How a digital content team prepared for the Toronto Raptors to win the NBA championship
On the Content in Practice podcast, Peter Kelly (Twitter, LinkedIn) talks about how his content teams are able to manage some of the content operations for an organization that includes seven professional sports teams, including the NBA champion Toronto Raptors. Produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, theme music by Lee Rosevere.
A transcript of the podcast is below. Music used in this episode is from BOPD.
- Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment
- Toronto Raptors, Raptors 905
- Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Marlies
- Toronto FC, TFC II
- Toronto Argonauts
Content in Practice: The content operations podcast is produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, and presented by Content Strategy Inc. Theme music by Lee Rosevere, Happy Puppy Records.
Subscribe to Content in Practice:
For some people, the idea of working for a professional sports team is a dream come true. Imagine what it would be like at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) in Toronto. The company owns seven professional sports teams, including the NBA champion Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs, a venerable franchise with fans as passionate as those who follow Manchester United or the New York Yankees.
Peter Kelly is the director of digital experience and is living the dream. He’s a soccer aficionado, which works great because MLSE also owns the Toronto FC which plays in North America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) league. There’s also the Toronto Argonauts playing in the Canadian Football League and three minor league teams: Raptors 905, the Toronto Marlies, and TFC II.
The Raptors recently won the NBA championship after a playoff run that included a game-winning buzzer-beater basket by team star Kawhi Leonard that advanced the team into the semi-finals, and a six-game series against the Golden State Warriors.
With that many properties and storylines there’s lots of content going on. I asked Peter where his teams fit into it all.
Peter Kelly: Our teams are primarily focused on a variety of content types in the digital content ecosystem. We specialize very heavily in social content in large part because we’ve seen great success and growth in those platforms.
During the Raptors championship run, our Instagram was – I may misquote the stat here – but maybe the single highest growing Instagram account in the NBA during that time. We were on pace to hit two million followers in 2020 at the start of the season last year. And now we’re knocking on the door of three million. Now I don’t put too much stake on followers as a core metric, but it is a good indicator or a sign that things are going well.
So we specialize very heavily in social content and we do many different content formats within that system. You know, there’s graphic work, there is a lot of photography. The written word still has a place in our content ecosystem for sure in terms of articles for dot com, so web content as a part of that and our team mobile apps are increasingly important. We’ve put in a lot of emphasis on our mobile apps within the organization. They unlock a lot of different interesting customer experience potentials.
And MLSE Digital Labs is in a part of the organization that spun up just over a year ago and they’ve been doing really fantastic work digging into product design and getting our team mobile apps to be, frankly, some of the best in the business. So digital content is also a key part of that too. How we kind of plan for customer retention and utility within the app.
Blaine Kyllo: So do your teams provide content for those apps? Or do they have their own content teams?
Peter: It’s sort of a mixed bag at the moment. We’re starting to get better at understanding where one team kind of finishes and another team picks up. It’s been very collaborative. We’re all trying to achieve the same ends with regards to what success looks like in the app.
We want people to come in there and spend a lot of time and get a lot of value out of that and we’re starting to get more sophisticated in terms of understanding what it is people are coming to us for so that we can give them more of that information and content over time and kind of have them spend more time with our teams.
The great thing about the team apps is all of the additional components that you can kind of layer into that when it’s a proprietary team app. In-seat ordering has been a really helpful customer experience point that was launched this past season for the NHL and NBA.
Blaine: That’s me sitting in my seat, “Hey, I think I want a beer and some popcorn, I’m going to order it and tell them where I’m sitting,” and they bring it to me.
Peter: That’s exactly right. And now it’s also launched at BMO field now as well for both TFC and Argos. So that’s a customer experience design feature that the digital labs team really drove and brought to market. Our team was also very much involved in terms of the content around that. Like, how are we promoting us? How are we weaving it into some of our game-day storytelling on our social channels? And making it part of the messaging around the app that we’re bringing to market from an outbound perspective.
Blaine: In the digital experience world there is so much of a focus on the customer or the audience. That’s not easy to define within your organization. You’ve got lots of different segments that could be considered customers.
Peter: And they look very different for different kinds of phases of your relationship with any given team or brand within the organization. We often will kind of consider a general proximity to the brand and levels of avidity. We’ve done some really interesting research with some research partners in the past that suggested that if you’re in Ontario and you like basketball, there’s a really, really good chance that the team you’re going to pick are the Raptors.
However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an avid fan. There’s still a very big avidity gap between being an avid fan and just sort of a casual fan. So that gives us a little bit of a framework to play with in terms of levels of your engagement with the brand and whether or not that manifests in content consumption, or purchasing merchandise, or attending a game.
