Did you know that the WNBA is the longest-standing women’s sports league in the United States?
Neither did we!
Building A Career in Sports Marketing
Can you describe a definitive moment in your career when you realized the impact marketing has in the sports industry?
Deandra: “I think I’ve always realized the impact that marketing has in the sports industry and it’s the reason why I made it a career. There’s a book called “Brands Win Championships” by Jeremy Darlow that talks about the importance of good branding and storytelling in the collegiate space. The topics in the book can absolutely relate to the professional world and some of those have stuck with me. His formula is simple but relevant: Consistency + Frequency = Success, and that rings true for both on the court and off.”
How did you create a path or plan toward the role you hold now?
Deandra: “I honed in on the marketing communications space fairly early in my journey when I learned that it was perfect for combining my love for marketing, design, and storytelling. I’ve always sought opportunities that would allow me to tap into my strengths, but also allow me to learn something new. Every stop along my journey – from internships to full-time positions has prepared me for each next step and I learned from some of the best in the business to come to a point where I’m able to pull from that and add to what I’m currently doing. I am fortunate that people have acknowledged my work and continue to trust me with more. Being with the Aces in this position is the perfect blend of all of the experiences I’ve had to this point.”
What is it like being a Black woman who’s also an executive leader in the sports industry?
Deandra: “My experience now is definitely a lot more positive than it was when I was first entering the industry over 15 years ago, to be honest. I rarely saw representation in the spaces I was working in or the spaces I had aspirations to work in, so at times it felt a little lonely without community. I was aware that the informal hiring clubs didn’t naturally include me, or sometimes even see me and that could either deter me or encourage me. The few faces I did see definitely gave me inspiration and mentorship along the way and continue to pour into me and the village of peers that I have that are women and especially, Black women, also help to provide a community that I can lean on, build with, and share with as well.”
What’s your favorite part about working with The Las Vegas Aces?
Deandra: “My favorite part about working for The Aces is that there is permission to be creative. No idea is too wild and no idea is too much. We have a marketing team of three—our CMO, myself, and a Director of Marketing—so we all have to be nimble, efficient, and resourceful, but we get it done. Since we all joined the team in 2022 from different parts of the industry, we’ve had to make the transition together and learn the flow of the season and play catch-up with the league’s rules and initiatives. We’ve been empowered to challenge the status quo and that’s always helpful when you are trying to do things out of the norm that you hope will move the needle. All of us have unique backgrounds, having come from the NFL, NBA, NHL, Team USA, and the entertainment side, so we are bringing different perspectives and ideas. We’re learning the landscape of Las Vegas together as well and the community and fans have embraced us!”
Over the past ten months, how have you developed trust with the players and the WNBA community of fans?
Deandra: “The way we are set up with not having our team HQ finished (it opens in March 2023), our interactions with the players are limited, so it’s difficult to build relationships when you aren’t able to see the team that frequently. Our basketball operations staff does a great job of standing in the gap and being the bridge for that relationship in the meantime. We try to be intentional with our asks of the players and we try to build trust by letting them know that their brand and how they show up is important to us and protected by us as well…We want to grow our brand regionally and nationally and we definitely can’t do so without the WNBA fans’ support.”
Building an Expert Brand Marketing Toolkit
What were the top 3 marketing operations and workflow issues that needed to be addressed and adjusted in order for you to be successful and make an impact on this team?
Deandra: “There were only two: 1) Marketing automation and 2) Digital asset management.”
Tell us about your process of auditing your marketing operations and finding the right solutions to optimize your team’s output and make your marketing content be more impactful?
Deandra: “The evaluation happened over time, but upon my first couple of weeks with the Aces, I learned that these were issues that, if cleaned up, could help the marketing, tickets, and social teams move a little more efficiently. The marketing automation software was in the process of being integrated with our team so I came in during that process and had to learn the software and how to apply it to our needs. We use Marketo for our marketing automation and it has been critical in improving our email and campaign management and consumer engagement. We are able to set cadences and manage the frequency for how we communicate with our fans. Once it is operating at 100%, we’ll be able to maximize other features that will further help the marketing team and the ticket department with lead management and fan personalization.
Another need we had was how to manage our digital assets. We were saving and hosting all of our images and video from our social team on hard drives, which everyone didn’t have access to. It put a strain on our Director of Social Media (Kris Lumage) to have to be the keeper of these assets, so I wanted to find a solution that would alleviate him from that task and also make the assets more available to others in the organization who would need them at any given point—like coworkers working in Partnerships, Marketing, freelance photographers, etc. I was familiar with PhotoShelter because it was a tool we used at The Baltimore Ravens and was very user-friendly. I was sure that it would work for us and become a great tool over time.
