Cannes Lions 2017: The Wise Women of the NBA and NFL


Cannes Lions 2017 NBA NFL CMOs panel

In a nod at how diversity is a must for brands these days, the Cannes Lions 2017 International Festival of Creativity presented the two chief marketing officers of the two most powerful sports leagues in America. The NBA’s CMO Pam El, NFL’s CMO Dawn Hudson along with Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of the Translation agency and author of The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy, shared the stage in a discussion about “How Athletes and Brands Can Change the World.”

The discussion ranged from innovative partnerships that leverage the power of athletes, brands and consumers and the fundamental shift in power from brand to athlete in a digital/social world. (Scroll down to watch the full panel.)

Pam El and Dawn Hudson panel at Cannes Lions 2017 NBA NFL

El commented that it’s the best time ever to be in sports as a female CEO. Leagues and athletes are empowered to do what they think is best. Athletes are using their voices today and leagues are taking it seriously. Helping athletes find voices in the social space and in marketing. LeBron James is the example of an athlete who knows his brand and knows what he’s doing every step of the way. It wasn’t so 20 years ago. Today, as James shows, it’s a marriage made in heaven — “it’s good for us and for him to do well” as El put it.

Hudson said the NFL listens to its athletes who say, ‘We do good in our communities, locally, and I want to extend my platform,’ which has led to its pro-social platform ‘My cause, My cleats,’ where fans can go online and tell their story – sporting virtual cleats showing their involvement. That’s 1,800 athletes – each with a different point-of-view, but the collective power is always greater.

Hudson continued that it’s a great time to have a voice and for athletes to flex their personal values and brands, using social and digital tools easily at their disposal. They’re closer to consumers and fans and have more personal connection than even celebrities. Even as early as college they have a story to tell. The NFL is behind the NBA, wearing helmets and playing in such big teams, they have less visibility.

Stoute agreed, noting that the last two decades have seen a dramatic change, with musicians and athletes saying, ‘I’m a brand myself with values and I have to accentuate mine.’ Digital tools articulate those brands. Athletes state up front what they stand for or not. This election athletes took outspoken approaches no matter what the owner or league felt. They were protecting their own brand.

He emphasized that today’s brands have become more flexible in their criteria—a shift required to attract top talent. Artists and athletes and brands today ‘know they move culture’ and they arrive confident in who they are with plans to remain so.

As for how brand fit into the equation, if a CMO is going to align with an athlete the brand has to share key values. And it has to make sense to the consumer.

The three agreed that more women in sports management jobs can only improve matters. El said more women in these roles is always better. A lot of people in sports only know sports. Females from outside sports already bring a fresh voice and more so for never being a player.

The NBA believes in teaching the game at the community level as service. If you do you give the game, teamwork, discipline and a healthy lifestyle for life. You just need a ball and a basket.

Women are smarter and more brand-oriented but the consumer/fans are essential to all. So offerings must be authentic. They will win. A brand should do right as much as they can or be called out by consumers. Spotlight is on them because of social media.

Hudson said millennials and Gen Z’ers alike want to deal with brands that are doing great things and inspire them.

In the NFL, the players and game are the product so that leads to greater partnership going forward. Fans like that. “After 2.5 years here I find that players are savvy at 22 – smart about branding at 18-19 – and they’re trying to figure out their brand,” she noted. “There’s a great opportunity for athletes to find their own voices. And they can use the social media platform to broaden visibility.”

Brands say they want to deliver their message but it has to put in the product too. It’s not a one-stop shopping sell-in anymore. After all, anything is available online.

The brand part is the easy thing to get done—transaction is trickier, they agreed.. But if brands do good you want to transact with them. There are too many options today. Nobody is held hostage in not finding what you want. And that exists in every category.

Athletes have enormous power because of social media and the power that gives for spreading the word. So it gets back to the importance of values and transparency. A brand and athlete must stay true to their values and they must be shared values.

Stoute said that your brand is your resume, and reputation is all you’ve got. Brands need to stop pandering. Transaction is not required. Brands need to have a soul, just like people. If you have no soul in today’s world, you are empty—and you are done.

The nature of sports deals is changing as a result of all these changes. The talent wants to monetize their influence in a transparent way and not just take the money. They want to be paid for driving sales – “a percent of sales for the lift I provide. If not, I’ll go direct to the consumer.” If you can move a market on social – you might as well get a piece of the market. It’s a shift in power: artists as media, and you buy their fans.

It was a fascinating talk that deserves to be watched in full — as you can do in the video below: