By Barry Janoff
August 10, 2015: Dick's Sporting Goods wants to have both an immediate and long-term impact in sports and beyond, not just as a national retailer— with more than 600 locations in 46 states and growing — and as a rookie partner with the U.S. Olympic Committee, but also in the way it connects with students and athletes.
Last year, under the auspices of Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation, the company founded Sports Matter, a multi-year project that has committed $25 million to support youth athletics, with a focus on programs and teams that were being or about to be eliminated due to budget cuts.
The problem is nationwide, and growing. According to Dick's, between 2009-2011, some $3.5 billion was cut from school sports budgets, and by 2020 an estimated 27% of public high schools in the U.S. will not have any sports. "Saving youth sports is a core mission of our company," said Lauren Hobart, svp/CMO for Dick's Sporting Goods and president of The Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation.
The platform expanded this year, including aligning with DonorsChoose.org, a crowd-funding destination, to reach more people and assist more programs.
To help drive awareness, Dick's is working with a roster of sports and media celebrities, some of whom gathered for a recent media event and panel discussion in NASDAQ MarketSite in New York's Time Square to launch the second year of Sports Matter.
The panel included former NFL head coach and current ESPN and Monday Night Football commentator and analyst Jon Gruden, who is in his second year of working with Sports Matter; Carli Lloyd, U.S. Women’s National Team captain and MVP of the recent FIFA Women's World Cup; Karl-Anthony Towns, the NBA's 2015 overall No. 1 draft pick (Minnesota Timberwolves); veteran NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall (New York Jets); actor Michael B. Jordan (Fantastic Four); Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights); and Paul Caccamo, founder and CEO for Up2Us Sports. (Pictured below: Gruden, Lloyd, Towns.)
This past February, Dick's signed a deal to become the official sporting goods retail sponsor for the U.S. Olympic Committee and Team USA. The alliance is anchored by The Contenders, an in-store program to provide U.S. Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls with flexible work opportunities and other support to help them reach their goal. Lead spokesperson is Kerri Walsh Jennings, three-time gold medal winner in beach volleyball.
Among other endeavors, the company, founded in 1948 and headquartered in Pittsburgh, has naming rights to Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Col., home of MLS' Colorado Rapids; and is title sponsor for the Pittsburgh Marathon (run in May) and the upcoming PGA Tour Dick's Sporting Goods Open (Endicott, NY).
Dick's also is building a bond with teams, athletes and students in numerous other ways, including award-winning documentaries; a new alliance with Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership, a non-profit group that "provides academic intervention, leadership training and lacrosse to at-risk youth"; and a multi-level marketing strategy via lead agency Anomaly, NY.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Ryan Eckel, vp-brand marketing for Dick's, following the event in New York, about Sports Matter, becoming an official Olympics partner and building a brand with marketing and documentaries that focus on the blood, sweat and tears of athletes and students.
NYSportsJournalism.com: It would be easy enough to get a high-paid athlete to star in commercials and sell Nike or adidas or Under Armour shoes and apparel, so why is Dick's marketing philosophy not about products but about human experiences and how sports can impact the lives of athletes?
Ryan Eckel: It starts with Ed (Stack, CEO and chairman and son of company founder Dick Stack) and goes throughout the company. We do use pro athletes from time to time when we are working with our brand partners. What we really to want show are athletes in a more personal, emotional environment; to show their commitment and dedication, and support that in ways that tell people it is real and not a manufactured marketing ploy. We truly believe that sports make people better, and it is the kids and athletes we focus on who make sports what they are. We talk about the struggles, the challenges, the journeys. If you win the high school football state championship it's because of the work you put in during 'Hell Week.' We know these athletes are talented, but we want to celebrate the endless hours of work they and the people who support them have have put in.
NYSJ: Have consumers responded to this strategy?
RE: They have. We get lots of feedback. A lot of support on social media. People who come into our stores and tell us they like the commercials, such as 'The Question: Who Will You Be.' They respond to the documentaries, the way we support athletes and teams. The storytelling we do is such a rich territory. We tell stories you don't see out there, about kids who put in all hours of hard work in sports and become better students in the classroom. People want to be inspired. They like real stories.
"We tell stories you don't see out there, about kids who put in all hours of hard work in sports and become better students in the classroom."
NYSJ: What separates your commercials from the typical marketing stories you see with pro athletes?
RE: These are not that small percentage of kids who will make it to the NFL or NBA. People identify with these athletes, most of whom are grinding it out to make themselves better and make their teams and schools better. We are talking to the parents who want to make the right decisions about their kids and sports, who are dealing with such issues as concussions, the idea that athletes don't perform well academically, keeping their kids out of trouble and in the classroom. We want to shift the conversation toward the positive attributes of sports and how kids benefit beyond winning titles and trophies.
NYSJ: With less than year to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, what is Dick's doing with the USOC and potential Olympians?
RE: We signed as the official sporting goods retail partner for the USOC and Team USA in February, which we are very excited about. We are excited about the Games in Rio. It has tremendous potential for us to work with athletes and to bring their stories to the public. We have an in-store program, The Contenders, which provides U.S. Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls with flexible work opportunities in Dick's stores so they can schedule their work around their training. We also provide other support to help them reach their dreams. Some of them might be long-shots to make the team, but we want to give them every opportunity that we can.
