3 Huge Lessons Pro Sports Taught Me About Product Marketing

This is a blog post about what ice skates, hockey sticks and pucks have to do with marketing a new product. Because believe it or not, there’s a lot in common between whatever you do, and ice skates, hockey sticks, and pucks.

As a business, like any team, you seek to dominate your competition. Some CEOs have loftier goals than others, but ultimately, you want your brand to be the first thing people think about when it comes to boats, cars, skis, batteries, mobile devices,
truck accessories, fishing tackle—whatever your product category is.

And when entrepreneurs think about making the big leagues, they can do well to turn to the big leagues. As in professional sports.

I was fortunate to spend more than a decade in the NHL. (For the record, I have zero points and zero assists in zero games. But I did get a jersey with my name and number of years I was with the team—AFTER I left the organization.

I presided over 1,500 games as one of the first webmasters in the NHL. In fact, I was the first-ever webmaster and Manager of the Edmonton Oilers website and digital media.

Leading a corporate website is a unique position. As an NHL ice hockey team, the Edmonton Oilers is a world class brand and organization. I could watch how all the different parts of the business came together, because the website is a manifold.

If there was a “business learning” lottery, I had won it. Every part of the Edmonton Oilers organization connected with the website. I could see how everything worked—and on occasion, how it didn’t. But those occasions were rare because the organization learned not to make mistakes twice. It wasn’t so much sink or swim, as it was swim, or swim faster.

To start, here are three key product marketing lessons I learned during my time in professional sport:

1. Your people are part of the brand.

In pro sport, staff are the public face of the brand just as much as the players. The brand is the only thing a team has to sell. That logo on the jersey is everything. Every contact, from a standing room single ticket to a block of seats with a thirty-five year season ticket holder, staff felt part of the team. Their work reflected it. Everyone was empowered to “be the team” to a fan.

If you can’t solve the problem, take steps toward a solution. The people are the brand. People love their products, but if Apple Genius Bar staff were jerks, and the stores were a mess, it would show up on the bottom line. If the staff understand the brand and believe in it, because they’re part of it, every individual will be motivated to be a star performer who puts a shine on the public side of the business. And that brand sheen translates to brand affinity and sales.

Hockey-crowd

2. Every part of your business defines the product.

During my time in hockey there were two parts to the business: Hockey operations, and business operations. Easy: hockey ops takes care of the game. And that’s it, right?

Yeah, no.

When you buy a ticket, it’s from Ticketing, designed by Marketing. When you attend a game, Hospitality/Food and Beverage, Security, Maintenance, and Ticket Operations are in high gear, as are Building Operations, Ice Maintenance, and Game Operations (which handles the game presentation including ice teams, scoreboard, music, etc, LEDs etc). Game days are high-alert days for Merchandise, Suite Operations, Media and Public Relations, Game Presentation, and the Charitable Foundation.

All that non-hockey ops stuff is the “front office” you hear so much about. All those departments appear to integrate seamlessly. Like anywhere, they sort of do and sort of don’t. But they appear to be one big blue oil drop because identity, branding, and even what things are called, is carefully scripted to create a company-facing style. That’s not by accident. We had hot dog meetings. We had beer meetings. We had “the bathrooms are too full—we have to relieve the pressure (as it were)!” meetings. Everything was viewed as a product.

Here’s an easy and true example as uttered by a food and beverage manager: “If the bathrooms are too full, people will buy less beer to avoid an accident.” In live event entertainment, “what is the proper ratio of bathrooms in an arena” is serious business (especially if someone dropped a zero when they did the math). What is your business’ equivalent of the bathroom ratio question? What factors limit your ability to profit, scale or thrive?

3. Validation, validation, validation.

And more validation. And research. Did I mention validation?

Oilers staff offices housed a lot—and I mean a LOT—of really weird kitschy off-brand, poorly-made, amateurishly designed, products. These lived, in all irony, on staff desks.

They were loved for all the wrong reasons. Typically, the stuff shipped to the office came directly from the inventor or purveyor. The accompanying letter would usually say something like, “It’s only $100 for four granite coasters with the logo laser-etched. You could sell 1,000 easy! And you can take half!”

I’m not making this up.

Not only did it all infringe on copyright, but I recognized one of the graphics the vendor had etched into a coaster as my own design. It was a teachable moment.

The lesson: make sure there’s a market for $100 logo coasters (and check out our podcast on Intellectual Property, even if you’re not thinking of etching a pirated logo onto a block of granite).

Another true story: “the playoff hat idea” sticks in my memory because it stuck in my nostrils. It was 2006, and the deeper the Oilers got into their playoff run, the more inventors and idea-people showed up unannounced asking for “just” an hour of our time.

I smelled the hat man before I saw him. The hopeful vendor had a short stack of straw cowboy hats, spray-painted PANTONE blue #282. They kind of stuck together.

He had printed paper logos and glued them on. He wanted $25 per hat. We were selling the real thing for $20. Oops—that’s a massive validation fail: product exists in market at a cheaper price point and has a license. Another plus on the Official Merchandise side was that our hats didn’t include a risk of paint running down your face in case of rain or beer spills. The hopeful vendor’s hats also needed a warning for people with lung issues, or anyone who gets faint when they inhale huge amounts of evaporating paint solvent.

Just because you have an idea doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. It’s important to make sure market enthusiasm doesn’t replace empirical market knowledge. If you’re going to invest in a new product or service, a product marketing agency can help validate demand, market segment, price point, marketing strategy and communication planning, in your market.

Is there demand for your product? What’s the ideal selling price and how will it affect the market segment? What is the brand promise? What’s the product’ unique selling proposition (USP) or differentiation in the market? After highlighting just a few of the moving parts, I might need to re-visit this topic again sometime. Professional sport does everything big. Success is big, failure is big.

And so are the lessons for observant business leaders in the world of product marketing.

Posted by Andreas Schwabe on May 22, 2019