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Timberwolves Use Pop Culture to Drive Creative Direction for ‘City Edition’ Jersey

The Minnesota Timberwolves were seen as one of the big beneficiaries of the ‘City Edition’ Jersey campaigns because of their weaving in of local and popular culture.

Aaron Blake

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Photo credit: Minnesota Timberwolves

The NBA “City Edition” jerseys have returned to basketball arenas all across the country, and some teams included concepts that hit closer to home. For the Minnesota Timberwolves, this is particularly true, as the organization is paying tribute to rock legend and Minnesota native Prince.

By no coincidence did the Timberwolves choose to honor Prince in 2018; this year would mark the late icon’s 60th birthday.

“Targeting this season gave us the runway to celebrate that milestone and to work with the Estate and the team at Paisley Park on a few initiatives with enough time to ensure that everything could come to life in a way that Prince would have been proud of as well,” said Lindsay Milne, vice president of marketing for the Timberwolves and Lynx.

The former musician, born and raised in Minneapolis, held deep ties to the city’s sports teams, and the Timberwolves are taking full advantage of the love and opportunity.

“We had a strong feeling it would be a hit with our fans for a multitude of reasons,” Milne said. “It starts, though, with the connection between Prince and the game of basketball. Because of that organic tie, no aspect of the project has felt forced or unnatural which always translates to a win with fans.”

LISTEN: Rob Perez’s Journey from Ticketing Entrepreneur to NBA Personality

The organization exuded confidence about the decision, anticipating fans’ hype for the purple, Prince-inspired uniforms.

The Timberwolves unveiled a unique digital strategy on the day of the launch in Minneapolis to help tell the story of the uniform. But to Minneapolis and the Timberwolves, this “City Edition” jersey concept is more than a uniform, but an entire platform to activate all season.

“We pushed our teams hard to do so in a way that no other team has done before,” Milne said. “Prince was constantly breaking boundaries and we’ve tried to keep that in mind with every tactic we’ve considered.”

On “City Edition” jersey nights at the Target Center, the entire fan experience is transformed. Their belief is to truly celebrate and reflect the moment from when the doors open until the last fans leave.

“Our in-arena experience is second to none; we have custom player intros and custom outfitting for each of our entertainment groups,” said Milne. “Our music in venue has also been curated to be exclusively Prince or Prince-inspired tracks with more than 450 in total.”

As the fan experiences produce good times and the Prince story lives on, the Timberwolves still knew the jerseys had a certain momentum to be capitalized upon. So, they extended team store hours for launch day and subsequent days after, while offering them online.

“We invested in our unveil moment with a dedicated video and photo shoot to support our go to market tactics, and made a point to get the photos from that shoot in the hands of our players knowing how excited they were about the launch.”

In fact, Milne sees the Timberwolves as one of the big beneficiaries of the “City Edition” jersey program.

“We don’t have a 50-year history to lean on,” Milne said. “So, for us, having a program like this means we have a whole new set of tools to explore as we continue to tell our brand story.”

The Prince theme fits perfectly to the brand image the Timberwolves aim to construct, drawing fans from different avenues into support, and highlighting a musical legend proves a great way.

READ MORE: WNBA Teams Find Success Through Creative Partnerships

“This year, we’re using the program to celebrate the greatest of all time who chose Minnesota as his home time and time again, a sentiment which is perfectly aligned with our narrative,” Milne said. “The ‘City Edition’ jerseys will continue to be a great asset as we build on our story for years to come.”

The NBA is inherently tied to culture, passion, and fashion and the “City Edition” initiative is a unique way for each organization to express those themes in an organic way.

“Nike and the league nailed it with the ‘City Edition’ idea,” Milne added. “The ‘City Edition’ jerseys give us the chance to extend our brand reach into new demographics and introduce our experience to individuals who may have not otherwise considered the NBA as a brand that could speak to them.”