Communication to fans, overall, was important to really get right. The gameday experience starts way before a fan comes into the arena so we needed to make sure that we made their fan journey easier by communicating early and often, important details for their experience. That flowed into making gameday top-notch. We wanted to ensure that people felt like ‘This is Vegas!’ when they were at a game and Vegas is loud, exciting, energetic, and fun. Our fans responded well to that and so did every new visitor to the arena.”
What are the tangible results of the optimizations you’ve made on your team/organization?
Deandra: “Overall, I’m a believer that you have to do the boring things consistently. So, while some of these optimizations seem like very small pieces of the puzzle, they matter in the grand scheme of things.
Regarding our marketing automation—the optimizations there have made a world of difference. We have received positive feedback from fans on the noticeable changes we’ve made in terms of how we communicate to them and what we are communicating. We are also able to track a significant number of ticket sales to our marketing automation efforts now that it is a part of our marketing funnel, which is the biggest win of all.”
The 2022 WNBA Championship Playoff Plan
How did your team approach the championship season?
Deandra: “For the newbies in the organization, we certainly got lucky with this being our first season, so I have to give kudos to my colleagues who have been here from the very beginning when the team was brought to Las Vegas. They definitely set the foundation for the Aces—built an incredible brand and fanbase that we were happy to add to. This season was definitely special. I think we all felt that we were embarking on a special journey at the start of the season.
We had so many incredible crowds at our home arena this season, including several sell-outs and we are grateful and proud of that. The addition of our Creative Director of Video Storytelling was also a huge benefit to the season campaign and the playoff campaign with the stories she was able to create around our players and coaches that gave fans a more in-depth look into who they are and a behind-the-scenes view into how they live and how they approach their work.”
How soon into your time with the team did you start planning campaigns and mapping out content coverage for the playoffs?
Deandra: “Our marketing team started thinking about Playoff themes and campaigns in July, after the WNBA All-Star break. I think in marketing, your brain never stops thinking about slogans and campaign ideas, to be honest. We started a running list of possible themes/slogans, getting ideas from everyone in the organization. We eventually narrowed down the theme and slogan in early August and landed on ‘Raise the Stakes’ as a concept. We leaned heavily into the casino and the general Las Vegas theme, which is consistent to our season-long campaign ‘ALL IN’, and we created a mood board for the creative direction and worked with our graphic designers through our Agency of Record, Fox Hammer Media, to start bringing the logo and look/feel together.”
How did the media and audiences react to the playoff content and momentum?
Deandra: “We received a lot of great feedback on the visuals we released, especially with retail and social. Posters aren’t really a top seller in gameday retail because it’s a difficult product to carry around, but we did well on selling our round-specific posters as well as the round-specific shirts. Our CMO, Blair Hardiek, who is also over all of our retail, worked diligently all season to have our online retail shop ready to go in time for playoffs and that was helpful in seeing the brand be accessible to fans all over the country instead of just Las Vegas. It allowed all of our fans to feel part of the journey.”
How did you build brand hype before the most crucial games with visual storytelling?
Deandra: “Before each round, we released a poster based on a mob movie or a mob influence. Round 1 was based on Goodfellas, the Semifinals was based on Set it Off, the Finals was based on The Sopranos and the Championship poster was based on The Godfather. We planned these well in advance, but the story within the game played out exactly like we planned it. Because we wanted to make sure the campaign spread across all platforms, the theme translated into the in-game experience as well with retail items and rally towels for each home game.
Our Director of Social Media and our Digital Content Strategist do an amazing job capturing content during practice, games, events, etc. They come up with a lot of cool ideas that give fans a different lens into practice, gamedays, etc. They are very creative. They take thousands of photos and videos each game and each practice and each time it feels like a new story unfolding.”
How do you make sure you’re capturing the journey of the players, while also giving them space to perform and be themselves?
Deandra: “This is more of a nod to our Director of Social Media, Kris Lumague, and our Director of Public Relations, John Maxwell. They have both been with the organization since we moved to Las Vegas and have developed relationships with the players to truly earn their trust. Kris is very much in the action behind the scenes and has individual relationships with each player that goes beyond them just being coworkers on a team. I think that’s special and a nod to his level of care for them as people first. So he knows how to balance the two and knows when to give them space and when to be ‘on.'”
The Road to the WNBA Championship
Can you give us a general timeline of The Las Vegas Aces’ road to the championship?
Deandra: Our official playoff campaign began prior to the completion of the regular season. Here’s how it went:
- The team clinched a playoff spot on July 24, which triggered our Playoff ticket on-sale for our season members, followed by an on-sale to general fans on August 9th.
