Skip to content
Follow Us

Get the best of Capacity Interactive delivered to your inbox.

What the Arts Can Learn from Sports Marketing
Episode 7

What the Arts Can Learn from Sports Marketing

CI to Eye with Amber Cox

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

0:00 / 0:00


Erik and Amber talk about what she learned in marching band, how sports teams use social storytelling to grow loyalty, and how to keep a marketing team motivated even if your team is losing.

Erik Gensler: Welcome to CI to Eye. I’m Erik Gensler. I’m an entrepreneur, an arts marketer, and on a lifelong quest to learn and grow personally and professionally. In this podcast, I interview leaders and thinkers inside and outside of arts marketing to understand how we can grow to be the best we can be. My goal: to see eye to eye. Today we’re talking about sports. Yes, sports and what the arts can learn from sports marketing. I sat down with Amber Cox, vice president of the Connecticut Sun and New England Black Wolves. Amber has spent her career in leadership roles at sports franchises across the country. Amber is best friends with Capacity’s vice president Christopher Williams, and I met her when she was the chief marketing officer of major league soccer’s Houston Dynamo and Dash.

Amber Cox: So much of what we do in arts and sports is creating memories. It’s those moments of sitting there in that theater or sitting there in that sports venue with the person

Erik Gensler: We talked about, what she learned in marching band, how sports teams use social storytelling to grow loyalty, and how to keep your marketing team motivated even if your team is losing. Hi Amber.

Amber Cox: Hi Erik.

Erik Gensler: Good afternoon.

Amber Cox: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Erik Gensler: Now I got to admit, talking about sports makes me a little nervous, so…

Amber Cox: I’m surprised you didn’t wear your sports hat.

Erik Gensler: Seriously. Dang, I forgot about that.

Amber Cox: I know. We need to get you a variety.

Erik Gensler: I need some more sports hats. That one’s getting a little schmutzy.

Amber Cox: Yeah, it’s good. But the worse they look, the better they are.

Erik Gensler: Oh, definitely. Yeah, I like it because it doesn’t have the, it covers where I’m potentially bald. It doesn’t have the little adjuster thing. It’s like fitted, I guess they say fitted. Yeah.

Amber Cox: Yeah, it’s fitted just for your skull. That’s right.

Erik Gensler: So I like to start out by just asking for a quick professional bio for the folks listening that don’t know you.

Amber Cox: Well, I grew up in Missouri, and if you’ve listened to the previous podcast with Christopher, you know, can say that one of two ways. Missouri and Missouri, I played basketball from a very, very young age, small town, 6,000 people. So did a little bit of everything, debate, team band, but basketball was really where I sort of migrated towards and I knew that that was my way to get a college scholarship. So I ended up at a small school in Missouri, worked my way through that. Ended up as the first sports information director, which is the stat geek press release writer for my school as I got my master’s degree. Went on and spent a couple of years at an advertising agency and then was in sports from there on out working at a small college in Missouri. I was the director of marketing for the Phoenix Mercury, which is the WNBA team in Phoenix. I was back in New York with the Big East as the associate commissioner for women’s basketball. Then went to Houston for a couple of years to work for the Major League soccer team down there. Also the women’s soccer team, the Dash, and now back in the WNBA with the Connecticut Sun at the Mohegan Sun. So it’s been quite a journey that’s taken me all over, but it really starts with my love for women’s basketball and my belief that it can grow to be a mainstream sport in our country.

Erik Gensler: Was sports marketing a thing when you were thinking of what you were going to do with your career? Did you think I’m going to go into sports marketing, or how did that evolve?

Amber Cox: No way. I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a columnist for USA today or the New York Times where I was going and getting to know these players and sort of telling their stories. And now it’s so funny. What I do on a daily basis is use digital marketing. We talk a lot about how do we tell these athletes stories that are sort of not told by the traditional media because we are in these emerging sports. But that’s really where it all started. For me. I was an English major and really wanted to be a writer, and I went to the Olympics in 1996 and interned there for free for that two weeks, and I walked away. Every journalist was such a jerk. I mean, it was just like an old guy grouchy fest. And I was like, this is not for me. I got to find another path. But sports marketing wasn’t really a thing. So sports information had kind of started to take on a new role in athletic departments, and that’s really where it all began. And then it’s become such a moneymaking industry that people really treat it like a major, major business now. And you have all the arms and legs of a major corporation including marketing.

Erik Gensler: I heard about you long before I met you and you mentioned Christopher, who’s our vice president here is Well, why don’t you tell us how do you know Christopher and talk about our origin story of how you and I met.

Amber Cox: Christopher and I grew up in the same town in Missouri, and I really loved, as much as I loved basketball, I loved band as well. And Christopher and I were co-drum majors, actually. He was the head drum major and I was the assistant drum major because he was a year older and he’s way bossier. So that worked out really well. And then we sort of grew apart as our lives took us in different directions for about 10, 15 years. And then thanks to Facebook, we reconnected and were able to come back together and we spent a lot of time talking about the parallels to marketing the arts and specifically women’s basketball and how they of have a lot of the same challenges to sell tickets and really tell the stories to get people in and interested. So that led me to you and Capacity and where we are today.

I’m very proud of being the only sports client, starting with the Houston Dynamo and Dash when I was with the MLS teams there and then now with the Connecticut Sun because again, I think you guys do such interesting and exceptional work, and I don’t think it’s being done very well in sports as I just don’t think people really think about it in the way that you’re thinking about it for the arts. And I say it all the time, you’re the best kept secret. I hope all the other sports teams don’t figure out what we’re doing because they’re all going to be knocking on your door.