Aaron is a Front Office Sports Account Manager for Varsity Partners. He attends UNC Charlotte, loves spending time in the Appalachian mountains, and has interned with IMG-Learfield and ESPN 730. He can be reached at aaron@frntofficesport.com

Marketing

Inside The Huddle: Monetizable Social Assets With Jonah Ballow

Ballow reminds aspiring digital professionals that the real key to creating monetizable assets is simple, in theory: make good, unique content.

Front Office Sports

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In the buildup to the first of Front Office Sports’ Huddle Series on February 22, we’re introducing you to the huddle leaders who will be lending their expertise to the conversation.

Today, meet Jonah Ballow, VP of Digital at MKTG. He will be one of the leaders of the huddle “Making Money on Social: Creating and Delivering Monetizable Assets.”

A Colorado native, Ballow is a 2004 graduate of the University of Kansas, where he studied broadcast journalism and had, what he describes, as the thrill of a lifetime doing radio play-by-play for Jayhawks basketball games. On top of that, KU professors instilled in him the importance of building an online audience for any team or brand.

This set Ballow on a career path that included several jobs as a reporter and web producer for radio stations in Kansas and Missouri before bringing him to the NBA. Ballow joined the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 as a web editor, overseeing the organization’s web and social presence while playing a major role in all of their content creation efforts.

READ MORE: Inside the Huddle: Talking Paid Social With Angela Welchert

Ballow recalls a formative experience as a social media professional that came during his time with the Timberwolves. Capitalizing on the viral popularity of a clip of Kevin Love and Wesley Johnson failing to shake hands after a free throw, he showcased his agility as a creator with a comedic “investigative report” on what went wrong on the handshake.

The video was picked up by media outlets like NBA.com and ESPN, and quickly generated well over a million views.

“When all the major networks picked it up on their sites,” Ballow remembers, “a light bulb went off. I saw that the future was going to consist of teams making these original pieces of content with players who want to see themselves in that light.”

After nearly four years with the Timberwolves, Ballow moved on to the New York Knicks where he was the director of digital for six and a half years. Eight months ago, Ballow joined on with MKTG in a role that, to him, feels like a culmination of all of his past experiences.

“Being at MKTG and getting to work with different brands outside of basketball has been good for me,” he says. “I get to utilize the knowledge I gained with sponsorship integration and monetizing content, and bring brands onto the next platforms, while showing these brands how you can create original content that’s branded in a way where it can be used as a revenue stream.”

With over a decade of experience in digital media, Ballow finds that being quick on his feet — which helped him shine in his first big role in Minnesota — is still a key trait for a social media professional to have today.

“Everybody likes to be an ‘expert’ in this space. But just be nimble and be flexible,” Ballow stated. “Social is about trends and it’s moving at such a rapid pace that you can’t be stuck on one way of doing things or creating content. This also means keeping your eyes open for storylines and being able to create content quickly to act on them.”

On top of creating content quickly, Ballow reminds aspiring digital professionals that the real key to creating monetizable assets is simple, in theory: make good, unique content.

“The biggest thing I hope to achieve is originality. Whether it be original content or branded content, what we see in the best case studies of successful social campaigns is that at the heart of it, they are all built around really good content. Work out those other aspects of your strategy later.”

Being a leader of digital teams within the sport industry since the early days of his career, Ballow has learned that the most important aspect of leading a strong team is setting a positive example in content creation, as well as collaborating with other creatives.

“I think you have to really invest in your employees and the people around you and show them you’re going to work as hard or harder than anybody else. They’ll look to mirror that type of work ethic, and also show them respect and that you care about their lives and what they’re doing. The most important part about leadership is collaborating. Listen to other people’s thoughts and listen to what they bring to the table and from there, you can really decide on what the best course of action is.”

Meet Ballow and hear more of his thoughts on the current digital landscape at the Front Office Sports Digital Media Huddle presented by Opendorse in New York on February 22. For tickets and additional info, click here.

