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Pittsburgh Steelers steal a march on rivals in international social media battle

The Pittsburgh Steelers have long maintained a sizeable global following. Ryan Huzjak, their vice-president of sales and marketing, tells SportBusiness how they are now using social media to engage with, grow, and monetise that audience.

  • Steelers are the most popular NFL team on social media in Mexico and second-most popular in China, crucial foreign markets for the league
  • Social media has enabled NFL teams to expand global reach without breaching league rules on home marketing areas
  • Collaboration with Mailman saw Steelers become first NFL club to appoint Chinese-language fan reporter

International growth has long presented a challenge to NFL teams. While the NFL itself has been pursuing a strategy of global expansion for some time, including the staging of regular-season games in London and Mexico, its teams have been limited in what they can achieve, both by the league’s relative lack of penetration outside the US and its home marketing area rules, which place severe limitations on a team’s ability to activate outside a 75-mile radius from their home stadium.

For a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, social media has presented a chance to reach beyond those restrictions and capitalise on a long-standing worldwide popularity.

“We’ve always known that we have a huge following around the world,” says Ryan Huzjak, vice-president of sales and marketing at the Steelers. “It’s not so long since the only game international audiences could watch was the Super Bowl, and in the 1970s we reached and won four Super Bowls, so we cemented ourselves as a lot of people’s favourite team, along with the Cowboys, in that era.”

A second period of success, at the dawn of the social media era, when the Steelers played in three more Super Bowls (winning two) between 2006 and 2011, offered a timely boost to the team’s international visibility. In China and Mexico, two of the key strategic overseas markets for the NFL, the Steelers are the second-most-followed NFL team, after the New England Patriots in the former and the Dallas Cowboys in the latter.

“We’ve always tried to maintain a connection with those fans over time,” says Huzjak. “But it hasn’t always been easy. What we’ve been able to come up with over the past few years is a more coherent, holistic strategy for engaging and hopefully building out that audience.”

Reactive and proactive approach

While that existing popularity has given the Steelers a solid platform, particularly in Mexico, Huzjak notes that a huge amount of work has gone into capitalising on that and maximising the team’s social media reach.

They have appointed social media reporters working in German, Mandarin, Portuguese and Spanish, to target territories – Germany and Brazil, along with China and Mexico – that have been identified as key growth areas for NFL. The content shared is a mixture of translated and original articles and videos, with more original content created for China and particularly Mexico – “where we’re more established and have a critical mass, so we’ve pushed more resources into that area,” says Huzjak.

Pittsburgh Steelers legend and two-time Super Bowl winner Troy Polamalu holds a Mexico jersey. The team has been among the most popular NFL sides in Mexico since the 1970s.

In most markets, Twitter and Instagram are the key platforms, with specific accounts operated for different territories. Content in multiple languages is also shared from the central Steelers Facebook account, as Facebook allows for geo-targeting of posts. In China, Sina Weibo is the primary platform, though Huzjak says others, such as WeChat and Tencent QQ are “being investigated”, with the intention of further expansion once their presence in the country is more established.

“In some territories it’s about being reactive,” says Huzjak. “We know Mexico has a huge Steelers fanbase and through Facebook we can see data on things like what our followers have selected as a primary language. We have about 850,000 Spanish-speaking folks on Facebook, so we’re really building those platforms to respond to that fanbase.”

He contrasts this with the club’s “proactive” work in China, which, he says, “wasn’t really in response to anything we’d heard, we just spotted a major opportunity in what is obviously a hugely growing sports market. In Mexico, we’ve added some new fans, but we’ve mainly converted our existing fans into followers. In China, we’ve built a following of almost 300,000 from nothing – and that’s been through a concerted push, building out the touchpoints that we have with the Chinese audience”.

Despite being the most popular NFL team on Weibo until around the time of this year’s Super Bowl, Huzjak says the team are “just in our infancy there. I wouldn’t describe us as having a stronghold there, but we’ll just keep building it up with the full support of the league because the way they see it – and the way we see it – is that what’s good for one club in China is good for the whole league. The more opportunities we create, the more opportunities it creates for the entire NFL”.

Localisation, not translation

Chinese digital sports marketing agency Mailman has worked with various NFL teams on their Chinese social media strategies since 2015. For the majority of that time, the Steelers have been the most popular NFL team on Weibo, only overtaken by the Patriots in the course of the last 12 months, during which the Super Bowl winners added over 400,000 followers. For their part, the Steelers remained the second-fastest growing and the second-most-engaged team (measuring average engagement per post) in that time, according to Mailman’s figures.

The agency’s primary goal, says Gideon Clark, sports client director with Mailman, is “helping to localise our client’s messaging and make the content relevant to fans in China”.