Erik Gensler: Well, the three people listening to this won’t tell them. Hopefully. That’s my joke through all the podcasts. Come on. So you were in the marching band. From that education in music, from what you learned from being in the marching band, is there anything from that that you’ve applied to your career or life in general?

Amber Cox: Yeah, I think being in band, you learn teamwork and especially marching band because if you’re marching to the left, when everyone’s marching to the right or on the wrong foot, you don’t want to be that person standing out. So you really want to make your team proud. It’s very similar to sports in so many ways, the discipline, the 6:00 AM band practice, you have to be there. You don’t want to let your team down or the band down. And I think leadership too, being the head of the band and really instilling some of those values. As I got older, Christopher got older. I mean, Christopher taught me how to be a leader of the band and that I took over as the leader when he graduated. So just lessons that you use every single day. And it sounds so simple, but when you think about really just having the discipline to do a certain thing the right way and making sure you’re not cutting corners, it makes all the difference in the world. And I think a lot of that started there for me with band.

Erik Gensler: I think growing up, as I know for myself, when I left college, I sort of went on the traditional path that my parents wanted me to go on. And as I progressed in my career and started to just follow my heart of what I was passionate about, ultimately that search of what I wanted to do led me to something I love from the time I was a kid in high school, which was the arts, which was being in choir doing musicals. And it’s like you sort of have to discover that. And I think these experiences you have as a kid of mentioning both basketball and band, how that profoundly influences your choices as an adult are important.

Amber Cox: And I think makes me really open to looking at what other people are doing to market the arts. I don’t know that every sports marketer is thinking about what the local ballets are doing or what the local theaters are doing, but sort of understanding that it really falls in line with what we are doing on a daily basis really gives you the perspective to say, all right, we’re all in the same boat here. Let’s look across different industries and look for those best practices. It’s not just what the WNBA people are doing, it’s not what the NBA is doing. It really is about looking across all kinds of entertainment industries to see what those best practices are.

Erik Gensler: Well, when Christopher came back and said she was talking to you about what we do and what you do, and he kept saying, well, Amber said, if you guys can sell ballet, you can sell sports.

Amber Cox: It’s true. It’s true. I think women’s basketball is a difficult sell because it oftentimes takes a story. You have to make a connection either with a player or with a team or connect to the dad who has a daughter that may be thinking like, man, I would never go to women’s basketball ever. But then he sees that he’s making a connection to his daughter and that’s a thing that they can do together to build their relationship. I’ve heard that story a million times and I don’t think it’s any different in the arts. So much of what we do in arts and sports is creating memories. It’s those moments of sitting there in that theater or sitting there in that sports venue with the person.

Erik Gensler: That’s so funny. That’s so right. If I forced myself to think back, I remember the first show I saw was with my dad at Cincinnati playoffs in the park, and it was the Wizard of Oz, and it was the middle of winter and our car was stuck between a snowbank and the guy playing the Tin Man. So we had to wait for the Tin Man to come out of his dressing room. And as a kid, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. But I probably associate that memory of being with my dad and what that means, and to tell that story I think could be really powerful. Have you used those kinds of stories in your marketing regularly?

Amber Cox: Yeah, I mean, I think again, when you’re talking about emerging sports, and especially if you happen to be on a team that’s losing, I think that’s really where you have to dig in and find how you can make those connections beyond the players. For instance, right now, not only am I working with the WNBA team, but I’m working with the Black Wolves, which is indoor lacrosse. No one has heard of indoor lacrosse in this country. It’s very prominent.

Erik Gensler: I’ve barely heard of lacrosse.

Amber Cox: I mean…

Erik Gensler: Seriously, if you had to tell me how this, I mean, I grew up in Ohio. We didn’t play lacrosse.

Amber Cox: Right? So soccer was huge in Texas, lacrosse is huge in the northeast, but indoor lacrosse in Canada is a big, big thing. It’s sort of what they do in the off season to sort of offset hockey. But I’m walking into this job, not really ever seen it before. I don’t really understand the game, but what I see is it’s highly entertaining. People are looking for things to do in the winter in Connecticut, and you are seeing these families just coming out and having a great time. So it really is about selling first and foremost. This is something to do with your family. It’s very affordable, it’s a lot of fun. And then they come in and get hooked on the sport. So especially when you are in one of those things that may be a little bit unknown, or you are having a season that’s really rough and the team’s not great, you do have to sell those stories and the connections with whoever they’re coming with.

Erik Gensler: And you mentioned winning versus losing sports always has the mystery of who’s going to win or who’s going to lose, which makes the experience exciting if your team is winning. But on the flip side, if you’re losing a lot, I imagine it hurts sales and morale, it makes the marketing much harder. How do you deal with losses in your marketing?

Amber Cox: Yeah, I think you’ve touched on two things. First of all, your staff, you have to keep them really engaged. I think one of the benefits of working in maybe what you would call a smaller sport is that we have more access to the players and the coaches. For instance, we’re getting ready to start the WNBA season. I brought the coach in, he sat down with the entire staff and sort of said, here’s what’s happening. Training camp is starting. The draft is tomorrow night. Here’s probably who we’re going to pick. You don’t get that on a day-to-day basis. If you’re working for the NFL or Major League Baseball or the NBA at our level, you can do that. There’s still that access. So I think they feel like they’re a part of something special, and it’s just keeping those guys tight, making sure they have the talking points that they need.

