After a year of discussing and game-planning for the Philadelphia 76ers first trip to London, according to Chief Marketing Officer Katie O’Reilly, the time has also arrived for the organization to push its brand globally.
With a first international partner in Australian beef pie brand Four’N Twenty, a concerted focus on the Chinese market and five international players — including budding superstars Ben Simmons (Australia) and Joel Embiid (Cameroon) — O’Reilly said it’s the “perfect time” to broaden the 76ers messaging and business strategy.
“We see this trip as sort of our first splash on the international stage, which is really next on the horizon,” she said to Sports Business Chronicle earlier this week prior to the 76ers game against the Boston Celtics on Thursday. “We’re thrilled to be embarking on this next phase of our evolution.”
When O’Reilly joined the organization in 2013, there was a international conversation taking shape, she said, but the initial priority was at the local level and further establishing and building a relationship with Philadelphia. This season, the team unveiled “The Spirit of 76” campaign, an ongoing initiative celebrating the organization’s history. Throughout the year, seven tribute nights dot the home regular season calendar as the franchise pays homage to the city of Brotherly Love.
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Yet, now that the international trip is here, O’Reilly explained that “everything is really aligned” for the brand to extend its global footprint, starting in London.
O’Reilly — who worked within the NBA’s internal consulting group (Team Marketing and Business Operations) for four years — said she and other senior executives have been trained with the mindset of the league itself being an international sports property. Chief Executive Officer Scott O’Neil previously spent eight years at TMBO as well while Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and Activation Chad Biggs led the NBA league office in China for six years, three of which he lived in the country.
“I think this is where we would be going regardless,” said O’Reilly when asked if the team would have a global push even if it didn’t have international players, saying that she believes the 76ers can make a more authentic connection with fans because of the global roster.
“We just feel that the time now is perfect, where we are as a business, where we are as a brand and quite frankly, who we have on our roster.”
O’Reilly added that the players themselves are the organization’s “best asset” in terms of spreading the team’s messaging on social media. This week, Simmons and Embiid were scheduled to take over the 76ers’ account on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, and chat directly with fans. As O’Reilly commented, China in particular is “definitely a top priority” for the 76ers around international growth.
“(Former NBA player) Yao Ming helped the NBA wake up to the fact that China is a huge opportunity,” she said.
“We see this as a market that we’re now heating up in. … It’s ripe, ready and the NBA has had a presence for a while.”
In China, the NBA Finals this past June were the most-viewed ever across the country’s digital platforms, according to ESPN. The NBA has sold out 24 consecutive pre-season games in China, including the most recent matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves this past Fall.
A group of three from the 76ers sales and marketing staff recently traveled to the country for 10 days of meetings and further introduced the brand to potential partners. With the 76ers’ Biggs prior international role and familiarity with the region, there’s been an easier transition to understanding the market, Chinese consumer and core basketball fan.
For example, in late 2017 Biggs led a recent hiring of the team’s first Mandarin-speaking content producer, Allen Qi, who will create custom content for Weibo and speak directly to fans overseas. O’Reilly said Qi is the 76ers’ first market-specific hire, but if and when there’s traction on social, the organization could potentially staff up with additional Mandarin-speaking content producers or even individuals focused on other markets.
When asked if she could envision the 76ers creating social accounts in languages besides English — similar to what international soccer clubs like Real Madrid (La Liga), Bayern Munich (Bundesliga) and Manchester United (Premier League) have done — O’Reilly remarked that “everything is on the table in terms of international growth.” According to her, Africa, Australia and Europe round out the specific areas of focus for now.
“The NBA has laid a lot of the groundwork, and now the teams have an opportunity to go in — especially with social media and making the world that much smaller — we can make an impact over there,” she said.