Around 2016, NBCUniversal acquired a Minnesota-based sports digital platform that connected young players with local teams.
If you’re wondering what attracted the entertainment behemoth to the scrappy startup (then called Sports Ngin), think next generation.
“If you look at the research, the more kids play and participate in sports, the more they want to watch it,” says Rob Bedeaux, director of consumer engagement and content strategy at NBC Sports Next, the division that now houses SportsEngine (as it was rebranded).
NBCUniversal saw the business as a bridge to connect with youth audiences. Rob, who moved into content from product marketing around the time of the acquisition, spun that opportunity into gold. His work on a project to interest young viewers in the Olympics earned him a spot on the list of finalists for 2022 B2C Content Marketer of the Year.
A content marketing gold mine
NBC’s purchase of SportsEngine included SportsEngine HQ, its software product, and SportsEngine.com, the world’s largest directory of youth sports programs. The sports management relationship software is an operations platform that helps amateur and youth sports organizations manage registrations, custom gear orders, and ticket sales. The app lets teams track stats and scores and lets players’ parents communicate with each other.
Partnering with sports management relationship clients through SportsEngine HQ, Rob and his content team have direct access to the players and their parents who have signed up for a sport, a league, or the app. They publish and share content around training, equipment, and how to keep kids involved in sports.
In short, SportsEngine is content marketing gold for NBC.
Preparing to shine for the Olympics
But the Olympics allowed the NBC Sports Next content marketing team to shine for NBCUniversal.
During the first games after the acquisition – the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang (South Korea) – Rob and the creative team worked to figure out their place in the world of the Olympics and within NBC. They started brainstorming ways to create long-term value (NBC owns the broadcast rights through 2032.)
They had their answer by the time of the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games in 2021.
Their brainstorming included a team member’s recollection of trading cards in the 1990s featuring a Muppet on one side and an NHL player on the back with stats and other details.
That nugget prompted the team to consider creating a one-pager: The front would feature the Olympic Games, and the back would offer details about an individual Olympic sport. That idea eventually morphed into the Kids Guide to the Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games, which debuted as a 122-page guide for the Tokyo games.
Actualizing the creative concept
It took a creative village to realize Kids Guide to the Olympics. Rob worked closely with a creative director on his team to develop and refine the concept. Then, they had to get buy-in and approval.
Starting with the consumer engagement team at NBC Sports division, Rob presented the concept to the division leaders and eventually to Jenny Storms, CMO for sports and entertainment at NBCUniversal. She loved the idea and socialized it all the way up to NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell.
Why so much executive attention on an Olympics guide for children? The piece used branding marks from NBC and the International Olympics Committee, which is notoriously protective of its intellectual property.
Rob’s team got the green light in late 2018 and began creating the guide in earnest in 2019. The first completed section (about gymnastics) made the executive rounds again to make sure everyone liked how it was coming together.
“Once we got approval for it, we just buckled down,” Rob says. He did most of the writing and brought in copywriters to help finish the guide. Research analysts and editors from NBC Sports reviewed and fact-checked everything.
The front half of the guide focused on the Olympics generally – the history of the Games, its flag, the participating countries, etc. The second half broke out each sport (their original concept).
Adding fun for all ages
The guide needed to be educational and fun. So Rob searched for interesting tidbits and creative outlets to entertain both parents and children.
For example, the swimming section included some of the sport’s basic rules so parents and children watching the sport together would know what was happening and why. But it also included games in case the kids got bored while watching.
For the skateboarding page, Rob found a maze online and got the creator’s approval to include it (he only wanted credit in the guide.)
“It really makes it that interactive family experience,” Rob says.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) July 15, 2021
Holding (up) the course
By March 2020, the early version of the guide was ready. Then, the pandemic hit, the Olympics got put on hold, and so did the youth guide. The Summer Olympic Games’ new dates – July 2021 – were announced in November 2020, and the kids’ guide returned to production.
At this point, the content had to go through an even more rigorous review and approval process. Each sport’s governing body had to review its page this time, and the U.S. Olympic Committee had to check all the sports.
“There was a lot of back and forth externally as well as internally in the review process,” Rob says, noting how long that review took surprised him. But, now that he knows, it can be built better in the production schedule.
The Kids’ Guide to the Summer Olympics came out in June 2021.
Given the pandemic delays, the timing of Tokyo meant Rob’s team had only 4.5 months to produce the guide for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Fortunately, he says, they could repurpose the Games history and overview from the summer guide with just a few tweaks. They also created new pages for the sports, which are fewer in number than the Summer Olympics.
Promoting the guide
Of course, great content requires excellent marketing. So, Rob and his team members Kelsey Erwin and Keaton McAuliffe had to figure out how to get the word out.
They added a landing page to the SportsEngine site to collect email addresses pre-launch. They offered the guide by email to 15 million families in their youth sports network. They reached people who downloaded SportsEngine HQ via the app.
But Rob and Kelsey also looked outside their business line to use the NBC Sports and NBCUniversal assets. They placed inserts in the NBC Sports Olympics newsletter that went out three times a week leading up to the Games. The guide got mentioned in the regular emails sent by the Today Show, Universal Kids, and Peacock (NBC’s streaming service).
They also got a bump mention (a short video clip/mention before or after traditional on-air programming) on the Today Show. During Olympic Trials, a sportscaster mentioned the guide, which also showed on the lower third of the screen with a QR code that brought viewers to the landing page.
“It’s kind of fun because depending on what’s happening, [sportscasters] can make that organic in the conversation. They could do that read through and then tie it to an athlete playing by explaining how that person started in the sport,” Rob says.
Interestingly, the best converting channel wasn’t one of NBC’s mega properties. It was the message bar appearing at the top of the websites of the youth sports organizations that were clients of SportsEngine HQ.
Awaiting the scores
The best feedback Rob received came from kids who enjoyed the guides. Rob explains: “That was one of my biggest worries. It was a total passion project for me. I thought it was super interesting, but is it going to be interesting to an 8-year-old, a 12-year-old?”
His answer came in the form of social media posts with kids holding up their guides.
The closing ceremony is 𝟯 𝗱𝗮𝘆𝘀 𝗮𝘄𝗮𝘆. Don’t miss out on your chance to score a @SportsEngine Kids Guide to the Olympics! https://t.co/vnkBykkynq#TokyoOlympics #Tokyo2020 #SportsEngine #youthsports #EverydayOlympics pic.twitter.com/lDPHV0pa8p
— SportsEngine (@SportsEngine) August 5, 2021
One child who’d received a print copy at an event requested a second copy so they could write in one and save the other. The team also got direct feedback: One family shared that they sat down with the guide and picked out the athletes they wanted to watch. Once the Olympics kicked off, one of the children kept asking, “Is it time for swimming yet? Is it time for swimming yet?”
“That was very fulfilling,” Rob says.
And it’s the kind of result NBCUniversal had in mind when it first backed the team all those years ago.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski of the Content Marketing Institute