With the NBA and NHL Playoffs are in their championship rounds, the eyes of the world fall upon these teams battling for glory.
With the title of ‘world champion’ within tantalising reach, how much of the world do these teams actually have as part of their fanbase?
There are only so many fans to be captured within the local vicinity or the US as a whole. The NBA and NHL are established sports with over 75 years of history each in the US and Canada, meaning there’s not much more room to grow.
Simply put, your next one million fans will not come from your domestic market.
As we outlined in our 3rd Age of Sport, sports is now truly global. Digital channels have made it possible to grow audiences anywhere on the planet, creating opportunities for any team in the world to enter markets they never could have previously imagined.
Having run international digital operations across 12 countries for major US leagues and organisations for the past six years, there are my five key steps to think through to ensure any move into the international space is a success.
1. Why Do We Need To Be In This Market?
The allure of international growth is understandably strong, but ‘international’ is a rather overwhelming and vague term. You have to consider where your brand will thrive both in the short and long term.
Before any client enters a new market, we have a framework that considers several key factors that determine how relevant a market is, with factors to be up or down-weighted depending on the brand’s individual needs.
Take our friends at the NHL where its expansion into the Czech Republic market may not seem an obvious move to the outside eye. Backed by local superstar David Pastrňák of the Boston Bruins, and the popularity of ice hockey within the region, the move has proved highly successful. Engagements across Facebook and Twitter have increased by a combined rate of 350% in just two years.
Investing in a new market is a big (and worthwhile if done right) decision, and to ensure success, a bedrock of solid research and justification must exist as to why you are investing in the first place. Through research, you can create a strong business case to build an exciting platform and a long-term legacy.
Your next one million fans will be found outside your market.
2. Every Market is Different
Once you’ve chosen your market(s) that you want to explore, it’s time to build your roadmap to success. There is no one-size-fits-all plan available.
No market in the world is the same. As anyone can and will appreciate, there are thousands upon thousands of minor idiosyncrasies that make up the fabric of a market that Google simply cannot tell you.
You may have been to the market you’ve exploring, but unless you’ve lived there, you will not have a true understanding of the audience you’re appealing to. Which social platform is popular? Who’s the hot (or not) celebrity talent? Who do the younger demographics follow and watch on YouTube and TikTok? What words or language is outdated?
In my seven years of experience doing this localisation service for global sports properties, there are so many quirks I would never have expected from the outset.
In Finland, Twitter is seen as an upper class, even snobbish, platform whereas in Spain, it’s the platform for the masses. In Germany, social media users will often use incorrect or shortened names to their social profiles to keep their privacy intact. In Russia, Facebook has a minimal audience, preferring the use of VK - a platform not dissimilar to Facebook itself in look and feel, and MySpace in functionality. In France, colloquial French around US sports often can involve using English phrases to celebrate key moments.
If you’re embracing a market, you must embrace all these minute differences to be and come across as genuine, winning over the hearts and minds of local fans. To get a true sense of just one of these tiny idiosyncrasies, please enjoy my favourite joke about how many words for ‘dog’ there are in Finnish.
3.Translation is not localisation
From time to time, we’ve all dabbled in a bit of Google Translate to work out what something means, or to produce a ‘knowingly bad but roughly there’ version of what we need in a different language.
Just to confirm your suspicions, this is not a good thing to do! No online translation product should be anywhere near your plans for entering a new market.
Nor even would we recommend merely hiring a translator to echo your main channels. Anecdotally, I’ve spoken with our NHL Sweden manager multiple times on this, as he’s often commented on the slight, but noticeable, difference when he reads Swedish copy for brands - he’s able to tell whether it’s English text translated into Swedish, or a Swedish person speaking natural Swedish.
Another direct example is how ‘friends’ translated online into Spanish comes out as ‘amigos’. Fair enough that is the dictionary definition, but as our NBA Spain manager will attest, this is not the way it’s used in the country itself. ‘Amig@s’ is the more common usage as the word ‘amigos’ is a male-constructed noun, with younger demographics preferring the newer, gender-balanced construction.
