Digital path to success

Our guest at SPORTO Digital Talk in March was Dustin Godsey, Chief Marketing Officer at Milwaukee Bucks, NBA professional basketball team, who talked about their marketing and digital path, which went alongside their championship goals, where they have become NBA champions again after 50 years.

Dustin Godsey has been with the Bucks for almost ten years: “I was the first marketing person ever hired with the team. Marketing was not a big function within the organization – all we had were some people in ticket sales that were helping out with social.” After he joined the team, many things changed as he helped rebuild the brand and build out what he believes is one of the best marketing and digital teams in the NBA and American sports. Their organization is built around eight guiding principles: be present or don’t show up; set ridiculously high standards; include everyone: people; understand that culture happens with or without you; make sure your words match your actions; the best, most effective form of social media is a face-to-face relationship; don’t be a jerk, be nice; work your butt off.


New ownership

In May 2014, the Milwaukee Bucks welcomed two new owners, investment bankers Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, who purchased the team at a time when they were not in the best place from a brand standpoint – they were placed last in the NBA, had no organised performance staff and were playing their games in the second oldest arena, BMO Harris Bradley Center, with the worst attendance in the NBA. They had minimal brand awareness within the market, were earning $140,000 in merchandise sales, and their social media following was less than a million globally across all platforms.

When the new owners came in, they identified new ambitious goals, including investment in their in-game and in-arena experience in the old building, while they also put a lot of emphasis on rebranding. “We had a kind of a lost generation of fans that we needed to reach back out to and bring back, so we started with the visual rebranding – we changed our colours and our logo. We invested in our in-game experience, looking to make these must-attend events, and then we built up our digital team to really focus on innovation,” explains Godsey. They also wanted to drive their app usage, redefining their food and beverage business by taking it mobile, and focus on selling their branded products. “We wanted to take a deeper look at how we tell our story, how we use content to generate interest in our organisation and to drive our business in revenue-generating ways by letting the fans throughout the world engage with what we do.”

Since 2019, when they started organizing watch parties for their fans, their popularity has continued to grow. “Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw last year in NBA Finals (where Milwaukee Bucks were the champions, A/N) as fans were starting to get back together, and luckily we had these vacant lots where we could continue to pack thousands of people in. It was great to see and it provided us great content, great story-telling to be able to put Milwaukee on a global stage. One of the big things for our brand is that we know that for a lot of people throughout the world, the Bucks are actually a kind of touchdown to Milwaukee – a lot of people wouldn’t know where Milwaukee was

if it weren’t for the Bucks and the global stage that we have for the NBA. So, we take that very seriously and want to use our content and our digital strategy to really be a megaphone, not just for the team but for our city. We saw the finals as being a huge, two-week long commercial for the Bucks and the city we call home,” describes Godsey. Their mission statement is to be the best and most respected sports and entertainment company in the world: “We see ourselves as a content business and a content organization.”

They set out from the beginning of the new ownership to win the NBA championship and be a championship team. “Our owners came in at the interactive press conference and said, ‘We are going to win a championship in Milwaukee’, which was not something a lot of people believed. But this now enables us to really tell that story, and now all those things that for the past eight years we have been preparing for, we now get put into effect – tell that story and share it with our audience worldwide,” he says.

Vast majority of followers from outside of the US

The numbers they achieved are truly impressive. From a digital standpoint, they have seen great success, as indicated by the 300% revenue increase over 2018/2019 season. “Currently, 10 percent of our overall team partnership revenue is attached to digital and we are just starting to scrape the barrel in terms of what we can do. We see that being 50% of our total sponsorship revenue in the coming years that is going to be attached to digital,” forecasts Godsey. In addition, direct monetization with the ad money that comes in from Facebook and YouTube grew over 400% year-over-year, and they are on pace to reach over $1 million in direct monetization this year as well. “We have really focused on strategizing where we put our content, how we time our content and what is going to perform on different channels. All that monetization and sponsorships happens through growing our audience, and it starts with a mobile-first approach on our own channels,” he continues. Since August last year, they have seen 100,000 new downloads of the app, which is, normalized year-over-year, 180% growth, and 27% growth year-over-year in video views within the app. Over 300,000 fans have push notifications enabled or are signed into account, which allows them to track different data to customize and personalize their direct campaigns to the fans. They now have over 8 million followers across their social platforms, and as a fun fact, Godsey reveals that the majority of that audience is outside of the US – 73% of their Facebook following and 64% of Instagram is global. “We know that not only are the majority of these people never going to come to Milwaukee to see a game, a lot of them may never even watch a live Bucks game, so these channels and the content we put out are the opportunity for fans to interact with our brand. We have seen 2.2 billion impressions across our platforms since July 2021 and over 360 million video views,” reveals Godsey. According to him, while the championship has certainly helped drive these numbers, this was also a part of their growth strategy: “Now, there is only one thing left for us to do, and that is, let’s go do it again!”

Failure is not feared but welcomed

There is a quote in Dustin Godsey’s office that says: “Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow.” This quote says a lot about the Bucks’ culture, which is in his opinion closely connected with innovation and trying new things. “We can’t be afraid to fail. As long as we are learning and doing things for a strategic reason, we are on the right path. The results, on the court or off, are not always going to be what you hoped they were going to be, so as long as you are willing to learn from mistakes and try again, things are going to work out,” believes Godsey.

Success in sports is cyclical and the team are well aware of that. “We want to become one of those cultural touchstone brands like the Chicago Bulls, who are still one of the most popular sports brands and certainly one of the most followed NBA teams across the world. They haven’t won a championship since 1998, but were able to use that success to build and create a following of their brand. That’s our goal now,” says Godsey. He also adds that a part of their rebranding was taking more control over their brand and the type of merchandise they want to offer. Before the next season, they plan to roll out their own private label on the merchandise side, which is going to give them even more control and allow them to deliver the merchandise directly into the hands of fans. “Our next goal, as we set those ridiculously high standards, is becoming one of those brands and one of those teams that is followed regardless of what happens on the court,” he concludes.