NYSJ: Are you looking a multi-media marketing support?
RE: There will be marketing, starting with a look at The Contenders program and then building from there as we get closer to Rio. The focus is not about the Games as much as the journey and sacrifices the athletes are making to try to make the team, which ties in very well with the other programs, such as Sports Matter, and marketing strategy that we are taking. (See The Contenders commercial here.)
NYSJ: Any response to the situation regarding the 2024 Olympics and the USOC seeking another potential bid U.S. city after deciding not to continue with Boston?
RE: I am from Boston so I have personal ties to the city. Speaking for Dick's, we are not involved with the USOC in that matter. But like other marketing partners we are watching the situation. We are observers like everyone else.
NYSJ: Dick's also has close ties with Kerri Walsh Jennings on several levels. How impactful is that relationship?
RE: When we signed with USOC, we also introduced Kerri Walsh Jennings as a lead spokesperson. Kerri is helping us to oversee The Contenders, to work with these Olympic hopefuls (pictured above). She appears in marketing in which she introduces some of these hopefuls. She is a great person to represent us, not only because she has won three gold medals but also because of the challenges she has faced to become a three-time gold medal winner. in beach volleyball, her spirit and her determination.
NYSJ: How did documentaries become a key part of Dick's strategy?
RE: This unlocks a lot of new territory for us to push the Dick's brand and business through emotional storytelling. In 2013, we did a documentary. Hell Week, which followed the Station Camp High School (Gallatin, Tenn.) football team as they went through an intense pre-season week-long training camp. It received a great response, including from ESPN (which aired it). That gave us a great deal of confidence to continue moving forward. Last year did a documentary, "We Could Be King," about two rival high school football teams from in Philadelphia, Martin Luther King High School and Germantown High School, that were rivals for four decades. They were required to merge and become one due to budget cuts. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Sports Documentary, which we were all excited about. It really succeeded in raising awareness about the issue of budget cuts and under-funding.
NYSJ: What are you planning next in this category?
RE: We just completed a documentary about a girls lacrosse team (comprised of Native Americans) from Salmon River High School (Fort Covington) in upstate New York. The story touches on so many issues. The school is located near a Native American reservation (Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne). It's such a spiritual game for them. The girls who play it see it in different ways, some as a tradition, some as an opportunity. They have to deal with cultural tensions, gender issues (lacrosse traditionally has been played by men). With all that, they had a tremendous season. It is scheduled to air in 2016, and ESPN plans to run some previews. (See Episode 1 here.) We also are working on a documentary with Kerri Walsh Jennings, which will follow her quest to win a gold medal in Rio while maintaining her life as the mother of three kids.
NYSJ: This is the second year of Sports Matter. What challenges did you have in the first year?
RE: Overall, the first year was a tremendous success. One of the challenges and the issues was that we over-estimated how hard it was to build and drive traffic to our own crowd-funding platform. Building a crowd-funding platform is not easy. It's resource-intensive. It's labor-intensive. It's tech-intensive. You can't just put up a site and expect people to find it and then donate money. So this year we wanted a better solution. We wanted to work with someone who already has organic traffic related to what we want to do with Sports Matter, who already drives traffic to their site that we could leverage. Our partnership with DonorsChoose.org will allow us to not have to worry about driving traffic to the site. So now we can focus our time and attention on building awareness about Sports Matter.
NYSJ: Dick's recently unveiled its support for Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership, so how will we see that alliance play out?
RE: We have a commercial (that broke in July) which follows Tyler, a kid in Harlem whose mother recently passed away (and whose dad is also dead) but is handling his situation and the challenges of life — and like other kids on the team is improving in school by being part of the Harlem Lacrosse program. (During the Sports Matter event, attended by players from and teachers overseeing Harlem Lacrosse) we presented them with a $25,000 check. (See the commercial here.)
NYSJ: Aside from the crowd-funding situation, what did you learn from the first year?
RE: Last year, in order to benefit from Sports Matter, you had to have a team that either was eliminated due to budget cuts or was about to be eliminate. We wanted to come in and save these teams. At first we thought, maybe there's not enough of them. But we quickly found out that there are lots of them. Unfortunately, there are too many of them. So then we have to do a vetting process, to find out how budget cuts would impact not just the team and athletes but school programs. We had to do a lot of due diligence to make sure there was no fraud. We needed to have the highest degree of confidence that the money was going to be used in the best way and impact the most number of students. So this year we opened it up so that it could be a team in need: A soccer squad needing six soccer balls or a basketball team needing some equipment. We don't have to spend so much time vetting every request. That allows us to be a lot more flexible.
NYSJ: Looking ahead, how would you assess the coming months and years for Dick's regarding marketing, the Olympics, Sports Matter and other programs?
RE: We see such a need, and we have a great opportunity, to turn lives around. Highlighting the situation regarding budget cuts, supporting the growth of Sports Matter, creating awareness through our documentaries, working with Olympic hopefuls and other athletes to help to improve their situations. And getting our message out, through marketing, with pro athletes who are giving time and assistance and building momentum through our stores and customers and people who are dedicated to what we are doing and really want to help and give back to the community.
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