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Promotion of Champions: Lessons in Marketing from Pittsburgh’s Sports Teams

By Jessica Brown

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This afternoon, the Pittsburgh Pirates will play the St. Louis Cardinals in game 4 of the National League Division Series. Before this year, the last time the Pirates were in the playoffs was in 1992. To put this in perspective, the last time they made it to the postseason, a gallon of gas cost, on average, $1.11. But during the 20-year dry spell, the Pirates have still managed to get fans and non-fans alike into the stands, with a very full promotional schedule and the completion of PNC Park, which has been called one of the top parks in the MLB. Despite former lackluster performances on the field, the Pirates’ marketing team has hit it out of the park.

Not every team in Pittsburgh has had to put a spin on being at the bottom of the barrel (Perhaps we shouldn’t count the current Steelers’ team in this sentence). The Pittsburgh Steelers can boast six Super Bowl rings and the Penguins have hoisted the Stanley Cup three times. But another big “W” for these successful teams is that they have managed to help new generations of fans love the game.

Small business owners can learn a lot from these massive franchises, whether they realize it or not. Here are three things that the Pirates, Penguins, and Steelers have learned that can help you and your business reach all-star status.


Swag Sells

It’s almost impossible right now to walk into a store in Pittsburgh and not see any Pirates’ merchandise. And no matter what season, you can always be sure that you will find a sea of black and gold (sometimes Vegas Gold) lining the streets of the strip district.

When a fan loves a team, they are all about showing off their support, whether that means wearing a t-shirt, hat, or sticking a large bumper sticker reading “SIXBURGH” on the back of their car. And what is better than swag? Free swag.

The Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins all have a very impressive program for giving away free items to fans. During Friday home games in the regular season, the Pirates have “free T-shirt Fridays,” and they regularly give away free bobble heads. The Penguins also find success in giving away player bobble heads, as well as tote bags,  hats, and many other items throughout the season.

I know what you’re thinking – I can’t give away too much for free, I’m a small business! But it’s not always a physical object that you need to give to your customers in order for them to see the value in what you’re doing. Content marketing and providing useful information through blog posts and whitepapers are also a great way to give your customers something helpful for free.


Marketing Doesn’t Stop in the off Season

Hockey fans were hit hard in 2012 with the announcement of a lockout. A dispute between league owners and players left fans without hockey for five months until an agreement was reached on Jan. 6, 2013. But just because the ice was empty, that didn’t mean there wasn’t work to be done. When hockey returned, in the midst of fan celebration, the Penguins marketing team had to just right back into the game.

Sports teams are able to use the off-season as a way to be proactive in their promotions. It’s a perfect time for players to make public appearances and give interviews, to think about marketing efforts to implement when it’s time to hit the field (or ice) again, and to, in general, make sure that the upcoming season will run as smoothly as possible.

Your business’s down time should be just as productive. Each company goes through periods of ups and downs, and you should use the downs to think ahead. Is there a social media site that you feel could be beneficial? Are you considering a new logo? Can you build a collection of blog posts that can be posted when you’re busier? Just because it’s the off season, you can’t step too far away from the bench.


Rebranding is a Must

The Pittsburgh sports teams have had a lot of transitions since their beginnings.  Three Rivers Stadium, which opened in 1970, was home to the Steelers and Pirates until it was torn down in 2001 to make way for Heinz Field and PNC Park. The Civic Arena (formerly known as Mellon Arena and often referred to as “the Igloo”) was actually built for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera in 1961, but it was home to the Pittsburgh Penguins until 2011, when demolition first began. The Pens now drop the puck at Consol Energy Center.

Many of the transitions that Pittsburgh teams have made have been smaller, from changing brand colors, uniform styles, and all-star players. The Pens’ Sidney Crosby is almost a brand on his own. But with all of these changes, the teams have had to keep their fans in mind.

consolenergySome young Pens fans have never seen Mario Lemieux take the ice while on an NHL roster as a player. While “The Steel Curtain” may be a classic term in Pittsburgh sports history, many fans were not around for their reign. And a good portion of fans who have been cheering on the Pirates on their road to the World Series don’t remember the last time they watched the Buccos batter up for a championship.

Rebranding is important to any sports franchise, as well as any small business. The things that are important to promote now will possibly be irrelevant in 20 years, and the channels in which you use to reach the masses, whether they are fans or customers, are always changing. When you feel that your business is getting stale, it might be a good time to look at your brand, mission, vision, and tactics in order to get the most profit from your efforts.

While you may never play in a championship game, you are the MVP of your company. You can learn a lot by paying attention to the marketing campaigns of your favorite team. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and you just might get some inspiration on how to use their tactics on a smaller scale.

Oh, and go Bucs, Steelers, and Pens!