Whenever things do get tough, when fans are calling in, calling in, or emailing in, we still call in sports. And then I think in terms of the fan base, whenever the team is losing, it forces you to really dig in and target your fan base a bit more. And this is where I think the digital marketing piece becomes so valuable because you can hone in on, alright, where’s the bucket? That’s my dad and daughter, who’s the bucket that is my true basketball fan? And we may need to do something really special with a player that is, Hey, thanks for coming. I know that it’s been a tough season, but it really means a lot that you’re with us. So that’s the advantage I think, of digital marketing versus doing traditional marketing that we’ve all sort of done through the years. It really allows you to drill down on those —

Erik Gensler: Segment more.

Amber Cox: Absolutely.

Erik Gensler: So how is a traditional, maybe there is no traditional, but how is a marketing team of a sports organization organized? I know we’ve talked about you have your call center and the people that oversee, and this is in my mind, you can tell me I’m totally wrong, but well, my understanding of people have a certain number of fans or past buyers that they’re in charge of and they’re in charge of those relationships. Did I make that up or no?

Amber Cox: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. How’s that work?

Amber Cox: We call that retention and service in the sports biz. For us specifically right now, again, we’re a bit smaller. Sometimes you’ll have, if you get into the NFL or the NBA, the Philadelphia 76ers, the guy who runs that organization, Scott, he has a hundreds of salespeople, he fully believes that you can never have enough because there’s always an ROI there. And then he’ll have a completely separate service team that is taking care of those folks. And that’s usually a smaller group of people that then stick around.

Erik Gensler: So it’s acquisition versus retention.

Amber Cox: That’s correct.

Erik Gensler: And which is bigger?

Amber Cox: Acquisition always. Yeah, because your salespeople ought to be two to three to one by their first year.

Erik Gensler: What does that mean? ROI?

Amber Cox: Yeah, ROI. For us, we have seven people. They handle both for both teams. So it’s a very, very small staff. So we have to be very focused with their time. And a lot of them are right out of college, maybe in their first or second year. The life of a salesperson in sports is usually pretty, it’s like three years or something like that, I think is the average. So we try to build structure around their day, and that’s where your sales manager really becomes important. And the WNBA is putting a lot of focus on making sure those people first and foremost have the training that they need in order to come back and build a day for those guys. Keep them enthused, make sure they know what they’re working on from nine to 11 during the day, and then one to three.

Erik Gensler: Are they dialing for dollars?

Amber Cox: Yeah, I mean it’s a lot of that. It’s a lot of that. I mean, now it’s become email. It’s become LinkedIn. I mean LinkedIn and the NBA has become a very, very hot topic. We’ve got a guy that works at the league office and that’s like his specialty. And he talks about success stories where guys have made a million dollars selling off LinkedIn and it’s just through friends of season ticket holders.

Erik Gensler: Are they commissioned, generally?

Amber Cox: They are. They are.

Erik Gensler: And so how does it break down in a big organization, the acquisition and the retention people? Is it after you come to one game, you then get switched over to the retention people and they’re trying to sell you season tickets?

Amber Cox: Very good.

Erik Gensler: Thank you. I had to think about that.

Amber Cox: Memberships, subscriptions —

Erik Gensler: I mean, season tickets.

Amber Cox: P.S. Sports has really gone to calling it memberships because we try to be 365 with it so that you feel like you’re getting touch points throughout the year. It’s more of you’re a member now, you’re a member. They typically have to buy a full membership before they’re switched over to the retention team. If it’s just somebody coming, single game buyer, that sales rep is working, working, working them to sort of move them up the ladder usually, Hey, do you want to go from one game? Are you going to come to multiple games this year? Then I can get you into a mini plan. Those people typically don’t go into the retention bucket. They still sort of get worked in sort of an in-between process. But once they move to a full season ticket, then they get all the benefits, all the events we do.

Erik Gensler: So you really get that sort of concierge level service.

Amber Cox: That’s right. That’s right. That’s the goal.

Erik Gensler: That’s fascinating. Well, Jill Robinson, who we interviewed on the podcast recently, talks about that model. There’s a blog post in the TRG blog about that for an arts organization. And the thing that is tricky for organizations, and we’ve talked a bit about on the podcast, is the development department, the fundraising folks are talking to the same people that are the marketing folks who are trying to sell tickets. And one of the ideas proposed for this sort of one patron model is putting that all under one umbrella or breaking it up by acquisition and retention. And it doesn’t matter if you’re, the single ticket is just the gateway to another single ticket, which is a gateway to a membership and a donation, and that all goes under one umbrella and a similar model to you’re describing now. And I think that would be a really interesting test for an organization, an arts organization, to take that approach where, because it’s, and in the arts world, I mean if you’re a subscriber, it can be one-to-one, and then if you’re a high level donor, it’s very one-to-one. But if you’re a single ticket buyer, you can call the box office and you certainly don’t have one person who’s sort of managing your relationship.

Amber Cox: It’s all just, I think about being creative, but it does get difficult, and it’s a challenge in sports too, when multiple people are talking to the same person, especially when they’re that high level person.

