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Creativity Is Just One Skill In Sport Marketing: Hamilton Tiger-Cats Director of Marketing & Digital Mike Hardill

Mike Hardill | Director of Marketing & Digital | Hamilton Tiger-Cats

I put a lot of emphasis on outside the box thinking, a firm grasp of pop culture & current events and a great sense of humour. You've got to be unpredictable, take some risks and have fun.

Mike Hardill

Director of Marketing & Digital

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

×This interview was completed before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The interview with Mike Hardill was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.

Tell us about your role as the Director of Marketing & Digital of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

I lead the team responsible for branding, advertising, content creation, social media, digital strategy, fan communications and product development (working closely with ticketing & corporate partnerships to facilitate revenue).

Our marketing department consists of seven incredibly talented teammates, including a pair of marketing/social media managers, two graphic designers, a couple of video & motion graphics producers and a digital host. They’re the engine that drives everything we do.

As a kid who grew up in Hamilton going to Ticats games at Ivor Wynne Stadium every summer, it still feels surreal to think that this is what I get paid to do.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It really depends on the time of year and where we’re at in our season. Sports is so cyclical, there’s really no other industry like it. Offseason strategy sessions, business plan presentations, free agency, the draft, training camp, home opener, marquee games & events circled on the calendar (especially the Labour Day Classic), playoffs and the Grey Cup. Rinse and repeat.

The best part is, regardless of how the team does on the field, there’s a natural reset button built into our business. You’ve got an opportunity to reinvent yourself every single year: a new campaign, a new look & feel, a new set of goals and objectives. That’s why I love working in sports: you’re constantly handed new opportunities to push the envelope within that familiar, predictable structure of a season.

In short, a typical day for me is guiding and supporting the marketing team, while trying to stay out of their way and let them do what they do best!

When was the point you realized that you were meant to do this career? Take us through that realization.

Looking back on my childhood, all of the signs were there. I was obsessed with sports as a kid (baseball and hockey specifically), but whenever I got the chance to attend a professional game, I was more interested in everything happening around the game itself. How does the mascot know where to be? How do they decide when to go to commercial break? How do they set up for the halftime concert so quickly? How do they pick the fans to participate in a video board promo? These are the things 13-year-old me was fascinated by – the organized chaos of attending a live sporting event. To this day, the theatrics leading into the team introduction is my favourite part of going to a game. The anthems. The fighter jets. The cool fan traditions. The fact 20,000+ people come together united by the same logo and colours. There’s nothing like it.

Having worked in social and digital media for several years now, what would be on your list as the most important software/tools/apps to use to increase efficiency and productivity?

  1. Project management software. You can assign tasks, set due dates, track revisions, etc. We’d be lost without it, especially during periods of creative services bottlenecks (like the beginning of a season).
  2. Social/digital analytics tools: We’ve used a couple of different providers over the years like Hootsuite and Sprout Social. Regardless of what solution you go with, having an in-depth understanding of how you’re performing on social media, and having the tools to measure that, are key (even if it’s just in a dashboard summary format for starters).
  3. Dropbox: Whether it’s Dropbox or a Google Drive, this one is a no-brainer for large file sharing. Keeping things organized is a different story!
  4. Preview for Instagram: Organize the flow of your Instagram grid by planning out upcoming posts. Nothing’s more important than an aesthetically pleasing IG grid! Preview takes the guesswork out of it.
  5. Their ‘link in bio’ feature is key!
  6. Photo/video editing apps: If you’re in a pinch, you don’t always need to tap a designer or video editor for a quick project. You’d be shocked by how many apps are out there these days that make simple photo and video editing a breeze. Give the App Store a browse sometime!

A common label people working in marketing and digital get is that they are creative (sometimes more creative than most people working in sports). Is this realistic? Beyond creativity, which you have a ton of, tell us about other skills and abilities required and/or often overlooked when working in sport marketing and digital content creation.

I would tend to disagree with that statement. Marketing people are paid to be creative, but some of our best ideas as an organization come from outside of the marketing department. An old boss and friend of mine used to say “everyone has an opinion about marketing, get used to it”. It’s an incredibly subjective profession. Accepting that fact and not falling in love with your own ideas is paramount in my role. Don’t pretend like you have all of the answers!

