Sport Marketing During the Pandemic

Lucy Trepanier, second-year Graphic Communications Management student minoring in Marketing Management, and Hayden Godfrey, third-year Professional Communication student, share their impressions of the virtual MLSE panel discussion they attended for their Sport Marketing (MKT 829) class:

For almost any sport media or sport marketing student in Toronto, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) represents the professional endgame. Whether it be corporate marketing, social strategy, community engagement, mobile app development or digital storytelling, MLSE is, for many, the zenith for up-and-coming sports professionals in Canada’s largest city.

Ryerson University has several leading programs aimed at preparing students for work in North American professional sports, among them the Radio and Television Arts (RTA) School’s Sport Media program, the Ted Rogers School of Management’s (TRSM) new sport-focused Masters of Business Administration (MBA) and the undergraduate Sport Marketing theme minor via the Department of Marketing Management.  If you were to ask students in those programs where they want to work from these programs, odds are they’d respond with MLSE.

The network connections acquired in these programs have provided the incredible opportunity for us to interact with prominent staff members of MLSE in panels throughout the semester, via MKT 829 Sport Marketing, led by Dr. Cheri L. Bradish. As students, we have gained incredible firsthand insight from professionals within this organization.

Through Zoom, our class had the chance to hear from Taylor Dean (Manager, Game Presentation, Toronto Maple Leafs), David August (Director of Venue Technology), Rebecca Ross (Senior Director, Content & Creative; Marketing), Christian Magsisi (Senior Director, Technology & Digital), John Wiggins (Vice-President, Organizational Culture & Inclusion), Jeff Landicho (Director/Producer) and Michael Gelfand (Executive Producer) about their experiences navigating through an unprecedented and tumultuously ambiguous time in sport marketing.

From listening to these professionals speak about sport marketing content and strategy in the COVID-19 era, one thing was made explicitly clear: they all welcome and embrace change in their industry. They don’t shy away from challenges to the conventions of their industry, nor do they conform to the norms of their contemporaries. MLSE truly is a leader in the digital, social and marketing spheres of the professional sports world.

From the digital perspective, Magsisi and Ross reinforced the importance of “pivoting” the in-stadium experience through the use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). In a time of fanless arenas, Magsisi noted, these tools can be invaluable for organizations in their fight to retain the attention of their audience.

On the fan engagement side, Dean was proud of her team’s performance in the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Toronto hub, the circumstances of which forced her to quickly adapt on the fly and be creative in unforeseen ways. Normally tasked with directing everything from the audio-visual show to the cheerleading routines, Dean was no longer armed with the vast arsenal of arena entertainment tools she previously had available during her 11 seasons with the Leafs.

At the logistical level, August said he was challenged in ensuring the smooth and consistent running of the organization’s venues from technical, logistical and safety standpoints. Though not something traditionally thought of when it comes to running a professional sports team, August’s insight offered an incredibly unique perspective into the disruption the pandemic has caused.

From an organizational perspective, Wiggins stressed the need for improvement around the areas of inclusivity and diversity. The same sentiment was expressed by Landicho, who took us through the process of producing documentary and cinematic content inside the National Basketball Association (NBA) bubble in Orlando, Fla. Landicho shared that individuals reached out to him to amplify and create specific content for action.

Wiggins indicated that these isolated platforms could be seen as an opportunity to have more inclusive conversations. When coming up to the microphone for post-game interviews, players had the chance to advocate issues that matter to them. Wiggins also spoke of large corporations and their responsibility to reflect their markets and values.

MLSE’s diversity and corporate depth were shown off in terrific fashion during the panel. Given that the organization owns and operates seven teams (and some other lesser-known properties including the Raptors Uprising GC of the NBA 2K League), it would be hard to imagine anything else being portrayed.

Through lighthearted, water cooler-style conversations that were laden with friendly quips and informative anecdotes, the panel painted an honest picture of what it’s like to be in their shoes at this moment in time; it might be fun, but it’s challenging and pervasively dynamic.

When we logged onto the Zoom call wherein the panel would be held, we didn’t expect there to be such an air of lighthearted collaboration surrounding the professionals who we’d be speaking to. In the most respectful and hard-working way possible, it sounded as if the members of MLSE were employees at a young startup, where passion and drive were ingredients in their every project. We didn’t expect MLSE, of all places, to be teeming with character, creativity and togetherness. But, to our surprise, the conversations were charged with enthusiasm, loaded with optimism and laden with fandom.

We also didn’t realize just how much stuff there is under the MLSE umbrella. From game operations to social media strategy to overarching marketing strategy, it truly does take a village to raise a hockey team. It’s this realistic look into real-world environments that we’re thankful to be able to get from our professors and network at Ryerson and beyond.

And so, while MLSE remains the ultimate goal for those aspiring to work in professional sports in Canada, it became more interesting, at least in our minds, with this informative panel. In that way, the world of sport marketing (especially in the Canadian market), is now far more complex than ever for students like ourselves with grand career aspirations, and that’s not a bad thing by any stretch.

Thank you to all of the above-named MLSE panelists for their time and advice. Thank you as well to Dr. Cheri Bradish for organizing such engaging and relevant panelists for our course.