The word “localise” is important, “because we don’t really like to use the word ‘translate’. We don’t ever want to copy-paste anything or just run something through Google Translate.

“If you took content that a team would already be creating for their Western channels and pushed it into China without providing that local design, it wouldn’t have a very great impact. We have to localise the message and give it a specific branding. If we get something from the Steelers that they want to push, we ask, ‘does this resonate here?’. And if it doesn’t, maybe we scrap it and introduce something else.”

A successful international social media strategy “starts with identifying the core brand messaging” of the rights-holder in question, says Clark. “What are the values that the Steelers want to communicate, and then are those values compatible with the values of the local market?”

Although Chinese NFL fans, he says, are “not blue collar, and likely to be well-off”, the Steelers’ positioning as a hard-working team from a blue-collar city “plays well in China, where there’s a real culture of hard work and wanting to be associated with that hard-working spirit. Importantly, they’ve also been successful in the recent past. Chinese fans, like any other, are drawn to success”.

The Steelers’ iconic “Terrible Towel” has played a major role in their international social media push, with fans encouraged to share photographs with their towels in the most unusual and far-flung locations

Another reason the Steelers have managed to nudge ahead of their rivals in quickly building a fanbase in China, Clark says, is their commitment to creating relevant, bespoke content for the audience. In 2018, they became the first team to appoint a permanent Chinese-language fan reporter. Ying Lin, a graduate student at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, produced a series of five monthly videos over the course of the 2018-19 season, “providing a unique and, importantly, Chinese voice that could introduce the club culture; gameday; and bring the fans in China inside the Steelers’ experience in a very direct and local way”, says Clark.

The series was the best-performing content the Steelers had ever published on Weibo, racking up 102,000 views across its five episodes, and was in the top three pieces of NFL content for the season. The Steelers also teamed up with Wang Zixing, a Chinese commentator for Tencent, the digital broadcast partner of the NFL in China. Wang, a popular figure in China who used to commentate on NBA games before making the switch to NFL, appeared in a series of clips promoting Steelers games and helping to contextualise games.

Contextualisation is a key fixture of Mailman’s social media guidance for NFL teams in China, where knowledge of the game is lower and making the sport accessible to new fans is a primary aim. “We might not dumb it down, but highlight some of the more obvious or cultural elements, highlight the tradition of the Steelers, or when they’re going up against the Cleveland Browns or the Baltimore Ravens, just emphasising that this is a rivalry game and then explaining what a rivalry means in the context of the Pittsburgh Steelers, rather than going after a statistical analysis of a quarterback,” says Clark. This contrasts with the Steelers’ strategy in Mexico and Germany, for the moment, where the focus has been on engaging existing football fans.

Turning engagement into revenue

The NFL’s lack of popularity outside the US is particularly noticeable on social media. Even in Mexico – traditionally the third-biggest market for the league, after the US and Canada – NFL teams make up just four of the top 40 most-followed sports clubs on Twitter, with soccer teams filling almost all the other positions, according to a study by Samford University in Alabama. The Patriots’ 500,000 followers on Weibo, meanwhile, would make them only the world’s 15th-most-popular soccer team on the platform. Manchester United, the most popular soccer team, has almost ten million followers on Weibo.

Ryan Hujzak, vice-president of sales and marketing at the Steelers, says that social media has allowed the team to capitalise on its immense global popularity

Hujzak says that efforts at the moment are focussed simply on generating engagement rather how that can be turned into revenue.

“I think, firstly, that there is very little downside to simply growing your fanbase,” he says. “We look at the size and passion of our fanbase as really the tide that raises the water for all the boats. It’s the most important work we have, our fanbase is really our lifeblood. So any time we have an opportunity to invest in the growth or the expansion of our fanbase, that’s definitely a top priority for us.”

Furthermore, he adds that there is some opportunity to monetise on social media through advertising attached to video content and banner ads, often delivered on behalf of the club’s existing sponsors. “We certainly take the opportunity to seriously grow those digital and social platforms because we’re able to turn around and offer that visibility to our corporate partners who can then choose to advertise on those platforms,” Huzjak says.

The longer-term benefits, meanwhile, are “vast”, he adds, particularly in China. Because the sport is starting from a low base, the growth it has seen over the past few years has been rapid, with the NFL teams’ accounts adding a cumulative 500,000 followers on Weibo over the course of 2018-19.

Most of these followers are likely to be middle-class and have some level of disposable income, says Clark. “That creates an opportunity for direct sales of things like merchandise and tickets” – the appetite for ‘sports tourism’ in China is already huge and continues to grow – “but over the longer-term, if you can say to the world, ‘we are an internationally-followed club in the NFL, top one or two in China’, having those arrows in your bow only improves your value proposition to any sponsor.”

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