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Beyond the Game: LPGA’s Matthew Chmura (Yale SOM ’18) on The Power of Emotional Connections in Sports

The Ladies’ Professional Golf Association’s first chief marketing executive spoke to students during this year’s Colloquium on Marketing Leadership, reflecting on his career in sports marketing. Here’s how it went down.

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Matthew Chmura (SOM ’18) hadn’t always known he would one day market some of the fastest-growing sports teams in the United States. 

Proximity inspires practice, and for Chmura, a career in sports marketing has been heavily influenced by his own experiences as a lifelong fan, supplemented by college internships for the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans. It has shaped his definition of marketing, which he sees as a process of understanding the current and potential consumer base, deepening the emotional connection between a brand and its customers, and finally transforming that connection into a mutually beneficial relationship. 

It’s this approach — one in which Chmura has throughout his life found himself on both sides — that reveals where marketing executives can begin to scratch underneath the surface of sports marketing.

Fan Fever

Sports marketing is unique to other types of marketing, Chmura said, because you aren’t selling widgets that are guaranteed to “work” or advertising them to be the “perfect” product.

“You can’t do that with sports,” Chmura chuckled. 

The challenge of sports marketing is that teams want current and potential fans to love the players, whether they win or lose a game. According to Chmura, the aim is to sustainably foster and grow a genuine relationship between audiences in the seats and the sports brand and athletes which represent it beyond the game. That’s where an emotional connection comes in.

There are nuances, too. In sports where players wear masks or helmets covering their faces, like football or hockey, it can be harder to nurture that key connection without a face to root for and empathize with during the game. How do you communicate pain and joy, and how do you root for an athlete that expresses both?

One solution, Chmura suggests, are “behind the scenes” docuseries that have found their footing in today’s pop culture. For example, Netflix’s Drive to Survive — the dramatic backstory of the famed Formula One drivers — has become one of the platform’s most popular sports shows. The docuseries offers an opportunity for fans to grab popcorn and better bond with their favorite players as they learn about their life stories, both through the game and beyond.

The Boston Bruins: Making It Work

When Chmura started his new job at the Bruins in 2006, only 4,500 fans attended the hockey team’s first game. Within three years, the Bruins reached a sell-out streak which continues until today. How did they do it?

It all came down to organizing data and measuring commitment, Chmura told SOM students. The Bruins’ launched a database — which now consists of 1.2 million fans — to analyze preferences, a ticket pricing strategy that made sense, and metrics of fan loyalty. His team launched their first website and social media channels around the turn of the 2010’s, establishing a solid online presence right when internet access was rapidly growing. On top of those efforts, they produced two award winning television shows, which established the team’s mainstream legitimacy.

Yet the key to long-term success, he claims, lies in recruiting the next generation of fans. The Bruins launched a kids’ club and youth hockey programs, which is fostering a younger, diverse new generation of hockey fans. The most loyal hockey fans are the ones who grow up with hockey, Chmura reasons.

Chmura argues that at the end of the day, it’s not enough to solely maintain an existing fanbase. In any segmented market, executives should identify opportunities for audience growth. For example, while hockey fan bases may traditionally skew white and male, this is rapidly changing. Expanding fan demographics, as he says, isn’t a passive matter — it requires active measures toward inclusion.

Life at the LPGA

When Chmura started his new position at the LPGA — the women’s arm of the prestigious Professional Golf Association — the 73 year old league had actually never before been marketed.

Without an established marketing department, the LPGA did not have the necessary infrastructure to grow its audience base. A lack of access to fan data, amidst a desire to expand globally, led to “daunting challenges” for the organization, Chmura said.

Chmura addressed these challenges by investing in human capital and data capabilities. He launched an expansion of LPGA’s team, which now employs 50 people across marketing, communications, broadcast content, and business intelligence. He also committed significant time and resources to invest in CRM tools and data lakes to truly optimize fan data.

Next year, LPGA’s events will offer tickets on SeatGeek. Utilizing a central ticketing solution, Chmura predicts, will both facilitate sales from the consumer’s point of view and expand consumer insight into purchasing behavior. Consumer research, LPGA sponsored events, and content strategy will all play into LPGA’s longer term strategy to push for understanding their customer base.

In spite of Chmura’s changes, some challenges remain industry-wide. It’s often “not a fair fight” between men’s and women’s professional sports, Chmura noted. Generally, men’s golf is played on main media cable networks, while women’s golf is restricted to the networks’ golf channels. If both divisions were streamed on the same network, the ratings would be about the same, given recent trends. But since women’s golf isn’t as visible, it can be difficult for the brand to build cachet.

The LPGA continues to establish its global presence, however, and Chmura is determined to accelerate its growth. With games in 3 continents broadcast in 150+ countries every week and consistent revenue splits in North America, Asia and Europe, the LPGA continues to court its growing fanbase.

A Risk Well Worth the Wait

When it comes to funding these efforts to compete, Chmura sympathizes with how difficult intra-firm conversations about marketing investments can be, given that they often don’t have immediate effects. But he’s confident that the long-term rewards and emotional connection achieved by marketing are well worth the investment.

“This is a bit of an area where you’re taking a calculated risk to say, this may not turn into revenue tomorrow for us,” Chmura said. “But in five years, it’s going to.”