Anyone who’s ever attended an NBA game can picture the adrenaline-pumping video that opens each game. The lights dim, strobes flare, and soon, iconic players are shown on screen, dunking and rebounding in dramatic fashion. However, at Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks, fans will find a decidedly different opening clip: Hawks players walking and driving through Atlanta itself, passing by the historic Southern city’s iconic buildings and familiar landmarks.
“Every NBA city is unique, Atlanta included,” explains Ailey Penningroth, the Hawks’ senior vice president and chief marketing officer, whom you’ll likely find wandering the arena during the game, keeping an eye on the execution of various platforms that directly impact the fan’s experience. “It’s a larger market, and it’s a market that loves NBA basketball … We are really Atlanta’s team, and we try and embrace the iconic people and places that are unique to Atlanta.”
Making the fans feel like this is their team is crucial to making the experience unique, Penningroth adds. What she’s found, however, over her more than 15 years of basketball marketing experience, is that the way to make that connection isn’t the same in all markets. What works for the Lakers or the Jazz, for instance, may not be the best strategy for the Bulls or the Celtics. Embracing one’s market is crucial to marketing success.
How do you acknowledge independent achievement in a collaborative environment?
In any successful team, you have to be able to convey that an individual success is a team success. By recognizing the achievement in a group setting, you’re uplifting the whole team and also conveying how each success—personal or collective—is moving the company forward.
What’s your favorite Hawks memory?
I think it was the first time we’d made it to the playoffs in nine seasons, and we took the Boston Celtics to seven games and won game six at home. It tied the series and sent the teams back to Boston, where eventually we lost. But that was the first time in so long that the entire city was cheering for the Hawks. The whole arena was on their feet.
Three seconds left, and down by one: drive to the basket or shoot from downtown?
Pass to someone who can actually make the shot.
What’s your goal for next season?
We want to see an enhancement in our digital operation, and our social media and web metrics. We want to increase the amount of unique, behind-the-scenes content. We’d also like to solicit even more participation from our players.
What’s your favorite part about working in marketing?
Marketing is so subjective, and I think that in some ways can be frustrating, but also so exciting, and makes for such a broad palette to paint with. You have to take risks, and you can’t sit back and do what’s always been done.
What’s your favorite part about living in Atlanta?
The weather. And the Southern hospitality.
As CMO, Penningroth oversees the Hawks’ marketing group, focusing on promotions, advertising, brand development, game presentation, interactive marketing, social-media campaigns, and more. The backbone of her work is working with various department heads to synergize their efforts and align their strategies. “My job is to help my team do their jobs and to provide a framework and guidelines within which they can be creative and explore,” she explains. “I provide framing, not to stifle their creativity, but to help them understand what does and doesn’t resonate well with our organization and with the fans. Very often, one department has a great idea, but it doesn’t fit with what another group is doing. It’s all about synergy and collaboration.”
Penningroth’s first exposure to the different angles of sports marketing happened at the NBA league office in New York, where she worked for seven years after graduating college. While getting a degree in psychology from Harvard, Penningroth had decided that her curiosity about how people make their decisions would best be applied in the real world: “I think that marketing is very much about that,” she says. “How are you going to influence the decision making of a potential buyer?”
Once she graduated, Penningroth participated in an entry-level training program at the NBA’s New York headquarters, working in three different departments over a year, where she got a chance to see how the organizing body synchronizes its various franchise efforts. Eventually she worked her way up the ladder, working on game presentation, then ticket sales, then marketing promotions and some event planning. All the while, she says, she noticed how her bosses were sensitive to each metropolitan area’s specific needs.
Though Penningroth always thought she’d want to retain the big-picture perspective that came with working at the NBA headquarters rather than working with a specific team, in 2004, her boss was hired as the Hawks’ CEO. Though she was a New Jersey native, and didn’t know a soul in Atlanta, Penningroth had the sense that this could be a chance to start fresh at a team under new ownership.
Starting as the vice president of strategic planning, Penningroth immediately set to work leveraging what she had learned about marketing strategy and fan psychology over the years. “Now, more so than ever, fans really want to be on the inside,” she says. “They want to be behind the scenes, they want to see unique content. The more connected they feel personally, the more passionate they will be about the team.”
To tap into that, the Hawks have focused on fan-player connection as a backbone of their marketing strategy. “We work hard to expose our players’ names and faces as people just like them,” Penningroth says. “We want to make this Atlanta’s team.”
To make that happen, the Hawks marketing team has focused on incorporating details about the team’s players in small but meaningful ways throughout their marketing campaign: players throw miniature basketballs into the audience before games, and the Hawks’ website includes lively player bios and interviews that highlight fun details—Zaza Pachulia, for instance, dubbed the team’s “fashionista,” chats about where he finds his favorite clothing items in and around Atlanta. And, during a game against the Lakers, Lou Williams, an injured guard, took over the team’s Twitter account.
“To do that during a game is pretty unprecedented,” Penningroth says. “To hear his voice coming through, and hear his thoughts and opinions is really impactful for our fans. They want to feel like part of the team.”
In addition, the Hawks have launched a new membership program. Unlike season-ticket holders, members have access to specialized, exclusive Hawks programming 365 days out of the year, whether it’s web stories, basketball clinics, increased access, or other personalized membership benefits. The team has also ramped up its social-media activity, working to engage fans through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as often as they can.
The efforts have paid off, too. The Hawks have experienced a steady increase in ticket sales, and the renewal rate for the new membership program is already ahead of schedule. Of course, Penningroth notes, it doesn’t hurt that the Hawks have been to the playoffs for six consecutive years in a row. “As you would expect, Atlanta does want their teams to win,” she says. “We can’t control winning. That’s a lesson I’ve learned over time: you can’t promise anyone the outcome of the game. Our sales people don’t sell wins and losses. What you can control is the experience they have in the building. You have to make sure they feel like they won because they chose to come.”