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The David Chronicles: Lessons Learned From Marketing Smarter, Faster, Cheaper

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by David Garland in David's Blog

The David Chronicles: Lessons Learned From Marketing Smarter, Faster, Cheaper(NOTE: This is the fifth installment of a new personal series I’m trying out to see if you like it, find it interesting, funny, helpful, whatever. It is no-punches-pulled, 100% ridiculously transparent. The first, second, third, and fourth articles received an awesome (and unexpected) response, so I’ll keep ’em rolling).

It was the fall of 2006 and pro inline hockey was slated to start in about one month. Now with a few sponsors on board, it was time to maximize the marketing budget to answer this key question:

“How do we create buzz about an inline hockey league and generate a fan base to come out?”

All we have to do is buy a ton of ads, right (hope you sense the sarcasm there, and a screw-up story is coming in a bit)? We could buy ads everywhere locally and people could come to the games. It would only cost thousands and thousands of dollars. And if it worked, we could buy more and more and more (insert evil laughter here).

I decided to create a spreadsheet of how to allocate the marketing budget. I opened the computer and wrote one line:

“Marketing Budget: $0”

Crap. So much for going the expensive route.

I figured, out of necessity, I had to get creative. Perhaps I could out maneuver the Goliath’s of the sports world by playing a little small ball. Some things worked really well. Some things were miserable failures.

My hope by sharing these experiences of course is to help you and your business. Perhaps something sparks an idea or a strategy that YOU can use. That is always the goal.

Here’s what worked and what didn’t between 2006-2008.

#1: Getting Social

To recruit players for the league (we needed about 100), the key was leveraging what already existed. That meant tapping into the local rinks to make sure EVERYONE who played at that rink at any level knew there was a new pro league coming and if they knew someone 18+, they should tryout (there was also a minor league division for people 16+). This meant putting up flyers at the rinks & encouraging the workers and managers to tell everyone who walked through the door. I would have bought everyone a massive, awkward sandwich sign…but we didn’t have the budget.

Second, knowing the hockey community in St. Louis, I tapped into Myspace (hard to believe, I know, but it was the hotness in 2006) and Facebook. I did my best to search and connect with players and personally invite them to come tryout for the league. Honestly, it took a LOT (read: TONS) of time. But, it was worth it. The cool thing about social media of course is the social proofing aspect. Meaning, the big names had to be corralled first. And once people knew those guys were on board to tryout, the chips fell into place.

Sort of like in the online world where many of us buy a product or check out a website that someone influential (to you) mentioned. Same principles.

#2: Empowering Evangelists

When you have local players playing in a professional league, there is some magic there. Why? Because they can tap into family and friends to come to the games. There is a built-in audience (contrast that with most sports leagues where the players are from lord-knows-where).

The idea here was that each player would be allowed a certain amount of free tickets to give out to family and friends (I believe it was around 8 per player per game). The tickets for the league were super cheap ($5, with kids 8-and-under free) so it wasn’t like giving away the farm. The key revenue came from sponsorships as opposed to ticket sales (100% of ticket sales went to the hosting rinks so it wasn’t much a business model. Going back, perhaps there would have been a better way to do this).

The players-as-marketers worked extremely well for one reason: Pride. It is fun (and cool) to tell your friends and family that you are in a professional hockey league (and might impress 1 in 928845753757 girls). Who cares if it is on wheels? I also played in the league for one of the teams (Southside Snipers) and I remember that it was really fun to talk about and I know the other guys liked talking about it too.

It was like having a 100+ person marketing force of nature spreading the word around town. Sweet.

#3: Kick It Off With A Big Freakin’ Event

We all love experiences. Something fun. Something memorable. An event. And the cool thing about throwing events in the social web age we are living through now is it is much more than just a few hours of actual event time. People post on Facebook where they are going. People post photos and videos during and after the event. Some tweet during events. Buzz can spread long after the event. If the event was good, of course, this is a good thing. If the event was terrible, this can be a disaster (and I’ve seen this first hand when a friend of mine put on a little…ummm…problematic event. That is whole other story).

For pro inline hockey, the idea was to throw a big ass draft party (this was actually one of the team owners’ “big idea” that popped up in a brainstorming session and we decided to run with it).

The idea behind the party was to have all the players show up along with friends and family for drinks, entertainment, food and then a live draft where they would get selected to their teams for the season.

Players would get in free. Family and friends would buy a ticket for $25 that included catered food, drink tickets, door prizes and more. We grabbed a local band (who had a relative playing in the league), utilized one of the rinks for the party (remember no ice for anyone to slip on and break their face…this was inline hockey), and brought in a casino company to do games for prizes. The nice thing was people pre-bought tickets so we could spend to make it memorable and a lot of fun.

Over 500 people ended up showing up and it was an absolute blast. I’d say it definitely accomplished all the goals, especially generating buzz and excitement for the upcoming season.

#4: Media Relations

If I were to choose something that made this all work when it came to marketing and promoting the league, it involved media in some shape or form (#4,#5,#6 here on our list of fun).

