Kobe Bryant Variety and Sports Illustrated Sports & Entertainment Summit

The future of sports marketing centers on authenticity, community, personalities and the passionate reaction from fans.

At the Sports & Entertainment Summit sponsored by Variety and Sports Illustrated at Vibiana in Los Angeles on Thursday, executives from Instagram, Visa Worldwide, Fox Sports and other firms ruminated on not only the brands that have aced marketing but also the players who have the biggest appeal.

Whether it’s for emerging e-sports that reward people who play video games, evolving tournaments like the World Surf League or bro-heavy behemoths such as the NBA, the marketers have learned that the strategy for building brand awareness and attracting followers is universal. The lessons are also applicable to the fashion industry.

In essence, the brands doing it the best are “the companies that understand their audiences,” said Dan Gadd, director of digital strategy at public relations firm Taylor.

Consider the NBA, which brings its athletes’ personalities to the forefront. “They built these global personalities and allowed their athletes to be themselves,” said Brandon Gayle, head of global sports partnerships at Instagram. The NBA doesn’t focus only on legends, like Kobe Bryant, who later appeared at the summit to talk about his post-retirement life as an entertainment studio head conferring with Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and John Williams. With the NBA draft, Gayle noted, the league can “bring in the next generation of stars,” who show what it’s like to be on stage with the teams that pick them as well as backstage with candid photos.

One advantage that the NBA wields is the format of the game. The short, quick plays make for “snackable content,” according to Greg Johns, executive vice president and chief digital officer of Canvas Worldwide, which handles the ad accounts for car brands Hyundai and Kia. “That’s the NBA in a nutshell,” he said.

The NBA doesn’t hold a monopoly over loyal fans. The WSL approached Visa with the goal of “evolving their sport with a mass audience,” said Kate Johnson, Visa’s vice president of global sponsorship marketing. The surf league’s parent company recently acquired the artificial wave company started by Kelly Slater, who is arguably the most famous surfer in the world. When not trying to build tubes of water on land, the WSL and its athletes chase waves in exotic locales, allowing fans to live vicariously through social media. As a result, Gayle said the WSL has amassed 2 million followers on Instagram, just 100,000 short of the NHL’s fan base on the photo-centric platform. “Who would have thought a surfing league would reach the big four [of sports]?” Gayle said.

New ways to attract potential customers are always popping up. “We’re getting a lot of inquiries on how we can use Pokemon Go to drive people to car dealers,” Johns said.

Still, strong personalities reign in the marketing world. When Time Inc.’s Chris Stone asked which athlete possesses the biggest marketing potential, the answers varied from soccer to basketball to golf.

Both Gayle and Johns said they would bank on soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, who is the most-followed athlete on Instagram with 68.2 million fans, but Johnson backed Ronaldo’s rival, Lionel Messi. Gadd was bullish on basketball pro Stephen Curry. Sarah Tourville, senior vice president of marketing partnerships at Fox Sports, picked 22-year-old PGA prodigy Jordan Spieth.

After all, Dan Ciccone, managing director of an e-sports consultancy called Revxp, emphasized the importance of the personality over the athletics.

“Don’t get hung up on the sports,” he said. “Pay attention to the individuals.”

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