Keeping Pace: A Conversation with NBA's Tatiana Holifield-Arthur

By On Influence and Influencers Archives
Cover image for  article: Keeping Pace: A Conversation with NBA's Tatiana Holifield-Arthur

Sports marketing is one of the most competitive and fast-moving businesses, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the NBA . Tatiana Holifield-Arthur (pictured above) is ground zero as the vice president and head of digital strategy for Pacers Sports & Entertainment. In this capacity, Holifield-Arthur is in a position to influence the digital marketing strategy of one of the most successful sports franchises. We had the opportunity to discuss the changing nature of fandom, the challenges of diversity, and the shifting role of players as influencers .

Phil McKenzie: In an attention economy, how do you build a digital strategy that is successful in this media environment?

Tatiana Holifield-Arthur: We are all fighting for attention. There is a lot of available content vying for eyeballs. The traditional ways that sports organizations created fandom doesn't exist anymore. The days of you growing up and following a team as a loyalist is over. We are not only competing for attention, but we are also fighting to get people to come to the arena, versus watching clips on social media.

The diverging ways in which people are consuming their content means the monetization is also divided. Our goal as a brand is to determine the best method among myriad options to reach our fans.

McKenzie : You are responsible for the Pacers, the Fever, the G League, the esports team, and the arena complex itself. Any one of those could be its own brand. How do you create a cohesive brand message?

Holifield-Arthur: That is one of the primary reasons the Pacers brought me on board. Prior, there was no one to oversee all five of these brands and, as a result, everyone acted independently. So, I was charged with creating a cohesive strategy that would allow us to be more creative with our assets and more effective. From a brand voice perspective, we need to be cost-efficient while also recognizing their unique elements.

I come from an entertainment background. I have to work across different audiences and finding what resonates. Pacers Entertainment is in the same business just with different brands.

McKenzie: How do you bring that cohesion together?

Holifield-Arthur: Our goal is to speak authentically to our audience. We do that by building an internal team composed of true lovers of the brand itself. In that way, we ensure they will create a social feed that they would want to interact with if they were on the fan side of that experience. If you're going to be a brand on social and digital channels, you have to be real and speak to your audience without pretense.

Many brands talk about authenticity as a challenge, but I don't think it's that hard. It is just as important to listen to fans as it is to project content outward. Moreover, with the power of social media, if fans don't like your content, the feedback with be direct and immediate.

McKenzie: How has your transition been to join an organization in such a male-dominated industry?

Holifield-Arthur: Pacers Sports and Entertainment has welcomed me with open arms and has given the support that I need to make our workplace a more inclusive environment. Before I officially started, we had a conversation about making the organization more diverse and inclusive , and they are on board with that. Everyone is committed to making sure we have the broadest definition of diversity, bringing their talents to the table each day.

Our audiences are diverse and we should be reflective of that to effectively communicate. However, are you supporting the people that you have within your company? Are you giving women or people of color opportunities to be leaders within your organization? I was the first African American woman of color and now we are up to five in just under a year. I think we are setting a positive example of what is possible with a real commitment.

McKenzie: What has taken so long for these strides in diversity and inclusion to be made? Especially since, as you cited, audiences are more diverse.

Holifield-Arthur: You would think that the days of trailblazing in the capacity of diversity and inclusion would have already happened. However, the challenge is often from those who are in leadership roles. When they are given the ability to hire, they are often most comfortable with the people who look like them and they have something in common with. This perpetuates a lack of diversity.

It does companies a disservice when they don't stretch their thought process in identifying potential candidates who can bring a different opinion, background, or space altogether. When I was hiring and going through traditional sports searches, I was finding the same candidates. I realized I needed to get more creative in my sources to widen the pool of candidates.

McKenzie: How has that creativity translated directly into the creative strategy?

Holifield-Arthur: One of our standout campaigns has been our schedule release video . Within the NBA, the videos that teams distribute to announce their schedules are very competitive and everyone tries to outdo everyone else.

Given my entertainment background, I wanted to challenge my team to not only do something different, but also to stretch the entire organization. Ultimately, we created a Netflix-themed schedule release video. All of the brandings were Netflix-infused: the scroll through functions, the titles we chose, etc. It ended up being one of the most successful schedule release videos, and there was a ton of press. So, out-of-the-box thinking was a winner for us.

McKenzie: How are you balancing the digital fan experience, the need to get bodies in the arena, and meeting fans where they natively live?

Holifield-Arthur: The ultimate goal of any company is to drive revenue and, specifically for a sports organization, we want to sell tickets. We also understand that with the usual constraints and the fight for attention we cited earlier, these goals might not always be compatible. So, social media is a way that we can leverage those two ideas and give value to our audience.

We recently launched our TikTok channel for both the Pacers and the Fever, and the engagement has been great. It might not seem like a natural fit being that TikTok is a music app, but we have found that fans and even players like to interact via that medium. It allows our fans to see the players beyond the court. We'll post-dance challenge videos on TikTok, which lets us leverage our dance team, the Pacemates, as another example. We want to take our efforts beyond the court and make it into a lifestyle.

McKenzie: How do you leverage the inherent influence of the players into your marketing strategy?

Holifield-Arthur: Players are influencers in their own right. Working with them and incorporating them into what we do is different from working with a typical influencer because their job, per se, is to be an athlete first. So, the amount of access is automatically limited, especially during the season.

Players have their causes and initiatives and we try to support those to ensure our relationship is mutually beneficial.

I'm developing a formalized influencer strategy that extends beyond players and plugs us into other celebrities and micro-influencers. A lot of what we do will be predicated on establishing tiers of influencers: macro-influencers, who may have, say, a million followers or more; local TV and radio personalities; and, finally, micro and niche influencers.

McKenzie: What should be on our radar in this new media landscape?

Holifield-Arthur: Legislation and politics are very important when you're thinking about the future of media. Those two factors determine so much of the competitive environment in which media operates. I think the one thing that many people don't always consider is how legislation and politics play a role in what we can do from a media standpoint. They set the rules, the table, and the parameters. In short, the regulatory environment matters.

Technology, as a whole, is having an outsized effect on our lives — specifically, automation. Although still speculative, resources are being allocated toward driverless cars and we are embedding technology into our lives via smartphones and smart speakers, and we need to be paying attention to that.

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