Erik Gensler: The few sports events I’ve been to, you see lots of sponsor logos, and I’ve been asked actually recently by arts marketers if I knew of good examples of creative sponsorship ties in particular around digital. Can you think of any that you’ve done or you’ve seen recently that are particularly innovative or that could potentially be helpful for arts folks trying to bring in sponsors?

Amber Cox: Yeah, I mean, I think sports will put a logo on just about anything. I mean, we were the first team in Phoenix to put a company logo on a jersey, which was it’s taboo and soccer in Europe, they do it all the time. It was a big deal when we did that in 2009 in the WNBA and now it’s becoming more commonplace and MLS certainly does it. I think on the digital side, people are just sort of carrying over some of those deals. Like my very favorite NFL team, the Kansas City Chiefs, their local grocery partner is Hy-Vee, and in all their game day graphics in the corner very subtly is a Hy-Vee logo. There’s nothing to it. There’s no call to action, but they’re sort of getting the branding associated with being a part of that team. So I think there are ways to do that. There’s a lot of presenting sponsorships and not so much digital, but I think sports has done a good job of figuring out ways to brand, like food packages and entrance, like every entrance in Houston to the stadium was the Houston Methodist entrance. Wow. They’re finding ways to label these things, and then you can put them on tickets, then you can put them on your digital thing saying, make sure you come in through the Houston Methodist and you’re garnering all those impressions. So it’s a really good story at the end of every year for the sponsors.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Are you extending that to your social media? Meaning would you do sponsored content for Facebook posts, for example?

Amber Cox: Yeah, 100%. 100%. One of the things we tried last year was a long form sort of documentary piece on each team for the Dynamo and then the Dash where we’re sort of telling the story of preseason and it was presented by someone, and then we had breaks and they were like, three seconds, this segment of the slice is brought to you by Kroger, and then you’d go right back into the next segment of telling that story. So it wasn’t intrusive. Again, there wasn’t a huge call to action. It just was really more about the brand association to the team. So I think it’s happening. People are, I think, conscious of it, which is great because it doesn’t get too over the top, but you’re seeing it more and more I think in the things that people are going to watch and listen to. They’re finding creative ways to sort of insert a sponsor.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I think with the arts it’s harder because the theaters are obviously much smaller than a stadium, and so you just don’t have the volume of people to talk to. So I think it’s less interesting to sponsors, unless they’re sponsors that are looking specifically to speak to an arts goer. Really, really high net worth banks know that really wealthy people say go to a certain performing arts center. So they’ll do that, but I don’t think they’re doing it for a volume. They’re doing it more for the specific patron.

Amber Cox: And I would say too, the comparison I would draw, and we use this all the time when selling to sponsors for the WNBA is those are very passionate fans. It’s a smaller base, but we know that we can get them to activate because they are the people that want to see the WNBA survive. So they’re going to do whatever we tell them to do if we say shop at this grocery store and we can find a tangible way to show that we are driving them in there, usually it brings more than the big sports team with a lot more people. So I think it’s finding a way to, you got to prove yourself, say, give us a chance. We know we have a really passionate fan base, so give us a chance through some sort of drive to retail call to action to show that our fans will be the ones that will show up and support you because you’re supporting us.

Erik Gensler: And you have sponsorship salespeople as well.

Amber Cox: We do. We do. And they sort of understand how to tell that story because it is difficult when you don’t have the volume. We’re not the NFL. We don’t get 70,000 people to a game. You’re talking seven, 8,000. So that’s the exact same issue we’re having from a sponsorship standpoint too.

Erik Gensler: Seven, 8,000 is still a large number of people compared to many of the arts venues we work with. That could be as low as a couple hundred people. Sometimes obviously bigger ballet companies or theaters or closer to a thousand, 2000, sometimes 3000. Or if you’re like the Fox Theater in Atlanta has I think 4,000, but you don’t get much bigger than that except maybe like a outdoor wolf trap, outdoor amphitheater. But generally, we’re dealing with smaller numbers. We’ve talked on this podcast about demand-based pricing or variable pricing, revenue management. Is that something sports teams have gotten into price different sections, and if you have a high demand game to increase prices, either preseason or when you see sales patterns are headed in a certain direction.

Amber Cox: A lot of people have gotten very innovative with this. A lot of ticketing systems can do this instantly and adjust the price based on who’s buying. For us. We’re not quite there yet, but we very much go through our 17 home games and say, this is a game based on day date time opponent. This is AB game, this is AC game. And we price those differently based on whatever those variables are. If we know in Connecticut that a big Connecticut player that played at Yukon is now coming through and going to play against us, that’s going to draw a big crowd. A lot of those University of Connecticut fans are going to come out. So that’s an A game, especially if it’s on a Saturday night. So yeah, we definitely do that. And one of the things we’ve implemented this year is making the price higher at the box office. If you wait to walk up, you’re going to be penalized.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, that makes sense.

Amber Cox: You’re going to pay five, $6 more. And it gives our sales reps a great talking point on the phone too. You’re going to pay the box office fee, you’re going to pay more if you buy from me a subscription, a membership, whatever of any kind, you’re probably saving somewhere between eight to 10 bucks a day.

Erik Gensler: Got it. Yeah. Is professional development emphasized in the sports world?