- The team secured the No. 1 seed during the final regular-season game on August 14, which gave the Aces a home-court advantage in the playoffs.
- The WNBA Playoffs consisted of three rounds: Round 1, Semifinals, and the Finals which were held in a 2-3, 3-5, 3-5 format, so we knew that we had a very short window of time to execute our Playoff campaign, both in-game and in the digital/social realm.
- Once the regular season came to an end, we immediately switched to Playoff mode by unveiling our campaign slogan, ‘Raise the Stakes,’ our themed poster for the round, and all of our creative across platforms.
- The team completed a sweep in Round 1 and each remaining round went to 4 games, which we had to plan for best and worst-case scenarios for each.
- Once we advanced to a round, we posted the next round creative to set the tone and continue the momentum.
- The Finals were a unique situation because the marketing and social teams had to start planning for both a celebration and for the season to come to an abrupt halt at the same time.
- Celebration conversations started at the beginning of the Semifinal round because it involved several moving parts including reserving buses, staging, and tech equipment, permitting for street closures, arrangement of barricading, street cleaning as well as police and security logistics. Celebration planning also involved communication with both county and city officials as well as business partners along Las Vegas Blvd to ensure that all parties involved were on one accord. Plus, there were several moving pieces that were on standby based on whether we won or lost.
- When the team won the championship, communication began immediately to put spring into action for celebration preparation. Our marketing team took the lead on celebration planning and communication while our social and content team continued with postgame and championship content.
When considering a championship, what is most important to highlight about the team prior to the most crucial games?
Deandra: “We wanted to show that although the team was winning, the work wasn’t ‘done’—that the players are still consistent in preparation, so practice content was highlighted as it had been all season, game highlights from the previous game, etcetera. We wanted to make sure that we stuck to our plan as we had all season-highlighting the women as people and not just players, so sticking with content that showed their personalities and not just their on-court performances. We were also in a unique position where the WNBA was rolling out in-season awards and we had several players who were awarded Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year, MVP, and Coach of the Year, so we also highlighted those folks and their work throughout the season. Communication and informing fans about the possible upcoming games, how to watch or tune in and the different opponent scenarios as well as how to purchase tickets were also of very high importance during this time.”
How did you highlight these elements about the team, the players, and women in basketball — through visual storytelling content?
Deandra: “Our Director of Creative Video launched a YouTube miniseries called ‘All In’ at the start of the season and we continued producing content for that series through the playoffs. It was available to watch on YouTube, but it was also part of our in-game video content for fans to view at our games. Some of the features were picked up by ESPN during select broadcasts as well. Photo and video on social are consistent parts of the content plan to showcase pre-game, in-game and post-game content, including practice preparation and fun, behind-the-scenes moments with the team.”
What did your tech stack look like that helped you share the WNBA Championship Win story in real time so the media and your fans could spread and share the news with the world?
Deandra: “Our Director of Social and Digital Content Strategist work with this tech stack of platforms: Slate, Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and Premiere Pro, and the native social apps. When we were able to go from camera to computer, we used the Adobe suite for editing and watermarking and then published the content natively on digital and social platforms. For our mobile setup, we used the native Apple editing apps for video and photo and Slate to add a watermark.”
How did you continue to share this win with your local and regional community?
- Events: “We are making a point to take the trophy to as many public appearances as possible to ensure that we share this championship with the community. We have some ideas for special events that our season members and larger fan base can participate in as well.”
- Content: “We have so much content from the season that should keep us fairly consistent on platforms. Our Director of Creative Video Storytelling is working on completing our ‘All In‘ miniseries. She’s also working on a road-to-the-Championship recap video that will feature a lot of unseen content and behind-the-scenes content that will be a real treat for everyone to see.”
What’s next for The Las Vegas Aces?!
Deandra: “I think we’re all excited to continue to build the brand on and off the court. We have so many great ideas in the vault to help grow the game and anchor the Aces in the community. We are looking forward to growing our staff to help us be successful in those endeavors. I think we all share a vested interest in being innovative, forward-thinking, and groundbreaking in this league.”
How do you continue to engage your community of fans and continue building a community of fans during the off-season?
Deandra: “What I learned from working with the Ravens is how important it is to have the mindset that you have to earn every fan, regardless of your success. That was one of the biggest takeaways for me in my tenure there and I learned a great deal from leadership on the how and why. It’s important for us to not go “dark” and stagnant during the off-season and take advantage of the momentum that we have and the fan base that we’ve built. Continuing to cultivate that fanbase through touchpoints in the off-season is important and that includes appearances and content.”
P.S. Stay tuned to our social channels for a 🗓 Save The Date invite for our next Inside Look webinar with Deandra Duggans!