If you’ve found yourself shaking your head at the dizzying number of marketing tie-ins and activations that have swirled around the imminent release of the latest “Star Wars” film, you’re not alone. If you’re among the people who have found ESPN’s extensive promotions especially confusing, you’re in even better company.
On the one hand, there is a very practical explanation for the partnership. Both “Star Wars” and ESPN are owned by the Walt Disney Company, which has been pulling on every available lever to promote “The Force Awakens,” the first “Star Wars” film to be released since Disney bought Lucasfilm for more than $4 billion back in 2012.
Yet even if the two franchises didn’t share a parent company, it’s likely that the film’s promoters would have paid the Worldwide Leader a visit to discuss promotional opportunities. The Star Wars franchise has been using sports, and sports teams have been using the franchise, to promote themselves for years, specifically because the men who grew up loving both are easily found in ballparks.
“When you're trying to reach that guy, who's in his 30s, who's affluent and has been geeking out on this since he was a kid and who's trying to connect with his kids, you reach him at the ballpark,” said Mike Johnson, vice president of digital strategy at the sports marketing consultancy the Marketing Arm.
Take Them Out to the Ballgame
Ever since George Lucas first decided to make prequels to the original Star Wars trilogy, media brands of every stripe, including those in the sports world, have been using the franchise as a way to draw attention to themselves. The NBA did it 10 years ago when "The Revenge of the Sith" was about to hit theaters, and this week, you can't swing an Ewok without hitting some kind of Star Wars-themed marketing or promotion.
But the first real clues that Star Wars could attract sports fans came about five years ago, when a number of minor league baseball franchises contacted Lucasfilm about the prospect of hosting Star Wars nights at their stadiums. It was a low-risk bet -- the teams weren't going to be paying for the privilege -- but it was a successful one. The games drove noticeable spikes in attendance, and before long, Star Wars nights became a fixture across the country.
Even with the novelty long since worn off, Star Wars nights are routinely among the best-attended games at minor league parks. "They are definitely worth it," said Jeff Lantz, Minor League Baseball's director of communications. “’Star Wars’ nights definitely provide a bump for the club attendance figures.”
Before long, other leagues and franchises were following suit. This year, more than a third of NBA franchises hosted Star Wars nights at their arenas.
This partnership extended beyond fun between innings. This past season, 50 minor league baseball teams took the field wearing Star Wars-branded apparel, and a number of minor league teams in other sports, including the Canadian junior hockey squad the Saskatoon Blades, played games wearing Star Wars-themed uniforms.
They might seem kooky, but they also amount to free advertising, something that no company would turn down. Neither Lucasfilm nor Disney has ever charged any kind of fees for hosting Star Wars nights or for creating Star Wars-themed merchandise, provided that the clubs donate 100 percent of the proceeds from those jersey sales to local charities.
These previous examples of success probably encouraged Disney to press ESPN into assisting with the film’s marketing, but there is a less complicated reason why any heavyweight film franchise would look to partner with them. ESPN and its associated properties attract an enormous number of eyeballs. Its web properties attract more than 90 million visitors every month, according to comScore, and its flagship television properties, including Monday Night Football, are among the most-watched cable programming advertisers can buy.
It mixes that might with an ability to get brands in front of viewers in a number of ways. For "The Force Awakens," ESPN produced a special about lightsaber duels narrated by Mark Hamill, the star of the first three “Star Wars” films, a web feature about which Star Wars characters would be best-suited to play various positions in sports.
It also debuted the first extended trailer for “The Force Awakens” at halftime of a Monday Night Football game. The results surely thrilled Disney. Conversation about its release drove 17,000 tweets per minute, nearly 10 times the volume of peak Star Wars Twitter conversation that occurred on May 4, which is un-officially known as Star Wars Day.
"The Force Awakens," in case you haven't heard, comes out Wednesday.