Evolution of marketing? Research matters!

By Rick Burton and Norm O’Reilly

Over the years, one or both of us have always attended the Sport Marketing Association (SMA) conference that annually brings the country’s most accomplished sport marketing faculty into one place. In past years, the SMA gathering has been hosted by the Dallas Cowboys, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This year’s event, sponsored by SBRnet, was held in Las Vegas with the lavish opening night reception taking place at UFC headquarters. There were numerous speakers and panels, but three individuals creating the most buzz were Kerry Bubolz, president of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights (giving the Bill Veeck Address), Thayer Lavielle, EVP of Wasserman Media’s The Collective, and, perfect for Las Vegas, Matthew Holt, president of U.S. Integrity. It was an impressive set of keynote speakers and panelists for an academic conference.

Steve Miller, CEO of Agassi Graf Holdings, and former head of sports marketing for Nike, was also there and he gave a rousing President’s Luncheon Address after which outgoing SMA president and UNLV professor Nancy Lough was honored with the creation of the Lough Award for her tireless work in demanding diversity and inclusion via SMA’s research agenda and via academic promotion and tenure.  

The above might all sound like a press release but there is a point here and it’s one we’ve offered before: Our fast-moving industry needs to embrace the educators who are devising and generating cutting-edge scholarship likely to benefit the next generation of sport industry leaders.

That concept (“scholarly research”) is generally ignored by our industry because of the ancient saw that suggests “those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach.” It’s a tired cliché that may have previously represented the thinking of elite sport industry professionals who believed they were the only ones capable of selling event tickets or marketing a team. 

We’ll grant that teaching a university course may not come with a daily/weekly/monthly sales deadline but there is nuance to empowering the future workforce. And to be sure, much has changed in the last 10 years. Today, as SPAC investors roam the countryside looking to generate healthy returns from our industry, the issue is less about who is doing the teaching and more about what is getting discovered. That’s why we were fascinated by topics presented in Las Vegas that included:

■ Bet on it: Exploring Sport Betting Partnerships in Professional Sport
Examining Perceived Fit and Consumer Attitudes Toward Cannabidiol (CBD) Sponsorships in Sport
A “Toxic Culture”: The Negative Experiences of Ticket Sales Employees Across Professional Sports
The Marketing of Sport NFTs on Social Media
Muslim Women and Individuals with Disabilities in the USA: Nike’s Pro-Sport Hijab Versus Nike Flyease
From Gearshifts to Gigabytes: An Analysis of How NASCAR Used iRacing to Engage Fans During the COVID-19 Shutdown
Marketing to a Family of Four No More: Understanding the Complexity of Family Needs Regarding Sport Consumption

There were numerous other presentations and over the course of three days, faculty members and industry practitioners mingled around various sessions including the SBRNet Case Study Bowl, a Pedagogy Fair (presented by the Ultimate Toolkit), the Fox Sports U Research Symposium, a student poster program, plus Ignite and Rap sessions. 

Not all of it was perfectly presented (in the larger scheme of things) but with next year’s conference slated for Charlotte, it is safe to say SMA researchers are already working on practitioner challenges many in our industry would benefit from seeing. Those findings will be shared in October 2022.

Said another way, when the New England Journal of Medicine supports its annual conference series, we believe doctors attend to see what the greatest medical minds are discovering. The good news for industry veterans is this: SMA 2022 is open to professionals and the Charlotte dates are now set for October 26-28, 2022.

While many readers will not attend (for a variety of good reasons), the curious may need to circle those dates and ask if there are topics they don’t yet understand. That despite their wisdom, they are still open to “lifelong learning,” to knowing more than they did the day before. 

This short mantra fits with something both of us use in various leadership classes. It was a column written by Jeff Stibel for USA Today in 2017. At the time, Stibel was vice chairman of Dun & Bradstreet and a part-time brain scientist. He declared that “as we stop rapidly accumulating knowledge, many of us get in our own way. Studies have shown that people, on average, believe they are well above average. In other words, almost everyone thinks they are far smarter than they actually are.”

Stibel concluded his column noting that “too little knowledge was far worse than too much. Worst of all [was] not knowing just how little you know. [Many of us] remain woefully ignorant of our own ignorance.”

If that’s true, here’s an open invitation to SMA 2022. And as a final thought to further emphasize our above points, remember that sport as an industry is still considered new, developing, and not yet as fully formed as most of us would like. 

Maybe opening our minds to the possibility that many of us are only “average” would help.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former CMO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Norm O’Reilly is the dean of the University of Maine’s Business School and partner consultant at the T1 Agency in Toronto.

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