First and foremost, clearly there was no money for a PR firm or anything of that nature, so I decided to try my hand at it and see what would happen. How could we get covered by the local press?

I learned by fire (and any entrepreneur can definitely do this) what each individual media source wanted and who the key person was to form a relationship with.

The key was not EVER sending a press release to individuals, but instead simply contacting reporters on an individual basis after having a full understanding of what they cover. Trust me, it makes all the difference.

Here were the angles that worked:


The media loves new. Especially local media where there is some hometown pride. The Riverfront Times and St. Louis Magazine both interviewed me for stories and welcomed the new league to St. Louis and I was invited on a popular sports talk TV show (1st TV appearance…ever. When I watch it I cry a little bit. Mostly because I should have gotten a haircut.) hosted by a local sports rock star, Randy Gardner.

David vs. Goliath

Another popular story angle is a little guy taking on the big guys. Granted, the league wasn’t really taking on the NHL (I mean, seriously?) but there was a story here about going ridiculously affordable for families ($5 tickets, door prizes, kids 8-and-under free, etc.). I came up with a line that we won’t sell you a $20 hot dog. That line must have caused a giggle somewhere as I was invited to come on the Best Of The STL variety show to talk about the league (and bring some players in full uniform which stunk up the studio. Fun times).


The final angle was focused around the economics of the league. The local business journal did a story titled, “Fledging inline hockey league scores A-B sponsorship” in response to us signing a deal with Anheuser Busch (pre-Inbev days).

I can tell you this 100%: If you are passionate about what you are talking about and can deliver some great content, you can get coverage. Period. Give it a shot.

#5: Creating A Column

In St. Louis there was a local hockey newspaper always looking for content. On a random whim I reached out to the head of it and offered to write a column about inline hockey. He asked me to write out a couple of samples and shoot ’em over. I did so and he said he liked it (maybe he was drunk or something…who knows).

I ended up writing a monthly column for the paper covering inline hockey in St. Louis (from kids to pros).

This created an incredible opportunity on many fronts:

  • I got to practice writing, which is something I enjoy.
  • It was published and it promoted the league as well.
  • The newspaper continued to have relevant content.

My suggestion? Identify 10 different publications in your area of interest. Online and offline. Reach out to them. Suggest an idea. Seriously, you never know what might happen. The key of course is not to come off as a product pusher, but instead a trusted resource that can offer something very valuable.

#6: Media Making: The Birth Of The Radio Show

The second year of the league created probably the most interesting opportunity. A local radio station (an ESPN affiliate) came to me and said they had heard about the league and were curious if I wanted to do a radio show on their station every Saturday at noon. They had essentially open programming time and for a fee of around $500 a month I could have my own show. They would have a production team help me and run their ads BUT (massive BUT), I could do my own sponsorship plugs on the show.

I quickly opened my resume on my computer and just as I suspected/remembered…I had zero radio experience. Nodda. Zip. Zilch.

But, this seemed like an awesome opportunity.

So, I said sure. I’ll give it a shot. Why not? I figured I could leverage sponsorships to pay for it and it would allow a creative opportunity to promote the league via a show. Get Inline: Your Source For Professional Inline Hockey in St. Louis was born (much more about this random adventure in the next installment).

The show ended up being a blast and really benefitting for the league. We reached new sports fans, I got to bring on players, coaches, and other folks for interviews. Once a month I would broadcast the show live from one of the rinks which added buzz to the atmosphere with the big radio tent and cool looking equipment. And the show was also turned into a podcast that I could put on the league website for some extra content. Plus it allowed for a new revenue stream and area sponsors could get involved with it. Sweet.

#7: Random Failures

I’m sure there were many “failures” along the way, but here are a couple of them to wrap up (perhaps a whole article on this is needed). I put “failures” in quotes, because I don’t really think they are as much failures as they are learning experiences…because something positive came out of them.

For example, once we did have a little money going, we voted to take an ad out in a local newspaper (I know…sighhhh). We got some tiny little square for around $500. And they screwed it up like three times. Meaning, they accidentally blurred the ad when producing it, which made us look like jackasses. Plus of course, it wasn’t measurable at all (not saying everything is measurable but this was probably the least…people would come up and tell me they liked listening to the radio show but nobody came up and said awesome ad in the paper…content wins).

That being said, the guy from the radio station actually saw the ad in the paper and contacted me about it to talk about the radio. So it DID end up with a positive impact of some kind…just not the intended one. Plus it was a pain in the butt.

Oh, and then there was Clownvis. Half Elvis. Half clown. I brought him in for halftime entertainment. Sigh. Watch the video. I think the kids might have been scared of him and cried themselves to sleep for weeks. But I was entertained.

Bottom Line: Here is the secret (come real close). When I first got going, I had no idea what I was doing at all. It was trial and error. Zigging and zagging. Now, looking back things make more sense, but isn’t everything always clearer in hindsight?

Your thoughts?

In the next installment: Adventures in Radio.

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8 Steps to Turning What You Already Know into a Successful Online Course

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