Every sports franchise should hire a Chief Storyteller. This point was driven home recently as I re-watched one of my favorite movies, Moneyball. It’s written before about the business and marketing lessons you can learn from watching Moneyball.
If you aren’t familiar with the Moneyball story, at the end of the 2001 season, the Oakland A’s lost its two star players, Johnny Damon, and Jason Giambi, because the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox could offer them more money. GM Billy Beane went to the A’s owner and implored him to please give Beane more money to spend on payroll so he could get better players. The owner refused, and this left Beane scrambling to figure out how to keep the A’s competitive with far less money to spend than other ballclubs.
This led Beane to meet Peter Brand on a trip to meet with the Cleveland Indians. Brand had developed a system for identifying talented players who were undervalued due to ‘biases’ against them. Such as being ‘too old’, having a ‘funny pitch’, or whatever. Beane was intrigued by Brand’s ideas, so he hired him to be his Assistant GM. Together they began working on building a roster of 25 players who were undervalued, but still talented enough to make the A’s competitive.
As Beane began acquiring his desired players, even his own scouts had never heard of them. The movie shows A’s fans reading the paper prior to the start of the season and asking ‘Who are these bums?’ So obviously, the A’s had a brand awareness problem when it came to their new acquisitions.
And as the season started, the losses piled up. But after the All-Star break, the team started to click. And they started to win. A lot. In fact, in September at the end of the regular season, the A’s actually set the American League record (at the time) for consecutive wins at 20. Here’s a recap of that 20th win, which could have been a movie all in itself:
So I was curious as I was watching Moneyball again, how did the success of the A’s in 2002 affect revenue?
Turns, out, not by much. Revenue for the A’s in 2001 was 90 million, and it increased to 96 million in 2002, an increase of roughly 7%. But in 2003, revenue for the A’s increased to 110 million, or 15%. Since the A’s 20-game win streak didn’t happen until the end of the season, much of its impact on revenue for the year was negated. Yet the excitement for how the 2002 season ended no doubt carried over into excitement for the 2003 season, contributing to the larger boost to revenue for that year.
While the 2002 A’s didn’t have many ‘star’ players, the pursuit of the record for most wins became the ‘story’ that sucked fans in. Unfortunately, not every sports franchise will have record-setting seasons that become stories that sell themselves. This is why sports franchises need to invest in Chief Storytellers.
The Chief Storyteller needs to first tell the story of the players, then tell the story of the fans. First with the players, we all follow our favorite sports teams, and as we do, we develop a fondness for certain players. We appreciate their accomplishments, especially if they overcome setbacks to help lead their team to victory.
Here’s an example. The 2012 depth chart at RB for Alabama was loaded. The starter was Eddie Lacy, who would go on to have a long NFL career with the Packers. A pair of 5-star RB recruits TJ Yeldon and Kenyan Drake were added to the mix, both of who would also go onto have solid NFL careers. While TJ Yeldon was able to come in and immediately contribute in the 2012 season, Drake didn’t do as well, and was relegated to 3rd and 4th string on the depth chart.
Starter Eddie Lacy opted to go pro at the end of the 2012 season, so that should mean Drake would be due for more carries in 2013. However, in the 2013 recruiting class, Alabama signed the top running back in the nation, Derrick Henry. Drake’s production did increase in 2013, but Yeldon was the clear starter.
As the 2014 season began, Drake was beginning to grow into his role as a true all-purpose back. Through 5 games in the 2014 season, Drake was averaging over 5 yards a carry, and a staggering 31.8 yards per catch. In the first 5 games, he had 6 touchdowns and averaged 10 yards every time he touched the ball. It looked like Drake was finally going to live up to the 5-star potential that Bama fans had been waiting to see since he signed with the Tide in 2012.
But in that 5th game, tragedy struck. Drake suffered a gruesome leg injury that ended his 2014 season just as it was getting started. At the time, it looked like it may have ended his career as well.
As the 2014 season progressed, Derrick Henry began to blossom. When the 2015 season started, it was obvious that the Alabama running game would be built around the future Heisman winner. Henry had an absolutely monster 2015 season, rushing for over 2,200. The most amazing thing about Henry was that he never tired. It was not uncommon for Henry to get over 30 carries in a game in 2015.
Which meant Drake’s production as a running back was further limited. In fact, the Bama staff had to move Drake to field kickoffs just to find a way to get him on the field and producing in some way. And even that move didn’t bear fruit, as through his first 18 kickoff returns in 2015, Drake was averaging a very pedestrian 22 yards a return, with 0 TDs.
But all that changed on his last kickoff return of the year:
Just like that, Drake had scored his first, and only kickoff touchdown of his career. And Drake’s touchdown put the National Championship game firmly in Alabama’s control for the first time.
Alabama fans were aware of Drake’s story because we had followed his career. We knew he was a top recruit when he signed with Bama, we saw him finally coming into his own in 2014, before he broke his leg against Ole Miss. We were deflated to see how that might end his career, then elated for him when he scored this touchdown, that ended up being the score that clinched a 16th National Championship for the Crimson Tide.
A Chief Storyteller would be in a position to tell us the stories of our team’s players. If done correctly, it can almost become like a movie for each player. I am focusing on Drake’s story and how he helped Alabama win a National Championship, but there could be a parallel story to be told about how Derrick Henry finally realized his promise in his 2015 Heisman campaign. Or what about QB Jake Coker? He transferred to Alabama after being a backup at Florida State. He came to Alabama in 2014 as the presumed starter, and instead ended up being the backup to Blake Sims, who as the 3rd string running back the year prior. But Coker preserved, eventually won the starting job, and led his team to a National Championship.
So many player stories to tell, and each one helps the fans become more attached to their favorite team. Likewise, a Chief Storyteller could tell stories about the fans. Who are they, how long have they cheered for their favorite team? A Chief Storyteller should work to seek out stories from fans so they can be highlighted. This will help the team identify and connect with its fans the same way the fans connect with the players.
It’s all about using the power of story to build a deeper connection between the team and its fans. Because when you have that deeper connection, success is the only logical result.