SMR: Tell us a little bit about yourself and the path that you took to eventually get to your current position in the CFL.

Sara: It was an interesting path, actually. It was probably a non-traditional one in sports marketing, but I came into my very first sports marketing job at the vice-president level. I didn't grow up in this industry so I'm fortunate to have found a great position four years ago at the CFL.

Leading up to that point, I held different marketing positions, mainly in telecoms, and entertainment, communications. It was a great ground to understand customer insights, understand the power of marketing, the power of brand, all of those things that are so paramount in sports marketing and attracting more sports fans, really hold true in so many industries.

What I will say is the passion for sports brands completely outstretches the passion somebody has for their cell phone company, or their credit card company, or anything else that I've ever marketed. That passion is the most wonderful thing because in fact it makes my job more exciting. Sometimes more challenging but always more exciting and fun.

SMR: Would you say that's the primary pull that brought you to the CFL?

Sara: Definitely, I wanted to work on an important Canadian brand. I wanted to be able to be a part of something that means something to so many Canadians. Our teams have such strong communities that they serve and they do such a brilliant job doing it. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to bring the Grey Cup to as many Canadians as possible. It's a lot of Canadians. A third of the country watches our games. It's really about being able to work with something that means so much to people.

SMR: When creating a marketing strategy for the CFL, what are two or three pieces of criteria that you like to build around?

Sara: Certainly, I think this should hold true, again, no matter what industry and no matter what you're doing. It's fan insight. Do I know what my fan wants? In our case we have an incredibly strong, avid fan base. I want to make sure that what we are doing, what we are saying we'll be able to reflect back to them is authentic to their participation in the CFL. It is authentic to how they see the brand and that's critically important. We do lots of research. We make sure that what we're doing will resonate with them. At the same time there is a whole new generation of Canadians, both millennials, as well as people who have immigrated to this country. We have to develop a brand so that it's of interest to them too. We always need to make sure that it will open that tent to all the new fans coming into the CFL. While always remaining true to ourselves and true to that well cherished vision of the CFL that our avid fans have.

SMR: In the last three years what are two to three positive trends that you have personally seen in sports marketing?

Sara: Well on that I will say one is very close to my heart, I think we are all getting better at marketing to women. I think sports were one of the later ones to come around to that. I think people have an outdated notion about why women love sports. I am exhibit A. I grew up in a sports crazy household. I watched as much on the couch beside my dad as my brother did. I love the strategy behind it. I follow it. I'm a fan on the absolute primal level that you engage with sports. I think you can talk to me as a woman as much as you can talk to any male sports fan. I think people are recognizing that. That its not what's been referred to sometimes as the "pink it and shrink it" method. Where you take a shirt and slap your logo on a pink one and you take it down a couple of sizes. Now you have women being fans.

It's about the game and we love the game. Many of our teams hold special nights for women where they talk about the strategy. They bring them into the locker room. They get to engage in that and really understand all those fantastic things that make the sport. I'm thrilled to see our team's doing an amazing job doing that, as well as many others in the industry.

SMR: On the other side of the spectrum, in the last three years have you seen a negative trend in sports marketing?

Sara: You know what, I haven't really. Not trends, no. I think collectively as an industry we're getting smarter. We know more about our customers. We're creating strategies based on that. We're putting a lot into game day being exciting. I think we all make mistakes sometimes. I wouldn't say there are negative trends. I think the overall trends are all positive. I am thrilled to see us, as an industry using data more, using analytics more, understanding customers more, enhancements and improvements in game day at stadiums and arenas.

SMR: How large of a role do you think social media plays in sports marketing today? Is there room to grow?
Sara: There's always room to grow, absolutely. Social media is incredibly important. We have products that are meant to be shared. It's meant to be liked. It's meant to be commented on, all those things that social media enables. We just announced a really exciting partnership with Whistle Sports. They are premium creators of content for millennials. We released this amazing video of Andy Fantuz of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats breaking the world record for the most one-handed catches in a minute. It exploded on social media and we have got this phenomenal athlete, this incredibly gifted receiver showing his talents to a global audience. That is something that until social media we weren't really able to do. It's hundreds of thousands of people that have seen that now, have shared it and have talked about it, have been introduced to our league, introduced to our players because of it. I think our content is the best in the world and social media allows us to be on that global platform.

SMR: I just wrote that down. I'll have to check that out. I haven't had the chance.

Sara: Oh it's amazing. You can see it on Whistle Sports. It's posted on our Facebook page. It's everywhere, it's truly an incredible piece of athleticism. He broke Odell Beckham Jr.’ record too so we're just putting that out there.

SMR: That’s very cool. What are three things that a minor league team can take from what the CFL is doing with their marketing?

Sara: I would say is that in one of the insights that we have found in our research is local is so paramount. The NBA is really interesting in that there is one team in Canada. One market has a local team. There are no NFL teams; nobody has a local NFL team. We are in nine markets and we are so strong in our communities. There is no other professional sports league that has players get involved in their community the way that ours do. They spend hundreds of hours visiting in their community, giving back, donating time, and working with kids in schools and bullying programs. They are working in programs to raise awareness about domestic violence. Going and doing hospital visits. Doing exercise programs before school, at lunch time, to get kids active. They run literacy programs.

The opportunity to be able to be active in that grass roots level is one of the most important things you can do as a sports team. We take such great pride in how our teams do that on an ongoing basis. I think the opportunity to have a community and to be active in that community is something that your audience has an opportunity to do better than most.

SMR: With your seasons overlap, what are some challenges with competing with the NFL picture on a weekly basis?

Sara: I don't think we compete with the NFL. We don't think of them as competition. I think they have a phenomenal sports product and so do we. We have great numbers. Our television numbers are stronger than theirs are here in Canada. I just mentioned that great opportunity that we have to be active in our communities. I'm a fan of the NFL. I watch their games usually after November. Not too much before because of the time.

We don't compete with them. We actually even talk to them and collaborate with them and learn from each other. They have lots of conversations with Glen Johnson, our head of officiating and learning from the rules that we've put in. They are very interested in what we've done there. We talk to them on event planning and those types of things. They have great event capabilities. We talk to them about that. There's actually a great relationship with them where we recognize that we operate in similar fashions. We try to learn from each other. The competition is between our teams on the field. We are in the CFL and that's the competition that we focus on. Everybody else we look to learn from. We get better because of that. I don't think we ever think of the competition.

SMR: Final question to wrap up. We've noticed that there are a number of younger users joining our readership. Do you have any advice that you would give to somebody trying to find a career in sports marketing?

Sara: I came into my first job in sports marketing as the VP of the Canadian Football League. I love sports. I think if you focus your view to narrow on just needing to get into sports marketing now or first job has to be in sports marketing you miss out on great opportunities to learn other things.

Everything you learn, whether you're marketing credit cards or cell phones or margarine. You're going to be able to learn something that will make you a better marketer when you do get into sports marketing. Find great jobs. Find great bosses to work for. Focus on learning and getting better. When you find a sports marketing job that suits you, that fits you, that allows you to finally use everything that you've learned then that's the job for you. I think that's what you need to focus on.

SMR: That's very well said Sara, thank you very much for your time.
Sara: You are very welcome.