If you’re a Leafs fan, the vast majority of Leafs fans out there have a hard time getting to the arena. Because the brand is so strong and it goes in such far directions that it can be a challenge. It’s expensive to come to downtown Toronto and attend to game. So we need to find better ways and stronger ways to connect with fans all over the place.
We really do need to kind of consider all those different phases of a relationship that go beyond sort of like the earlier traditional metrics of buying a ticket, attending a game, buying food and beverages within the arena, which are still really, really important of course, to the business. But there’s a lot more to consider these days.
We try really hard to make sure that we remember that even though we are fans, we might not be the fan what we are trying to talk to in any different piece of content or communication.
That’s a much tougher thing to kind of get out of your habits because yeah, we all have emotional connections to the team. I was a diehard TFC fan when I joined the organization. It’s a little bit tough to make that also then the business that you work on.
How do you push them to get better? How do you sell more tickets within an environment when you might have an opinion that is very emotionally driven? You also need to remember to get strategic and tactical with those things. If you only allow yourself to consider your own perspective, you might be missing a lot of what makes brands relevant and culturally interesting to other aspects of the city and the province and the country really.
The Toronto Raptors are the only NBA team in Canada and for the past few years the team has used the tagline, “We the north,” in an effort to drive fan affiliation from across the country. It’s been effective, but Peter explained that the work being done by his teams doesn’t rely so much on messaging frameworks.
Peter: We don’t have messaging frameworks explicitly mostly because it would just be too dynamic to try and lock that in. Many of our sports teams need constant attention to understand what narratives and storylines can sustain in market and what might have sensitive implications.
If a player gets injured, for example, you suddenly have to change everything that you approach the team with in terms of who and how you’re featuring, and even just sort of like highlight, cut or what sorts of warm-up, shoot-around content you’re shooting from the court.
All of these things require a lot of cognitive load balancing in the way that you’re shooting and approaching every single game day’s worth of content. So to set up a messaging framework would be a little bit too rigid, actually a process for us to kind of maintain.
Instead what we do is we kind of keep tabs on all the editorial threads as they come along and see where we can kind of turn up the dial or turn it back depending upon what areas of sensitivity or what messages in market are really salient. And frankly the speed of social makes it a really challenging affair.
But also a really rewarding one because things happen on #NBA Twitter at such a fast clip that if you can keep your eyes open for trends as they emerge and then you can participate in them, it can be extremely rewarding with very high engagement with your fans. And if you can take that perspective to try and be a part of it and not try and oversteer the conversation it can really have a lot of positive impact on your fans as well as on the brand.
And when you’re able to capitalize on the real-time excitement of a sporting event, amazing things can happen. Like, for example, the aforementioned last-second basket by Leonard that is shown in this Twitter post.
KAWHI CALLED SERIES! pic.twitter.com/V4AIuMULNO
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 13, 2019
Peter: I am very proud of the work that the Raptor’s [content] team was able to kind of pull together because they helped steer two of the most important functions of our social content during that time.
The first of which is to put yourself in position to take advantage of the most incredible moments on a playoff run when they happen in as quick and relevant a way as possible.
To this date – unless I’m mistaken – the most engaged and watched social post we have ever put out is a pretty simple clip of Kawhi’s shot; the game-winning buzzer-beating shot against Philadelphia.
I had a friend text me that if that shot was in a movie they would have told the director to dial it back. Because it’s just so dramatic a moment.
But being able to quickly turn that around with the technology that we use to kind of get real-time highlight clips out into market meant that we could capitalize on instant excitement in a way that is really unique to sports content.
Blaine: So despite the fact that nobody prepares to win a championship, you actually prepared for the Raptors to win. Because you needed to be ready in case they did.
Peter: No one can predict the future. We have to be prepared to win and lose a championship at any given moment.
From a content creator’s perspective, those contexts and that kind of source material are great to work with.
Peter: The other thing is after you’ve put yourself in a position to take advantage of all the things that naturally come to you when you’re in the right place at the right time, thinking more creatively about how you take advantage of those moments from a package perspective.
So we had some really creative minds on our video content team who worked on these Raptors mix tapes, which are modeled after old And1 mixtape-style videos.
And they’re just really, really great, very built for the internet kind of pieces of homage content that also brings our brand forward as well as looking backwards, which is also very relevant as we kind of start to slide into our 25th anniversary next year.
But also, you know, we worked with some really great partners, like with some colleagues at STN Digital who helped us create a unique, very socially-driven pieces of creative that we were able to share at some of those moments. Like when we had a big series win and we wanted to do something very “internetty,” very meme-driven. We had those things kind of prepared, in the hopper, ready to go. And some of those things were also some of our best performing content throughout our playoff run.