Amber Cox: It is. I think it varies per organization. I think the NBA, WNBA does an exceptional job of this. The NBA has a group called TMBO, Team Marketing and Business Operations, and they have really just done a tremendous job building out resources for all the teams across the NBA, the WNBA, and the Development League. And along with that comes opportunities to bring in these experts in every field to train your staff. And it doesn’t cost us anything, which is really nice, especially when we’re working off a budget. But I would say NBA, WNBA across all sports leagues sales training specifically is probably where the focus is. I think one of the things that I’ve learned from talking to you and just from the arts, I think there’s a lot more focus on culture. I think sports tends to be a little like, it’s like fraternity, get in there and sell or you’re out of here.

It’s just kind of rough and tumble. And we need to, I think, handle, especially this new age of millennials coming in with a bit more kid gloves, understand that it’s not necessarily about the money, but it’s about the tools that we’re giving them to grow professionally and really understanding what they want to do. Because a lot of these kids come in and want to be in sports, and they’re only foot in the door is sales, and we just go sell, sell, sell. We need to be training them in the craft that they really want to sort of learn, and then when they sort of phase out of sales, they’re ready to do something else either for you or somebody else. So I think the arts do a great job of that. I don’t know that we do a great job of that.

Erik Gensler: I mean, I think the arts is at least aware of the challenge, and I think a lot of people are aware of the challenge. I think a lot of people are different places for it, but at least we’re talking about it.

Amber Cox: It’s a much more sensitive group of people, I feel like.

Erik Gensler: We like a soft skill.

Amber Cox: I know. I love it.

Erik Gensler: Have you been able to influence your sphere to be more focused on professional development?

Amber Cox: I try. I think, again, when we get back to those lessons I learned when I was in band or sports, I think some of it has been just instinctual because I’ve learned these things to be a leader or a good teammate and sort of impress those upon the people that are working for me, and I want them to have a great experience. And it’s a little bit about being the Midwestern people pleaser. You want them to like you. So I’m very concerned about all the people on my staff. I don’t know that I’ve done those things in a really calculated manner, and I think that’s something I’m more focused on. Honestly, after listening to the podcast and talking to you and talking to Christopher, I think it is more of a focus and something that I need to do a better job of and want to do a better job for my staff. But through the years, I think you’ve developed these relationships with people because you care about them. You care about their development and their growth and what they want to do. And in the end, that usually gets you to a good result.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s organic.

Amber Cox: Absolutely.

Erik Gensler: It’s being human.

Amber Cox: 100%.

Erik Gensler: What do you think the hardest part of your job is?

Amber Cox: It’s always people. It’s always people because you want to do right by your people. And I’m sort of in a situation right now where I’m relatively new and I think it’s them learning to trust me and vice versa, and making sure you’ve got the culture in place that you want and you’re still driving the results. I think the challenge that I often find myself in is I’m a hard driver. I’m thinking about it all the time. I’m on my phone all the time. I’m looking at examples all the time. I have to be okay with my staff not being exactly like that, giving them time to rest and recover and sort of come back. So it’s that balance. But I think the challenge is just keeping people motivated, keeping them excited. It’s a very hard business to be in, especially when you’re talking about these emerging sports where you get a lot of nos if you’re a PR person, if you’re a marketing person or you’re a salesperson. We’re hearing no a lot. We’re hearing no a lot. So it’s just keeping them excited to be a part of what they’re doing.

Erik Gensler: When I used to work, I spent some of my career at NBC in sales and business development, and we had this sales training guy come in and he said, the first no is when you start selling. That’s right. And I remember I did that for a while where I’d cold call people and you just could not take that rejection personally. I mean, I had think about the number of salespeople I get calling mean now. I don’t even answer it, but that’s tough.

Amber Cox: It’s really tough. It’s tough. And I think it’s celebrating the wins, right? We’ve started our success Fridays where everybody has an opportunity to come around and talk about this is the thing that happened this week that was a really positive win for me. And then it allows me to open up the conversation to say, all right, well, you sold to Erik and he’s excited about coming to the WNBA, who are Erik’s friends. Let’s figure out how to make this a bigger win for you, and they get excited about. So it’s just that constant engagement and conversation and it’s not getting sort of stuck at your own desk and your own computer, I think.

Erik Gensler: Speaking of having people evangelize for you, I remember you were very excited when you started to see what social media and Facebook marketing could do for the soccer teams in Houston. Can you talk about some of your experience with social marketing? I think you’re really passionate about it, and I think your team and you were doing a really great job and we’re really to invest in it in a new way. So I’d just love to hear about that growth and evolution.

Amber Cox: Yeah, I think sports is a very difficult, it’s hard to get sports marketers to make that switch because especially the traditional sports, they believe in that traditional media. And I think one thing soccer’s done a great job of and made it easier for me is really investing in the social and digital space. And so for us, it was really about selling to the leadership. We need those storytellers, the video people, the great witty social media people that are just on it available and we need to make sure we take care of them so they stick around because that consistency is really what’s key. So we did see a ton of success with it, and I think once we really dug in and started diversifying our content, trying something that maybe was targeted and maybe the $2 beer and we’re going after beer lovers in Houston, and then another one may be a father and son at a soccer game, and we’re dark posting those and we’re seeing those results, it’s really exciting to sit down with your staff and say, look at this.

This is really tangible information that allows us to build our strategy. What’s next? And you can be so nimble with it. And that’s exciting. And we’re starting to do that too with the sun. And I think what’s really hilarious about it is we have this fan base for the Connecticut Sun that is a bit older, and we have a tendency to go, well, social media, I don’t know. Well, we all know where Facebook skews, so I’m like, listen, they’re all home most of the day. I think the more we feed them some content and we need to be focused on the people we’re trying to bring in, the new audience, the acquisition.