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How Toyota Forged Its Place in the ‘Can’t-Miss’ Super Bowl of Midget Racing

For the last few years, Toyota has backed 10 percent of the 300-plus drivers attempting to race their way into the A-main on the final night of racing.

Kraig Doremus

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Photo via TeeJay Crawford

It’s the Super Bowl of midget racing, known as the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals — or, more simply, the Chili Bowl. For five days, the Tulsa Expo Raceway, a quarter-mile clay oval inside of the Tulsa Expo Center, becomes home to some of the best midget racers in the country.

The 2019 event, which took place this past week, is a big one for Toyota, as the manufacturer had 37 competitors with TRD-powered engines on the entry list and has now had a driver win the A-main each of the past five years. This year, it was Toyota’s Christopher Bell who captured his third consecutive win.

“The Chili Bowl is hard to describe as you’re essentially racing under a dome,” said Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson. “The entry list is continuing to grow each year, and the spectacle has gone well beyond just a race in the middle of winter to become a can’t-miss event.”

Toyota has continued to build its support of the event, this year powering 37 drivers across 14 teams. Over the past several Chili Bowls, Toyota has backed nearly 10 percent of the 300-plus drivers attempting to race their way into the A-main on the final night of racing.

READ MORE: How NASCAR Stays Up to Speed in the Ever-Changing Digital Space

“We’ve had quite a record the past few years,” noted Wilson. “Having powered so many cars and having several with a Toyota engine in the A-main shows that there is a high demand for our engines. It’s flattering, but it’s truly all about the great partnerships that we have.”

One of those partnerships is with Keith Kunz Motorsports (KKM). Kunz hosted the KKM Giveback Classic at Millbridge Speedway to give one lucky driver the chance to compete in the Chili Bowl in one of his midget cars. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for the 140 drivers that were on the entry list.

“Jeremy and Ashley Burnett (who run Millbridge) came up with the idea of the race,” said Kunz. “There are kids and families out there that just don’t have the money to keep advancing up the ladder and buy a ride, so we came up with this idea at about 1 a.m. one morning. Toyota was all-in and we put on a great race.”

The format was standard for an outlaw kart race with qualifying and heat races to determine who advances to the main event. Jesse Colwell won the event and raced in the Chili Bowl for the first time in one of Kunz’s machines.

“Winning the KKM Giveback Classic would’ve been a great opportunity for any racer in the nation,” Colwell said. “Word spread quickly about the race, and soon it was the topic everywhere on social media, at the racetrack, etcetera. The ride on the line was what made the race so talked-about and unique. It was the only thing racers talked about.”

To prepare for the Chili Bowl, Colwell used iRacing, a popular sim platform among racers and even fans.

“I spent time on the iRacing Chili Bowl, which I feel doesn’t hurt. iRacing is a great learning tool, and I think turning laps on that might have prepared me more than ever for the Chili Bowl.”

Christopher Bell, who drives for Toyota team Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, won the Chili Bowl in 2017 and 2018, joining Kevin Swindell and Rico Abreu as the only drivers to win two consecutive Chili Bowls. This year, he became a three-time winner with a pass on Larson in the closing laps of the A-main.

To Bell, the Chili Bowl is more than a race — it’s a unique event that he looks forward to every year.

“Each race grows with history, and this race has a ton of history,” he said. “The caliber of drivers and the caliber of the winners is incredible. The Chili Bowl just has such a following of die-hards. We don’t have that in very many other events. At the Chili Bowl, those die-hards, they love it and they love it just as much as I do. Having those people here adds to the atmosphere.”

Bell and Kyle Larson, who grew up dirt racing, both place winning the Chili Bowl as bigger than winning NASCAR’s Daytona 500. Larson, although he doesn’t pilot a Toyota in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, drives for a TRD-powered team, KKM, for the Chili Bowl.

Said Bell about the Chili Bowl compared to the Daytona 500: “For me, personally, because of my background in motorsports and growing up in Oklahoma, the Chili Bowl — that’s what motorsports stands for to me. That was my marquis event whenever I was growing up. It was everything. I didn’t even know as a young kid at four or five years old; I didn’t know about the Daytona 500 or the Indy 500. I knew the Chili Bowl, and that was the top of my pedestal.”