Translation is not a strategy for success as there is so much more to consider. Take China where there are not only multiple different platforms to consider (Weibo, Douyin, Bilibili, WeChat, Kuaishou, Tmall to name a few), there are cultural factors too. My colleague Gideon Clark wrote in a previous article explained how the explosion of Panini trading cards was closely linked to the rise of China’s “brand culture”. If your brand is simply translating content, you’re alienating fans and you’re missing out on huge long-term commercial opportunities.
Having a local team or social manager on the ground offers a significant advantage to your efforts. You’re able to keep your finger on the pulse of local activities and fans, whilst ensuring your marketing does not feel like it's simply been spat out by a translation tool. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great to make an order from a restaurant or translate a train timetable, I speak from experience, but perhaps not for a high-investment marketing campaign.
Adding in a strategy and physical presence to manage these markets allows you to capture these fans on their own terms, often drawing far better results as fans feel like you’re actively appealing to them, not just their market’s potential financial returns.
4. If You’re Going To Do It, Do It Properly
The skepticism around brands entering "new" markets is high, and understandably so - fans are savvy enough to know when a brand is just looking for a quick buck.
To avoid this label, and create the correct long- and short-term benefits from your expansion, you need to have the right strategy, the right process and the right people. A one-man-band is not going to cut it.
Having built out the strategy in the earlier steps, let’s talk through the process of becoming a success. For starters, your international arm needs to be integrated across the business. This means there must be a person within the central operation that is responsible for the success of your international team. For example at the NHL, we are indebted to the phenomenal support of Malorie Buccigross for her tireless efforts to deliver maximum success for our European markets. A perfect example of who brands require to make their international move a prosperous one. Beyond this, you need someone within the commercial team tasked with the new market responsibility, ready to launch into new exciting partnerships.
As hinted above, you need people in the market telling you what’s really happening, and discussing what’s actually dominating the news, and what will resonate in the market. The social managers I’ve worked with have all been extremely talented and supportive, offering invaluable insights to our team, and the client itself - improving not just their digital operations but the wider departments of the business such as broadcast, commercial and in-person activities.
To connect the two, you need experts in the middle to help deliver locally relevant creative and events, and inspire new and core fans to engage with the brand. It’s essential to have someone to help interpret the desires of a market, and the needs of a brand, to produce the solution that translates all sides into winning results on a consistent basis.
Success is not achieved through one home run every six months; it’s also about being efficient and effective week in week out.
No one may consider hygiene content the sexiest prospect in the world, but do not turn your nose up at it. Its value is far greater than you would imagine. Through these daily content pieces, you can build clear case studies of your brand’s positive impact in the market, creating new opportunities for the commercial team to explore with international partners.
5. Commercial: think short and long
If you’re starting from scratch, you may want to see a direct return on investment as you dive into a new market. This is certainly possible as you can support existing partners through branded social media content, and campaigns selling merchandise and digital packages (such as OTT or membership). You can even enter a market through a content partnership with a local partner. Easy, simple, clean and quick wins to deliver an immediate boost. International work is far less scary than you might imagine.
If you are reading this and are worried about the work needed, please don’t be. Your immediate concerns can be offset as mentioned, and the long term benefits will far outweigh this initial outlay.
Your long-term goal should be to build an audience of the future, creating a genuine connection with a new set of fans and building your brand in a new market. You are an extremely attractive product, whether you be a team or a league, and all you need is the right set of tools to develop long-term relationships. With a new audience of millions more fans, your brand guarantees a prosperous future, and the opening of hundreds of new doors for partnerships, and opportunities for your whole business.
There’s an oft-cited expression that the best time to plant a tree was 100 years ago, the second best time is now. I’ve always enjoyed this sentiment as it holds remarkably true for international content.
Some of you may be reading this wishing you got in there sooner, others reading this are already on this journey. The key point to make is that sport is becoming more global, and this trend will not reverse anytime soon.
Your next one million fans will not come from your home market. If you want to begin reaching them, please do get in touch.