Erik Gensler: And older people tend to be less skeptical of sponsored content. It’s just something I’ve noticed that they don’t see the difference If there’s the sponsored piece on there as much, I don’t know, we don’t seem to have a problem. I mean, the audience of the arts tends to, it’s your 40, 50, 60 year old person that’s plopping down the money to buy tickets, and that’s really the sweet spot for Facebook for one. And that’s really where we think the social game is won and lost. And I can’t Is the, I mean, I imagine there’s no monolith, but where is the sweet spot of your audience?

Amber Cox: For us, it probably is in that like 50, 60. Yeah, it’s a little bit older. I would say it’s not quite that old around the rest of the WNBA, just based on where we are and who the women’s basketball fan is for the University of Connecticut and sort of the state, it is just sort of its own beast when you look at it in comparison to the rest of the league. And plus where we are. I mean, we’re sitting in a casino, so that tends to skew a bit older as well. But we’re trying to bring in new people, and I think again, social allows us to try new things to do that. And for the black wolves, that’s very much like a millennial beer drinking crowd. And so for instance, we had a college night where we encouraging people to wear their college gear and we were sort of doing these traditional matchup ads.

It was like the Black Wolves versus the Swarm, and we’re putting some money behind that. I’m like, you know what? Regular college guy that doesn’t know anything about the black wolves isn’t going to care about necessarily that matchup. Let’s come up with something fun that speaks to spring break or cheap beer. And so our creative agency came up with this really funny tank talk that said Spring Break Uncasville on the date of the game. It was really funny. It was thumb stopping content that made you go, all right, spring break in Uncasville, Connecticut. That’s pretty funny. Right? Okay, get it. Got it. You know where Ville, you got to get a map. Anyway, that’s where the casino is. Ville. Yeah. So recently, I think this was just such a great example of how social media can then drive traditional media to actually do their jobs and tell the stories of these emerging sports.

And the final four for the women’s tournament, the University of Connecticut had won 111 games in a row. Everybody thought they were going to — in a row. In a row. I mean that program is just, they’ve won 11 national titles. And so everybody had sort of like said, given them the trophy basically, and they’re playing in the final four. This team out of the Southeastern Conference, Mississippi State who finished second, really everybody overlooked. There’s no way they’re even going to get close to the University of Connecticut. And the subplot to this is that they played last year in the NCAA tournament and Yukon beat them by 60 points. So they used that as motivation all year to come back, never thinking, Hey, we’re going to face this team again. So here they’re on the final four in Dallas. They’re down to the last four teams, national stage on ESPN.

Everybody’s watching. So I was using this example recently in a class because probably at the beginning of the game, nobody’s watching that game expecting a blowout. And you get to halftime and you’re seeing on social media, it’s a nine point game. Mississippi state’s ahead, it’s three minutes left. Wow. Mississippi State’s still up by five points. So at that point, the whole world on my social media feed anyway has tuned in and it’s like all the NBA players are watching and NFL players are watching, they’re losing their minds, and they’re led by this little point guard who’s like five foot three. She hits like the game winning shot crowd goes crazy. It’s on all of media, social media, all the big stars are congratulating her. Robin Roberts is in the locker room with them after turns into this big thing. The result of that is then people telling this point guard story, she lost her father. She dedicated the whole tournament to him, the fact that they lost by 60 points the previous year. But my point is that’s what’s missing I think in some of these emerging sports. And that’s what social media gives you the opportunity to do even before you have these big moments.

Erik Gensler: To tell those stories that wouldn’t get told.

Amber Cox: That wouldn’t get told. And that was a big moment that allowed traditional media then to pick those things up. But there’s stories everywhere that we can use social media to tell.

Erik Gensler: Well, when you have those big wins and the attention getting paid, those are rare moments. And that’s what I’m always saying, the importance of having your digital infrastructure set up. So if everyone’s now engaging with your videos on Facebook or you get a huge surge of people to your website, making sure you have those 540 day remarketing pools set up because you’ll get this spike in traffic and you want to start your permission-based relationship with those people who may have never been to your site but went to it. And if you can geotarget them, okay, we had a lift. We had a hundred thousand new people come to our site because of this 20,000 or in my geography, start paying to tell your social story to those people and get them into the fold. What’s something that you’ve learned in the recently that’s been profound in how you work or think?

Amber Cox: I mean, this is going to sound like I’m totally sucking up, but I am obsessed with the radical candor quadrant now. It’s like drawn on my whiteboard and it’s just a constant reminder that if you are not being completely honest with people and doing it in a compassionate way, you’re doing a disservice to that person. And I think, again, me sort of coming into a new environment, getting to know people, the tendency is to tiptoe a little bit because you’re just getting to know these people. I don’t know you very well, but if you can embrace that and just be honest, you sort of tear off the bandaid and we get to the heart of it. Do you want to be here? Can we get on the same page? Or it’s not a good fit, one of the two, right? Just be honest about it. Oh my God, it saves so much time. And it creates a relationship much quicker.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. I don’t think we were ever taught that that was appropriate workplace behavior, but we’re all human. I think it’s aspirational that to fully embrace it is aspirational and it’s hard to particularly to give that tough feedback, but you can only give that tough feedback if you’ve shown that you really care about that person. So it’s a continuum for sure.