I have to give that team a ton of credit. They really found a really strong balance of, you know, enjoying and celebrating the moments when they happen, putting themselves in the right place, and also preparing for those big moments in very unique and creative ways that ultimately tied together into almost a meta-narrative throughout the course of the playoffs too. So if you were following along on social with the Raptors playoff run you probably would’ve noticed some themes that kind of persisted a little bit.
Blaine: There’s content happening in other areas of the business, it’s not just you that has content teams, so how does everybody stay in touch with each other and with what’s going on to make sure that alignment is there?
Peter: Right. It’s – I won’t lie – it’s one of our biggest challenges. We have sort of developed regular meeting cadences with a certain degree of content stakeholders internally so that we can make sure that even just understanding what everybody’s working on and is face-to-face with at any given moment.
Just being aware of that is in a lot of ways, one of the most helpful evolutions of our team’s integration to other content practices. Being on site for practices and training is really critical for a lot of our social content folks on my team as well. Just being there on site and being face-to-face with players, coaches, staff so that they know your face and that when you’re around, they don’t feel like they need to ask somebody else around saying like, “Hey, who is this guy?”
It’s one way to kind of stay in the loop as just sort of being a part of the conversation and being present. And otherwise, another way is making sure that we have the right forums for discussion so that when things do come up, we can kind of troubleshoot them in time and take things offline. There’s always a lot of major moments in sports marketing of course. So when those things happen, it’s a lot of “all-hands-on-deck” moments where you’ve got video content folks, the social content folks, PR, there’s a lot of people that kind of need to get involved to make sure that we’re all singing from the same song book. Yeah, yeah. It’s not an industry for the slow paced.
Peter’s digital teams also work with partners who are sponsors of or advertisers with the teams. This requires completely different governance and processes.
Peter: Partnership content is a really interesting part of our business where we’re getting more sophisticated by the day, but it’s not one where I could say that we’ve definitely cracked the code on quite yet.
I think we’re getting a lot better and we have a lot of really smart minds at the company kind of dedicated to figuring out what the right level of integration is for partners where they can succeed.
If we’re going to kind of get this model to work right, we really need to make sure we’re always obsessed with the Venn diagram of where our two brands can kind of intersect and play really well from an editorial perspective.
We’re getting so much better in this space. There’s so much growth opportunity for us to really help partners achieve their own business objectives through accessing our channels. We just want to try and get the formula quite right.
What we’ve kind of learned from speaking to a lot of experts in the field, too, is that it actually probably isn’t a formula at all. It’s probably just making sure you have the right people with the right frame of mind talking about these opportunities every single time as they kind of come through.
And you can have an appetite for experimentation to make sure that you do get the brand mix right. And then once you do, you can lean a little bit harder into that model that you set up.
Blaine: Is there a typical format or type that content plays? Or does it depend on the specific context?
Peter: It really does depend on what the brand partner that we’re bringing on board is looking to achieve. I think that if you have just sort of like awareness objectives and you just want to get out into market and make sure that your brand and your logo or your value proposition has salience in the Ontario market, we can help you do that. We can also help you connect with fans in more emotional ways that kind of helps all of our brands kind of blend together really nicely.
We do have one content series that we have run with our partner Sport Chek.
They were interested in trying to push beyond sort of traditional sports stories and where we found a really interesting nexus between not just our brands but what they were interested in telling from a storytelling perspective and what we were interested in telling from a storytelling perspective where a lot of the folks that are not exactly behind the scenes, they are attached to the scenes but you don’t really see their faces.
For example, someone who is the equipment manager for the Raptors. An incredible story that we were able to tell through video content that we shared both on YouTube and on our social channels. There’s all these sort of figures around a Raptors game day that aren’t just about the coach and the front office and the players. There’s so many people to kind of help bring a game to life, and being able to tell their stories as well. That really helped expand the Raptors universe.
Blaine: That would have been interesting. So that’s your teams and their team sitting together and talking about, “Hey, let’s do something together. What does this look like?”
Peter: Yeah, very much so. I mean, we had a previous program that was doing well, so it really did take a lot of forward thinking on their part to say, “Yeah, this is great, but we’d like to do something even more within the ecosystem here.”
We both have great brands, so how do we kind of find ways to leverage both of our expertise and recognize that there’s an opportunity to lean into the emotional and hidden stories behind the game that are just a little bit different.
I think that what you can kind of get used to in sports marketing and sports content is a lot of the same stories over and over again.
One team always wins. One team scores a certain amount of points. A player has a breakout game. These are interesting stories if you’re a fan of the team, but if you’re going to tell them over and over and over again from a branded content perspective, there is a risk of getting stale.
So what other stories are there in and around the sports universe that are just as interesting and maybe told with a lot less frequency? Being able to kind of lean into those spaces was really important for them because it gave them something ownable that really nobody else had.