Sports leagues understand media better than most. Here's how they're using that knowledge in their content marketing. 

I'm going to do my best to avoid littering this article with content-related sports metaphors.

There won't be a single comparison of a piece of content to a touchdown.

I will NOT refer to anything as a slam dunk, unless of course it's an actual dunk.

And you'll hear absolutely zero references to anything being out of bounds, offside or a foul.

The US professional sports leagues are among the most advanced businesses in the world when it comes to creating content, but that hasn't always been the case.

Traditionally, the heavy lifting on branded sports content has been done by consumer brands partnering with leagues, teams, or individual athletes.

Big names like Nike, Gatorade, and Adidas have invested heavily to associate their names with these adored athletes, and they've seen a huge return on their investment. This is still very much the case and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

But as younger audiences have moved more towards digital media consumption and away from television, there's been an opportunity for the leagues themselves to get in the content business.

Professional sports leagues are already in the entertainment business, they have access to many of the world's biggest superstars and they have substantial marketing budgets.

In the last 5-10 years, we've seen the leagues begin to take a more holistic approach to telling their story, by investing in content that goes way beyond what happens on game day.

There are three key motivators driving this investment in high-quality storytelling:

Controlling the Message

Things haven't exactly been peachy keen between sports media and the National Football League. Whether it's Seattle Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch dissing reporters by saying he's only attending Super Bowl media day to avoid fines, or controversy surrounding the Chicago Bears' ban on reporters at preseason practice, there's hardly a week that goes by without some drama.

Add this to a number of more serious scandals, including a class action lawsuit claiming the NFL hid evidence of brain damage from doctors and players, and you have a league that's in desperate need of a change in its brand positioning.

Now more than ever, the league has a vested interest in telling its story on its own terms.

In December 2014, under the helm of Brian Rolapp, president & CEO of the NFL Network, the NFL launched its own YouTube channel, which allows the league to push out tons of positive content, keeping fans engaged on the things the NFL does well, as opposed to all its problems.

The NFL's YouTube gives the league an excellent opportunity to repurpose it's Fantasy Sports content, such as the "Friends Don't Small Talk" video series, which jokingly shows what people would talk about without Fantasy Football.

It's also heavily invested in promoting the NFL draft through NFL Draft Diaries, which give a behind the scenes look at the league's newest players.

Engaging a Younger Audience

Major League Baseball is arguably the sport that has the hardest time appealing to the younger generation of fans. 

World Series television viewership has been on a fairly steady decline over the past decade, while the median age of the the 2014 World Series viewer hit 55.6 years old, a record high. But MLB is also arguably the most advanced league in the world when it comes to executing digital streaming, which is key for attracting younger audiences.

Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) is the league's digital arm that is co-owned by the 30 MLB teams, and has video technology that's advanced enough to support huge partners like ESPN, and HBO.

MLBAM has also created video content in parnership with sponsoring brands, like this series with MapQuest Key to the City, featuring funny tours of cities, and ending with an MLB game.

According toThe Wall Street Journal, MLBAM was also the first brand to strike a deal for regularly scheduled content through Snapchat's hot new "Our Stories" feature, which allows users to send in content within geotagged areas.

Each Wednesday or Thursday Snapchat publishes a curated story from MLB games across the country, largely attracting the coveted Gen Z audience.

Increasing Off-Season Enthusiasm

NBA Pulse, a website that looks at social media stats of different players is a great example of a league that's engaging fans year-round. 

Take a look at it right now and you'll get up-to-the-minute stats for which players, teams, and topics are being discussed.

According to a recent article by Digiday, NBA Pulse began as a fan destination, but the league now also uses the data to inform the content they create on NBA.com.

This allows the NBA to optimize its content based on what their fans are actually talking about all year round, making the site more competitive with big media names like ESPN and Fox Sports.

Hard Knocks, created by NFL Films and HBO, is an excellent example of using broader storytelling to build up fan enthusiasm in the off-season.

After watching the five episode docuseries featuring an NFL team's preseason, fans feel connected to the players, and more excited than ever for the start of the season.

So while it's true that I promised not to call this kind of content a slam dunk, clearly for these leagues, its been a home run.

Sam Slaughter

Published 27 August, 2015 by Sam Slaughter

Sam is VP of Content at Contently. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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