Amber Cox: And again, that becomes difficult when you’re just starting. So I think one of the things that I’ve tried to really instill in my folks is you got to be really passionate about what we’re doing every single day. If you’re not passionate about pushing the bar forward for the WNBA, you’re going to have a hard time here. Absolutely. You’re going to have a hard time. Or for these guys that are playing lacrosse and doing it, trying to grow the game and make it a full-time job, a lot of ’em are doing a million other things aside from working for playing for the team, you need to buy in and believe in that, or it’s not going to be very much fun coming to work every day. So I think you tell them that upfront and that’s sort of the foundation of all of the conversation that then you can have from there.

Erik Gensler: I think it’s something we’ve learned here that it is absolutely required to work at Capacity, that you care about the success of the arts or you love the arts, and that can be defined broadly. That could be you were in the band or you love to see dances or you love to go to museums, but you absolutely have to be passionate about out the world that we’re trying to promote and make better. What is something that you think you’re really good at and what is something that you’re working to improve as a professional?

Amber Cox: Well, I was driving into the city today with my wife and I’m a terrible passenger driver, so I’m going to try to improve on that.

Erik Gensler: Was she driving?

Amber Cox: She was driving.

Erik Gensler: But you were backseat driving.

Amber Cox: And I was doing a lot of slow down, slow down. The exit is coming. You don’t need to accelerate here. Oh my God, I need to shut up and just let her drive. She did a fantastic job getting us into the city so that I am going to try to work on.

Erik Gensler: Did you have a talking to on the way up here?

Amber Cox: No, because she’s way nicer than me and she’ll just sort of let it go and let me —

Erik Gensler: It’s good that you noticed that.

Amber Cox: Oh my God. Yeah. It’s terrible. I need to shut up. We kind of touched on it earlier. I think my strength is that I am passionate and you can feel that every single day when I come in to work and every meeting that we have, people understand that I’m in it with them, and I really believe in what I’m doing, and I will take the time to share with you why. Again, I think where I struggle and what I’m trying to improve on is allowing people to solve their own problems, not give so much advice, get in their business, be there for them, but also understand when they need me to step back or not be sending, Ooh, how about this idea at six o’clock on a Saturday night? Maybe I should save that for Monday morning to send that email.

Erik Gensler: I had to learn that lesson hard. It’s hard. I start so many emails over the weekend and save them in drafts. That’s the best way to do it.

Amber Cox: But then I wonder, do you really want to get all those emails at 8:30?

Erik Gensler: You don’t have to send ’em at 8:30 in the morning. You can phase them in over the week.

Amber Cox: Oh my gosh. Yeah. So I’m trying to learn that because learn, I am just constantly on. I’m just a social media. I’m always looking at my phone, looking at best practices. I see something another team is doing. I think it’s really fun to send that around to my staff. They’re probably like, what? Stop it. I don’t want to get an email from you. So I’m trying to be better in that way.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I mean the passion I think is contagious in some ways. I hope it is. We hope. And if you have the right people, there’s striking that balance. So who are some of the people you think are doing their job really well or that you follow for inspiration? Or you mentioned teams or other marketers or —

Amber Cox: I do think soccer is doing a really good job. I think MLS from a digital and social standpoint, I think soccer has developed the understanding that it is a very saturated landscape when it comes to sports in our country and that they’re tipping the scales of being one of the major sports brands in this country, but that they can really use social to tell the stories. And they use it for a lot of fun content too. They do a great job of, I saw something today, I think it was the team in Orlando. It was just like some guy walking up to sign some shoes in an autograph session. They had a hidden camera and some girl was reaching from under the table, grabbing these players’ legs and scaring the crap out of ’em. It’s hilarious. You can’t help but not watch that. It’s totally engaging.

It then makes me go off and bounce to their page and look at what else they’re doing. So I think soccer’s done a great job of that. In particular, I love sporting Kansas City. I think they’re one of the best in the league. Orlando, obviously Houston, I’m biased, but from a personal standpoint, I mean, my mentor is a woman named Jay Perry, who’s now the COO of the WNBA. She was my boss at the Mercury. She hired me there. She went on to run the Super Bowl in Arizona before taking the job at the WNBA. But I think Jay, I had a bracelet and something on my key chain for a long time. That was the WWJD, which for most people meant Jesus. But for me it was Jay, because I tend to go over the top from an emotional standpoint. I can get too high, too low.

One of the things I always admire about Jay is that she really always stays focused on the big picture, is very positive, is extremely patient when it comes to dealing, especially with more junior people, and she creates champions. Everyone feels the same way that I do about Jay. Jay is their mentor and they can pick up the phone and call her at any point in time. And I think that’s a wonderful testament to the person that she is because she has created such a caring environment. And I think one of the things that I really admire about her is she’s going to follow her passion. I mean, this was her opportunity to get back in the WNBA and make a big impact on a big level. So for her to pick up after living in Arizona most of her life and come to New York and say, I’m going to take this head on to really help grow this league. It was a big reason for me getting back in the league as well. So I think a lot of Jay.

Erik Gensler: You’re talking about strong, a strong woman and strong female leadership. You mentioned earlier when you started in your career and were talking to the journalists, it was a boys club of Yahoos. I’m interested to hear what it’s been like to be a female leader and you’re working predominantly in women’s sports. I just wonder, are your bosses generally men?

