Companies turn to grassroots sports

Just like kids vie for the star position on the Little League soccer squad, more and more brands are competing for recognition at the grassroots sports level, where they can score points with a specific demographic. And while this area is a natural fit for sports-oriented brands, even marketers from outside the field are looking for ways to gain access.

Just like kids vie for the star position on the Little League soccer squad, more and more brands are competing for recognition at the grassroots sports level, where they can score points with a specific demographic. And while this area is a natural fit for sports-oriented brands, even marketers from outside the field are looking for ways to gain access.

‘I definitely have seen more companies wanting to move in that direction,’ says Keith McIntyre, president of sports marketing firm K.Mac & Associates.

‘I think one of the reasons is that connecting one-on-one offers an opportunity to build stronger loyalty.’

Further, there is a trend away from pro sports sponsorships, according to sports marketer Michael Gouinlock, president of The GEM Group, Toronto, who says prices for grassroots initiatives could range from $15,000 for a sigle-market program, to $1-million for a national program. ‘It’s so cluttered and expensive…and there’s a disconnect between the consumer and the pro-athlete. Can they really relate to someone making $15 million a year?’

Certainly, there is a healthy number of Canadians involved in physical activity these days: according to Statistics Canada, 1998 saw more than eight-million citizens aged 15+ participate in sport.

Brands are beginning to clue into the movement toward local parks, says Pete McAskile, CEO and CD of Second Dimension in Toronto. He points out that a number of his clients have switched ad dollars from mainstream efforts to localized initiatives.

As an example he cites 7-Eleven’s Ontario division, which felt that ‘broad based advertising wasn’t getting to their communities.’ So Second Dimension developed a summer test program for the chain, whereby 7-Eleven branded Hummers make the rounds at soccer tournaments, parks and rinks. At each location, reps invite kids to spin a wheel, where they can win prizes like Slurpees, the company’s proprietary frozen drinks.

While such endeavours may not impact sales immediately, it’s an effective way to cultivate deeper community ties. CCM, the hockey equipment and apparel label owned by The Hockey Company, Montreal, hopes to do just that with its new ‘Community Assist’ Youth Hockey Program. Beginning this summer, CCM will accept requests from youth hockey organizations across North America for 10 bursaries worth $5,000 in product. ‘What’s key is being close to the player, and that’s getting as close to the arena as possible,’ explains Len Rhodes, VP of global marketing, who says the company also supports youth tournaments and spends 20% of its sponsorship and promotions budget at local rinks.

But while enhancement of brand image is a goal, so too is securing loyalty at a young age. Company research indicates that 60% of athletes remain loyal to the first brand of skates they purchase. ‘Statistics show that they’re going for repeat purchases over time, and over many years, that can result in a significant number of pairs of skates and equipment.’

Another advantage to entering the grassroots sports arena is that demographics are very focused. BMO Mutual Funds, an arm of the Bank of Montreal, which is affiliated with Skate Canada at the national rank, is considering its support of kids’ figure skating through Can Skate carnivals, where it can access parents of two-to-eight-year-olds for its RESP product. While a decision is still pending on whether plans will go ahead this fall, the firm aims to install booths with educational information at community-based functions, enabling it to communicate one-on-one with the target, according to a spokesperson.

Since its inception six years ago, The Toronto Central Sport & Social Club (TCS&SC) has attracted sponsors eager to tap into its demographic: college-educated professionals aged 22 to 32. ‘There are so many similarities between this group of people,’ says director Kristi Herold-Miller, who adds that the gender breakdown is 45% women and 55% men. ‘If you go to a university [to advertise], the interests could range, whereas we know that people in our group have at least one similar interest: playing sports in a social atmosphere.’ Having grown in membership an average of 50% each year, the club permits sponsors to access its 15,000-strong direct mail database 6,000 of which have e-mail addresses, as well as organize sampling opportunities whenever they want.

Blue Light is one of the more recent sponsors to jump on-board with TCS&SC. According to Paul Shugart, the beer manufacturer’s director of corporate properties and consumer communications, the club fit the brew’s new ‘Free your time’ positioning like a glove. Teams who score the highest in ‘spirit points,’ or in other words, squads that show good sportsmanship, are entered into a contest to win a cooler filled with branded tees and baseball caps every two weeks. At the end of spring season, those with the most spirit points were entered into a draw to win a night in Labatt’s Skydome box to watch a Blue Jays match. ‘Above all else you want to get to beer drinkers and associate with them when they are in a drinking situation,’ explains Shugart. ‘Our relationship is in the early stages, and we intend to build on it in the next little while.’

One company that has leveraged its affiliation with the club over the years is Belleville, Ont.-based Wilson Sports Equipment Canada. ‘The best way to introduce people to a product is to have them play with it,’ says business manager Jim Sanderson, who adds that the company also strove to update its image. ‘This demographic equated Wilson to dad’s Oldsmobile… We wanted that exposure with them because it hammers home that we’re not just a staid brand, we’re out there being active and providing a benefit.’

Wilson’s ad budget is split evenly between grassroots, collegiate and pro sports sponsorships. But Sanderson says it could take awhile before results from localized programs kick in. Despite being involved with volleyball at grassroots for the past six years – both through TCS&SC and other tournaments – it’s only in the past two that there has been a spike in sales. Still, ‘in a five-year period, our volleyball sales have doubled,’ reports Sanderson. ‘It’s a pretty flat market so we know we’re making strides.’

There’s another benefit to having a presence at local leagues: the ability to build a database, a project Wilson is currently working on. The company plans to run contests and collect information, including e-mails, through questionnaires onsite. In the future, the goal is to introduce new products and technology to database members, as well as hold focus groups via the Web.

Despite all the hyperbole, there are a few risks involved when teaming up with a grassroots organization. McIntyre warns there might be a level of frustration involved when it comes to execution, since many clubs are built purely on a volunteer basis. ‘Coming in from a corporate side, if your expectation is to meet certain objectives, you may not get that co-operation.’

Delivery is still a challenge too, because while a national organization may have 500,000 registered members, they often don’t have direct access to them, points out Gouinlock. ‘They go through provincial organizations to municipal to coaches,’ he explains. ‘So each time you have another layer, your delivery is weeded out.’ A better gameplan is to sign up with each individual club, like TCS&SC, he advises, which might eat up more time and resources.

But a brand shouldn’t be thrifty just because they’re dealing with local initiatives anyway, adds McIntyre. ‘It’s the quality of the brand that you’re bringing out there, and if you don’t look at it in that context, you’re jeopardizing the integrity of your brand.’