Regarding Larson, although he drives for another manufacturer in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, his midget car is powered by Toyota for the Chili Bowl.

“We’re respectful to circumstances and situations,” said Wilson. “Kyle came up through the ranks with Keith (Kunz) driving Toyota midgets but circumstances didn’t work out later on that he could continue his Toyota relationship. Kyle’s love for dirt racing is huge. His intention is to continue throughout his entire career. We are happy to make accommodations for him if he wants to run a Toyota-powered midget.”

The Chili Bowl is not simply filled with male drivers. In fact, Toyota had three females in the field, including Holley Hollan, who was the youngest driver on the entry list. Hollan knows that despite being the youngest driver at the Chili Bowl, that she serves as role model for female drivers.

“I feel that Toyota has put me in a perfect position to be a positive role model to young and upcoming females in our sport,” Hollan said. “Being a figure on and off the track for youth to look up to has always been a goal of mine. Inspiring others to pursue their dreams while I’m living mine.”

READ MORE: Inside the Formation of NASCAR’s Analytics and Insights Department

Hollan drove for KKM and was the highest-finishing female in the 2019 Chili Bowl after advancing to the D-Main. She even had the chance to race against her dad, which was a bucket-list item for the young driver.

“He has truly been my biggest role model from the start. I raced head-to-head with him at Southern Illinois in late 2018. That night, he won the race as well as the POWRi National Championship. It doesn’t get much better than that. I believe that if you want to be the best, you have to race with the best. I’ll always enjoy the laps I get to turn with my dad.”

For Toyota, the goal moving forward with the Chili Bowl is to continue advancing cars to the A-main and winning the event, which is essentially a one-off race, a season of its own.

“It’s a one-race season, and ultimately our goal is to be able to continue partnering with the best teams and advancing as many TRD entries into the A-main and putting our drivers in positions to win that race,” said Wilson.

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Natty Light’s Super Bowl Moment

This year, Natural Light is giving 70 individuals the chance to pay down their student loan debt as part of their campaign around the Super Bowl.

Adam White

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Photo via Natty Light

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else. 

With the Super Bowl two weeks away, brands from most industries are looking to take advantage of the marketing opportunities surrounding the most-watched television broadcast in the U.S.

This year, Anheuser-Busch is going big for the big game. Part of their Super Bowl marketing blitz includes airing a local Natural Light Super Bowl ad in 5 of the top 10 cities hit hardest by student loan debt.

We caught up with Daniel Blake, Senior Director of Value Brands for Anheuser-Busch, to see why the brand decided to give away another $1,000,000 to help over 70 individuals pay down their student loan debt as well as how the campaign plays into the overall brand strategy for Natty Light.

On Natty’s Super Bowl approach…
“Super Bowl is a unique opportunity to talk to people, to engage with people. The Natural Light local SB spot is geared towards our core audience, students and graduates who are experiencing first-hand the gravity of student loan debt. Staying true to our fans is core to what Natty is as a brand, so it makes total sense that we talk to 21+ young adults about issues that impact their lives.”

On why sports are important to the brand…
“Sports are a big part of that, and we know from experience that our fans appreciate when we bring sports-related content and experiences into their daily lives. Our Race Resume program is the perfect example of this. In September 2018, Natural Light had the chance to create a paint scheme for Chris Buescher and the #37 car at the South Point 400 in Las Vegas. That paint scheme happened to be the resume and headshot of an aspiring motorsports journalist, Briar Starr. Briar won the contest we held to be featured on the car. It was a really innovative way to combine two topics that our fans are passionate about and it got a very positive response.”

Disruption is in Natty’s blood…
“We are always showing up in the places that are important to our fans. This will be the first of many sports moment where you’ll see Natty doing something fun and disruptive this year.”

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else. 

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