MKTG Insights: As the Jays Take the Field, Do Sponsors #LoveThisTeam?
Last season, by signing high-priced free agents and trading for established veterans, the Toronto Blue Jays made a strong statement to both fans and corporate sponsors that they intended to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox of the world. Through this commitment the Jays were poised for success both on and off the field, which translated to increased interest in the Jays as a sponsorship property. Unfortunately, the potential of the Jays did not translate into performance and one year later the expectations are not so lofty (Vegas puts the Blue Jays' World Series chances in the bottom half of the league).
With the dome set to open at the Rogers Centre in less than a month, MKTG provides some key points of consideration on the Blue Jays for the sponsorship community to consider.
Passion is more sustainable (and perhaps more marketable) than performance: After a disappointing 2013 season in which the Jays were considered World Series contenders, one thing is clear: betting on performance alone is a risky bet. For some brands, like endemics, the tie to performance is more of a natural fit. These brands can draw on various attributes of athletes and focus their story both on team and individual performance to transfer these attributes to their brand (Power, Agility, Speed, etc). However, for most brands, there is deeper opportunity by appealing to the emotional side of fans. For sponsors, a World Series victory is certainly a huge benefit, but the reality is that only one team can win and the natural competition in sport means that there could be many years between playoff appearances and World Series Championships. Passion, on the other hand is present year in and year out, making a focus on passion more sustainable than a focus on performance. Jays Nation is a passionate community - sponsors who engage with these fans to show their team pride will be relevant regardless of the team's record. In many respects, the passion vs. performance sponsorship narrative debate hinges on fan expectations. As much-hyped contenders, the Jays were ultimately perceived as underperformers last season after their 5th place AL East finish. With few people projecting them to be a Playoff team in 2014, there is an opportunity for the team to surprise both fans and sponsors by exceeding expectations. A playoff push by the Blue Jays, while not expected, will provide unexpected value to corporate sponsors.
Springtime competition: For the first time in a decade, Torontonians will likely have the chance to see both the Leafs and Raptors in the playoffs. Fan interest and media attention will be fragmented. During the April playoff push and May first-round matchups the Leafs and Raptors are likely to get front page attention. For Jays sponsors, early season momentum - a key peak period for the Jays - may be undercut, impacting their ability to break-through. For example, during last season's 1st round NHL Playoff matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, the Jays played 2 home games. Game 1 of the Leafs-Bruins series was played at the same time as a Wednesday night Blue Jays home game at the Rogers Centre. The result: a nearly 25% reduction in average Wednesday Home Game attendance (see below). Furthermore, the Toronto FC will likely be a bigger draw than ever after the "Bloody Big Deal". Interest is high for MLSE's teams under Tim Leiweke's leadership. The pressure is on Rogers to match MLSE's presence in-market and that pressure will be amplified this Spring.
Despite increased competition and less pre-season buzz, MKTG believes that the Toronto Blue Jays remain attractive as a property and can offer sponsors a number of unique benefits, including:
Unmatched direct reach: While the Blue Jays do not hold the same level of prestige in the Toronto Marketplace as the Maple Leafs for example, as a property, the Jays are accessible and offer brands more in-stadium direct reach than any other property in Canada. The Blue Jays play 81 home games, nearly double the amount played by any other professional team in Canada. For example, while the combined home attendance of the Toronto Maple Leafs stands at approximately 800,000, the Blue Jays attract over 2 million people to the Rogers Centre per season. That being said, sponsors must understand that with larger stadiums, fan proximity - and with it, venue intimacy- can suffer.
MKTG President Brian Cooper: "As the only MLB team in Canada, the Jays are a great vehicle to speak to the entire nation. While the longer schedule means more eyeballs over the course of the season than in any other sport, sponsors must understand the unique differences between a baseball stadium and a hockey/basketball arena. At double the size, ballparks lack the intimacy of smaller arenas."
Strong digital presence: The brand narrative from the property itself has evolved. In 2013, "#LoveThisTeam" was featured on all official team social media posts and became the digital anthem for Jays fans. The property itself displayed foresight by creating a narrative around passion. "#LoveThisTeam" spoke to the loyalty and tradition of being a Jays fan in Toronto. The hashtag strategy was also clever in that it was unbranded (which would help adoption rates) and asked the Fan to emotionally invest in the team. In many respects, this approach has afforded the team the room to come back in 2014 and ask fans to come back again. The digital savvy has continued this season with the Blue Jays pre-season advertising. Blue Jays creative spots have featured John Newman's "Love Me Again" - a somewhat cheeky nod to last year's hype-driven slogan, and a tacit apology to fans as the team hopes that the market will indeed #LoveThisTeam once again. As marketers, The Jays are a smart and humble organization and their social outreach efforts provide value to partners by building the Jays brand and offering opportunities for partnership extensions.
Changing demographics: There is an energetic youth movement of baseball fans in Canada.The 18-34 demo comprises of more than 50% of attendees at the Rogers Centre. this group has made the stadium experience vibrant, not unlike what has happened with the Toronto Raptors. While baseball will always have tradition and nostalgia baked into the experience, sponsors who can capitalize on the changing face of Jays Nation with a spirited narrative and youthful activations will see energetic youth movement of baseball fans in Canada. Additonally, there is a less of a corporate feel to the stadium experience when compared with other sports.
MKTG President Brian Cooper: "Maple Leafs games attract a very businesslike audience from Toronto's corporate community. Games are a business outing with lots of VIP hosting. Blue Jays games feel like more of a social outing. Less frenetic viewing and more conversation for fans in the stands. Brands have a chance to be more in-focus as opposed to background noise in a more slow-paced atmosphere."
Continued Activation Innovation: Among the Blue Jay sponsors who have recently established top-of-mind activations includes Budweiser' King Club bar area (offered an advancement to the fan experience) and TD's Comfort Seats (engaging stadium innovation that fit with brand and property). Further, Boston Pizza (MKTG Client) have - as recently as this week - used social media to reach the next generation Jays Fan. BP attempted to lure prospective free agent signing Ervin Santana with an offer of BP product for both himself and local charities - a brand halo play within an important market. These brands are case studies in how sponsors can build up equity with the team. All three brands have assets that fit with their overall brand narrative and have focused on programming that enhances the viewing experience for the fan. Prospective and new partners can learn from their approach.