30. Sports Marketing for People Who Hate Sports

Welcome to Episode 30 of Navigating the Fustercluck—a podcast full of snackable insights to help you keep your head in the intense world of creativity & marketing.


My name is Wegs, like eggs with a W, joining you from Deaf Mule Studios in Dallas. Here to talk about sports marketing for those who hate sports. Though I’m confident that people who love sports will like this, too. I also promise to do my very, very best not to use sports analogies. The bane of many, many meetings.


So let’s go beyond the clichés. Let’s understand why sport teams and athletes have been and continue to be favored marketing partners. 


Here’s my favorite sports story that I personally witnessed:


Back in the early 2000’s, 7’6” Yao Ming from China joined the NBA Houston Rockets. He was greeted like the Chinese Elvis. Press from all over the planet.


Yao’s first few games did not go well. Some quickly declared him a bust. Then, suddenly, Yao flipped on a switch. The game came to him, and he took it to the competition. However, his biggest challenge was up next. And I mean big. A 7’2” 300lbs mountain of an obstacle named Shaquille O’Neal. The man most responsible for their worst defeats of the recent past.


The game was in Houston and the battle of the big men heated up quickly. Shaq put up his first shot and Yao blocked it. The crowd went wild.


Shortly after, Shaq put up his 2nd shot. And again, Yao blocked it. The crowd got even crazier.


Finally, Shaq put up his 3rd shot. And again, Yao blocked it. From the floor to the rafters, insanity erupted.


Now that’s what brought the Houston fans to their feet. But I saw more. Something much more. 


From my vantage point, I had been watching two father/son duos. One pair was African-American. The other was Asian-American. They didn’t know one another, they hadn’t acknowledged each other. But they were sitting just one row apart. 


Now whether they got up to grab a beer or to visit the men’s room, both sons had missed out on the early excitement. Leaving their dads with no one to celebrate with. That is until after Yao’s final block, when both men, excited as the rest of the arena, found themselves facing one another. After a pregnant pause, these two-middle-aged men from very different backgrounds high-fived one another. 


They made contact. They connected. And in a small, yet meaningful way, they created a greater sense of community. Uniting two communities that are often segregated. At least that’s what struck me. And made it all worthwhile.


You see, once upon a time I was Director of Marketing of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. That’s why I was at the game. What might surprise you, is that before I accepted the position, I turned it down not once, not twice, but three times. Why? Well, lots of reasons:


First off, I love hoops, but I’m not a jock-sniffer. I don’t have anything like an autograph or sneaker collection.


Also, there are teams that treat marketing as a redheaded stepchild, believing that a team’s fortunes rise and fall solely on the win-loss record of the team.


Finally, because so many young people long to be a part of the sports experience, teams save money by hiring smart, energetic young people who don’t have a lot of work experience. That can work to your advantage, or it can work against you.


As you can see, working in sports is not as glamorous as it may seem. 


For me, it was the sense of community that I just described that made working in sports meaningful. And it’s the many potential forms of meaning sports spawn that can be mined in your creative efforts. At its best, sport goes well beyond a mere game. 


It’s all a matter of matching the team or athlete that best suits your brand’s narrative. Is your brand an underdog? A dominant player? Faster, stronger, smarter than the competition? Chances are, there’s someone in sports that represents or echoes your brand story. And their story isn’t relegated simply to competition. It can also be share your personality.


Here’s a second story from my NBA days that highlights this. It’s another Yao Ming story:


Every aspect of Yao’s arrival was under the microscope. Even the charities that he would choose to associate with. After some months in America, Yao finally announced that he was to become an international spokesperson for Special Olympics. With two nephews who compete in these games, I was personally ecstatic. 


Still, I wanted to know more. For that information, I asked Yao’s interpreter, 

Colin Pine, how Yao came to his decision, and why it took so long to announce.


Yao had actually made his choice early on, I discovered. The hold-up came from the Chines government itself. They still had quite a grip on whether Yao would even be allowed to play in the NBA. And unfortunately, their views on the mentally disabled are quite behind.


They believe that the mentally disabled are defective, crazy or worse. They’re often warehoused and kept out of sight. In short, they are seen as “freaks”.


Yao, who at 7’6”, had been extremely tall since youth. Stared at constantly. He, too, was seen as a freak. And he wanted to align and support those who in his own way he could identify with like few others.


That’s a story that doesn’t require any understanding of the game of basketball, that only proves that Yao Ming is an excellent player of the game of life.


If you find yourself working with a marketing partner in sports go deeper than what people see on TV or the Internet. Hopefully, you’ll find more than superhuman abilities, you’ll find some super humans. People with great stories that can help to tell the story of your client and their brand.


Let’s Take a Short Breather… (EXHALE.)


…We’re here at Deaf Mule Studios to remind everyone that this is Navigating the Fustercluck. And I’m your host, Wegs. Before we close out, let me tell one more Yao Ming story. If you can’t tell, I grew rather fond of not just the athlete but the man.


Shortly, after the Houston Rockets drafted Yao with the overall #1 pick in the NBA draft, I asked Carroll Dawson, the General Manger of the team, what was the biggest reason he chose Yao over all the other talented players he could have chosen.


Without missing a beat, Mr. Dawson, better known as CD, replied in his wiley Texas twang, Well, Wegs, you can’t teach height.


That has to be one of my favorite lines ever. And I’ve adapted that thought to matters of talent. If you’re a great storyteller, that may be where you stand taller than the rest. If you’re a born diplomat, that may be where you stand out. We all have something that sets us apart. It may not be as obvious as being 7’6”, but it’s there. And it requires the same amount of training and practice as a top-tier athlete to make the most of it. All that said, there’s a lot more going on in sports than games. Charles Barkley once famously said, I am not a role model. But athletes don’t get that choice. Rightly or wrongly, wisely or foolishly, athletes are often seen as heroes. When we draw out heroic elements of their stories, there can be some worthwhile values to share.


In fact, here’s the marketing mantra we shared back in those days. Something we could all march behind together. One thing to keep in mind is that the last line is a famous quote from the Rockets championship days:


We’re in the Hero Business

It’s what we’re passionate about.

Basketball is better at hero creation than any other sport.

It’s what our fans and corporate partners pay to be a part of.

We win as a business if fans are part of the team.

Fans want to see heroes.

But more importantly, they want to feel like heroes themselves.

When we act heroic on the court, they want to be the 6th Man.

When we act heroic in the community, they want to be at our side.

We win if we succeed in the hero business-

And hero is just another word for champion.

Never underestimate the heart of a champion.


As Nike and Weiden & Kennedy have shown over the years, you can say a lot about sports. But at their best, there’s a lot of good to say.


Well, that about wraps up our 30th episode of Navigating the Fustercluck. Thank you so much for your time & attention.

Here from Deaf Mule Studios, I’m your host, Wegs, like eggs with a W, and thanks again for listening in. For full transcripts of this episode and the entire catalog of  back podcasts, go to NavigatingTheFustercluck.com. And feel free to reach out to me personally at wegs24x7@gmail.com. Remember, we’re all in this together, so thanks for being part of the team. Here’s to you. Here’s to the future.