a head coach has been thrown out of the game, PR experts must come to the rescue to implement some serious damage control. To date, the NHL has experienced three lockouts and one strike. It goes without saying that after everything has been resolved, recovery action must be taken to appease the emotional fans who invest their time, money, and heart into the game. The most recent NHL lockout occurred last year (2012-2013), resulting in a shortened 48 game season. Initially, many fans were bitter with the NHL and NHLPA’s inability to come to a consensus out of what the public saw as greed and a lack of respect for the fan base. Ottawa’s own NHL team, the Ottawa Senators, responded with a PR ploy to win over even the most resenting fan—free beer and cola at the home opener. Additionally, Sens PR spokespeople initiated a survey asking their ticket buyers to rate their level of disappointment, and asked how they would like to be thanked for their patience. Several other NHL teams addressed the situation with full newspaper apologies, free tickets, free parking, discounted merchandise, autograph signings, and apologetic emails. The Ottawa Senators demonstrated the most important rule of PR: that the audience is paramount; otherwise shareholders, sponsors and advertisers would have nothing left to invest in.
  1. Second on our list is how the CFL team, The Saskatchewan Roughriders, emulate the importance of the two-way communication stream between the organization and the fan base. The Saskatchewan Roughriders are one of the only publically owned professional sports teams in Canada and the US. It is very difficult to find a citizen in Regina who is not a diehard fan, complete with a ‘watermelon helmet’. The success of the public model is reflected in the dedication of Rider fans. The proof of ‘Rider Nation’s’ dedication is echoed by advanced stats regarding attendance, merchandise sales, and television ratings. As the club is community owned, the public’s interest is a fundamental key aspect in the success of the business. Despite only having four Grey Cup titles, the fans extreme allegiance to their team is a direct effect of the value seen in feedback from fans.  The following video was apart of The Saskatchewan Roughriders 2013 ‘Rider Nation’ campaign.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PD9BURO6ll8
  2. PR teams recognize potential franchise players and develop these individuals as the poster child of the company. PR teams make it a point to play up these players’ strengths, and acknowledge their weaknesses. This individual is almost always extremely talented, connects with the fans, and will likely stay with the team over the course of many years. The phenomenon of the ‘franchise player’ is seen time and time again in Major League Baseball, and nearly every team has one.  For the Toronto Blue Jays, this player is utility player and slugger, Jose Bautista. It’s common to see Bautista in press conferences, speaking engagements, charity events, and featured or quoted in news releases. Promoting a player provides the fans with a familiar face they can form a relationship with; which ultimately drives ticket sales resulting in big name sponsorships. This clip demonstrates Jose Bautista’s popularity, when he was voted to be on the Canadian edition of PlayStation’s MLB 13: The Show, two years in a row.
  1. PR teams in any area of business organize small and large events, and are willing to spend big bucks to promote them. Events offer the organization a chance to speak to and provide the public with a genuine understanding of the company’s goals and missions. Whether it’s a home opener, playoff, kickoff, or a community event, you can guarantee that MLS PR crews will be there to document and filter what the event is and disseminate it to the public. The Montreal Impact (Montreal de Impact) is the newest addition to Major League Soccer. As a new team, PR experts derive a tough but likeable image for the team through public appearances. The Montreal Impact has done this extensively through game day series promos like ‘Behind Enemy Lines.’ Behind Enemy Lines is a collection of videos made to build anticipation throughout the season. Fans have the opportunity to experience the reality of the Montreal Impact behind the scenes. This series promotes games and fan understanding of the institution of the team. It allows fans to share in the athlete’s experiences, enticing them to attend live games.
  1. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, when it comes to image, organizations take advantage of the opportunity to give back to the local or global community. An excellent example of this in sports PR is the NBA’s (and their affiliate The International Basketball Federation) Basketball without Borders.”. Basketball without Borders is in its thirteenth year of educating and inspiring children from Asia, Europe, South America, and Africa, whom are also often from developing countries. BWB is centered on a five-day program designed to “promote the sport and encourage positive social change in the areas of education, health, and wellness.” (http://www.nba.com/bwb/mission.html) NBA players act as mentors and coaches to provide not only on-court knowledge, but also a focus on education, character, and leadership. BWB is a project of the NBA Cares Legacy Project, a project that strives to create safe environments for families to live and play in. Through these two missions the National Basketball Association is able to display an alternate side of the league that upholds the importance of positive social change rather than the accumulation of societies ‘change.’

The sports industry is a competitive and fast paced environment to work and play within. Complimentarily to the games being played, individuals in this field must be able to work as a team in order to achieve goals and milestones that are important to the growth of the company, and the experience the company can provide to the fans.

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