Ultimately, a good marketing team shines when it comes to flushing out an idea or creative concept, aligning it to a pre-existing strategy, packaging it up and executing it seamlessly.

When it comes to often-overlooked skills or abilities to work in marketing/social/digital, I put a lot of emphasis on outside the box thinking, a firm grasp of pop culture & current events and a great sense of humour. A mentor of mine always says “as a marketer, you have to zig while everyone else is zagging”. There’s so much noise and clutter out there on social media specifically. You’ve got to be unpredictable, take some risks and have fun. Assembling a team that as the intangibles to help you accomplish that goal is so important.

Being in digital marketing, how important is social media for you personally? Which social networks do you use most frequently, find hardest to navigate and use, and see changing the most?

Social media consumes our lives, for better or worse. It’s crazy to reflect on how drastically the landscape has evolved and in such a short period of time. I still remember walking into our director of communications’ office in 2012 and asking if I could start a Tiger-Cats Instagram account. I’d be lying to you if I said the Ticats marketing team has it all figured out. It’s virtually impossible to stay on top of all of the trends and features happening on each platform – but the teams who do are the ones that steal the spotlight.

At the end of the day, content is king and certain types of content work better on different platforms than others. Meme/pop culture-based videos are a hit on Instagram lately. Our long-form video, especially anything slanted towards players giving back to the community, blows up on Facebook. We’ve got a passionate group of fans, specifically on Twitter, that we enjoy engaging with. And we’re on the verge of dipping our toe into the uncharted waters of TikTok. My advice is to focus on creating A+ content first and foremost and then tweak your execution based on the platform.

Tell us about your all-time favourite post or content creation.

This is a tough question. Over the course of the ten seasons I’ve been with the Tiger-Cats, there’s been no shortage of outstanding content pieces to point to. The organization has been blessed, frankly lucky, to have had a laundry list of talented videographers, editors and designers come through our office. They’ve all left their own unique legacy of content.

The piece I think I’m most proud of is our 2019 Eastern Final/Grey Cup team intro video. The 2019 season marked the 150th anniversary of professional football in Hamilton and the entire season was dedicated to honouring the club’s storied history. This piece was the culmination of an incredible year of work, with every single member of the marketing team contributing to the final product. I can’t watch it without feeling the need to run through the closest wall. Here it is:

What’s your best advice for Sport Management students trying to start their career in professional sports?

I fell backwards into a handful of opportunities that helped me get to where I am. I always sat at the back of every lecture messing around on my laptop. I wasn’t the best student. I wasn’t big into networking, either (even though it’s arguably the most important skill you can have as a student). With that said, I was able to pad out my resume with some relevant sports experience early on (selling OHL tickets as a summer job and working for the Brock baseball team). Even then, I didn’t actively hunt those opportunities down. They fell into my lap at the time.

Looking back, so much of landing a gig in sports is being in the right place at the right time – it’s on you to make sure you’re in that place, ready to capitalize. Breaking into the sports industry is so competitive. You could be the best SPMA student on paper, but if you don’t have anything to point to on your resume, how are you going to separate yourself? Get involved, even if it’s volunteering your time. You could be handing out water cups at 10K road race, it doesn’t matter. Force your future employer to pause and take a closer look at the relevant experience on your resume.

Hayley Michie Hayley's Final Thoughts

Mike’s interest in sports began at an early age – specifically through attending Ticats games at Ivor Wynne Stadium. Unlike other kids, Mike became fixated on the behind-the-scenes of sporting events eventually leading to a successful career with the team he watched for so many years: the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Over the course of ten seasons with the Ticats, Mike has established quite the resume. From creating content to developing a digital strategy to facilitating revenue, Mike does it all. It’s no surprise that he came heavily recommended by previous interviewees! I found that the most insightful piece of information Mike mentioned was the fact that Marketing is a highly subjective profession. Aside from being creative, skills such as spontaneity, risk-taking and a sense of humour are highly favoured. If you can “zig while everyone else is zagging,” Marketing & Digital may be the career for you!

Connect With Mike Hardill

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