Amber Cox: 100%. And there was a big conversation at the Women’s Final Four, a lot of discussion about how head coaches in major women’s college basketball, it’s taken a major swing to where there are more men than women because they’re becoming high paying jobs, they’re high profile jobs, and a lot of women have, for whatever reason have phased out of them. So I’m conscious of it. I’m incredibly conscious. I think because of the demands of working in sports, the hours, the game nights, a lot of times I’ve had people say, I can’t have children raise a family and do this. The demands are too high. So I’ve been very conscious about how do we work around that and troubleshoot to make sure that you can be at home on these game nights and we can get somebody else to fill in. But yeah, most of my bosses have been men.

I’ve had great mentors. My very first job in sports at Columbia College, my athletic director was a man and he was extremely supportive of growing my career. But I think it’s something that I have to be focused on. How do we bring these other women up and give them opportunities, these young women and show them that there is a way, because coming from Missouri, I just had no idea all the opportunities in sports. So every opportunity I can get out and speak to a sports management class and say, here are all the different things that you can do. I do it because I feel like it might be a light bulb for someone, male or female.

Erik Gensler: In the WNBA or NBA, are there discussions around inclusion and trying to be more equitable or more focused on not having a gender bias?

Amber Cox: Yeah, I think NBA has led that charge. They’ve done a great job. I mean the WNBA, it clearly swings more female when you talk about leadership roles and coaches and people in my positions, the NBA has talked a lot about that. Adam Silver is just the best of the best when it comes to this. Who is that? Adam Silver is the commissioner of the NBA and is very conscious of it in terms of all equality. He’s really said, we’re not going to tolerate anyone who’s homophobic gender phobic. We need to break down all barriers. And I think the other leagues have followed suit, but when you talk about Major League Baseball and NFL, that’s just years and years of just a lot of men being in these high ranking positions. But all the leagues, I think are taking steps to make sure that they get these really smart women. I mean, it’s nothing more than you have really smart people ready to do these jobs that have come up through the ranks, and I think people recognize that now.

Erik Gensler: So this is your CI to Eye moment. If you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams and boards of say a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Amber Cox: I think it’s just being open to change. Being open to looking at different management styles, how other industries are doing things. Even in sports, we can get stuck and say, this is the only way to sell tickets. And it’s evolving every day, especially with all the technology that’s coming our way a hundred miles an hour, and people are figuring out how to use technology in ways that maybe sports hasn’t figured out or maybe the arts hasn’t figured out. I think it’s just being curious, being open to treating your people differently. Don Staley, who was the head coach of the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team that just won the national championship, I was listening to a podcast with her the other day and she was talking about her point guard who is now a senior, and how when she came in as a freshman, she really tried to impose old school discipline on her because that’s what she believes in.

You have to do it this way. You have to show up. You have to direct your team in this way, and if you don’t, you’re not going to be successful. And she said, what I learned over coaching her for three years is that it was just going to be a battle every single day. If I didn’t give myself, if I didn’t give a little bit, it was about her giving a little bit and understanding where I was coming from. But this is a different generation. I had to let her be her and be a leader the way she was going to lead. And ultimately, she was out on that floor directing traffic and leading us to a national championship. And it was so gratifying to see that because it was the development of our relationship together and figuring out how we were going to work together, not just me dictating how she was going to get it done. So I think that’s a lesson for all of us that are leading. It is about each individual, and while that is time consuming, it’s the most gratifying. When those people achieve their goals, you’re going to get the best results. And at the end of the day, it’s the best time you can spend is developing your people and understanding what’s going to make them happy and productive.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Amber Cox: Happy to be here. Thanks for having me. It’s a blast.

Erik Gensler: Did you enjoy the podcast? Please join Capacity Interactive on email and on Facebook so you can be the first to know when we release new episodes. You’ll also get content all about digital marketing for the arts, and you’ll be the first to know about our webinars, workshops, and our annual digital marketing bootcamp. Thanks for listening.

Amber Cox: Tell all the gang at 42nd Street that I will soon be there…

Erik Gensler: Is this recording? You were just singing ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’ from the musical George M.

Amber Cox: There you go! “Give my regards to Broadway…”

Erik Gensler: The sports person singing is the first person to sing musical theater on the podcast. I like that.

About Our Guests
Amber Cox
Amber Cox
Vice President, Connecticut Sun & New England Black Wolves

Amber Cox, Vice President of the Connecticut Sun and New England Black Wolves, has spent her career in leaderships roles at sports franchises across the country. She served as the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of Major League Soccer teams, Associate Commissioner for Women’s Basketball for the Big East Conference, and President and CMO of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.

Read more

Related Episodes

Artificial Intelligence: The New Frontier or Unchecked Robots?
EP 114
May 03, 2023
Artificial Intelligence: The New Frontier or Unchecked Robots?

AI is generating a lot of buzz in the marketing sphere—but is it really worth the hype? In this episode we pull back the curtain on AI, explore its strengths and limitations, and consider how it can help arts marketers meet their goals more efficiently.

Navigating the New Privacy Landscape
EP 113
Feb 28, 2023
Navigating the New Privacy Landscape

More than ever, arts marketers need to be purposeful about data collection, responsive to privacy regulations, and respectful of their audiences’ preferences. In 2023 and beyond, it’s all about staying user-centric and privacy-focused.

Don’t Miss an episode

Don’t Miss an episode

Subscribe to CI to Eye and have your insight and motivation delivered on demand.