When it comes to motivating teams with sports metaphors, marketing leaders know how to knock it out of the park. Since the first ball was tossed, there’s been a blitz on the English language to leverage the universal relatability of sports to reduce complexities into colloquial speak in hopes of making success a slam dunk.

For this article, I will attempt to do the same, because as I learned in 2020, there’s so much marketers and freelancers can learn from what has transpired in sports — in this, the most extraordinary year of all.

But first…

As a lifelong sports fan born and bred in Los Angeles, 2020 was a year of unimaginable success. Not only did both the Lakers and Dodgers win championships for the first time in far too long (2010 and 1988 respectively), but against the odds, major sports leagues rethought how to play games safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This, despite the fact that many players didn’t want to play for fear of contracting the virus — and opted out. In the case of the NBA, there was also concern around being a distraction during a period of social justice reform.

But despite it all, professional sports found its sea legs and put together several successful seasons start to finish (NHL, NBA, and MLB, with the NFL currently in progress). That’s not to say there haven’t been wrinkles in the form of positive COVID tests and postponed games for several MLB and NFL teams, but most have crossed their finish lines giving fans something to cheer for in a year where there hasn’t been much to cheer for.

In the face of these accomplishments, there have been many inspirational moments to watch — especially given this treacherous new terrain. Delicate reminders that success only happens when a slew of things go right.

5 marketing lessons you can learn from pro sports in 2020

So, to celebrate these wins (in part using quotes from the late great Yogi Berra who had his unique twist on the English language), I’ve decided to review five things pro sports taught me in this year of all years.

Let’s kick it off.

Success comes when you set a common goal and make every decision in service of that goal.

1. Success comes when you set a common goal and make every decision in service of that goal.

As baseball’s number-one de facto philosopher, Yogi Berra made a career saying things so ridiculous, they just made sense.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it” is one of those things — and early in the pandemic, when the NBA was looking for a way to continue a sport that happens indoors with lots of exertion, heavy breathing and presumed droplet spreading, they needed to crack a nut that never needed cracking.

That’s when they built “the bubble” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida where sequestered players were administered almost daily testing on one big campus where risky behavior was not tolerated.

Once enforced, the unthinkable happened: The season ultimately finished with a remarkable zero positive COVID cases.

Now, why is this relevant? Well, flashback to prior to the 2019-2020 season when LeBron James made a promise to Lakers fans that he would bring championship glory back to L.A. — for the first time since Kobe Bryant led the team to a title in 2010. The stakes behind this goal got even higher with the tragic passing of Bryant in January 2020, adding a new layer of complexity to LeBron’s expressed goal to this team and fans.

Yet, in the face of tragedy and adversity, the Lakers displayed an intense focus and collective energy that fueled their singular mission — to win a title. They ultimately delivered on this promise with LeBron’s leadership, work ethic and age-defying talents on full display. I mention this of course because to do special things in anything (sports or marketing), it takes a singular focus and dedication to block out the noise to achieve a goal — especially in a world with as many distractions as the one we’re currently dealing with.

Here are a few takeaways from the Lakers accomplishments as they relate to running successful projects:

  • Define a clear mission from the get-go: Set clear marching orders to define your goal, use a creative brief and ensure that the work to come adheres to a strategy that meets the expectations of the team.
  • Set realistic expectations for the team: Ensure that everyone buys into the plan and what it will take to cross the finish line — but make it realistic. The Lakers were a favorite to win it all once they acquired Anthony Davis prior to the season, so securing a World Championship was not a lofty goal at all.
  • Be unafraid to call out counterproductive behavior: A notable leadership quality — and one I marveled at this past season — was how LeBron acted like a field general on the floor, calling out defensive assignments while guiding his teammates through certain plays. It’s not always an easy thing to do as a leader, but giving productive feedback along the way can keep everyone on track.

2. Success comes when you have a deep bench — and few egos.

To go deep in any playoffs takes an impressive commitment from all team members — everyone from your star player to the last man or woman on the bench. Contributions can come from anywhere and you never know who will step up to meet the moment and play huge (like Rajon Rondo did for the Lakers versus the Heat) or close out the World Series (like unlikely relief pitcher Julio Urias did for the Dodgers versus the Rays).

In marketing, putting the proper team in place to succeed at a goal can make all the difference between a celebratory culmination of events… and a disastrous launch. People who can check their ego at the door and think about the good of the team first helps chemistry unfold. That’s where it pays to know how to evaluate team dynamics at the outset — whether you’re adding a few complementary pieces to an existing team or bringing in a vetted group of teamlance professionals to collaborate on a project because the in-house team is spread thin.

As a manager, knowing how key “players” will respond in certain situations, and then in crunch time, when backs are against the wall, can make all the difference when you’re setting your starting lineup.

Success comes when you trust your teammates.

3. Success comes when you trust your teammates.

When Yogi once proclaimed, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental,” he spoke about a truth that made no sense mathematically, but yet made all the sense to anyone who heard it involving the mental side of sports. (Kobe Bryant also called attention to this as well, coining a philosophy and writing a book about it called ‘The Mamba Mentality,’ calling attention to the cerebral components to what is an otherwise physical game.)

One of the mental traits that lends well to team success is trust. More specifically, trusting your teammates in a pinch to help you deliver results across the finish line. While watching the Lakers during their championship run, it never ceased to amaze me how LeBron James sought out teammates during crucial possessions to take big shots. Whether it was a pass to Danny Green for the “3” that could’ve ended the NBA Finals in five games or the trust he placed in Anthony Davis to take (and make) the game-winning shot in game two of the Western Conference Finals, LeBron understood he could not do it alone and he trusted others around him to succeed.

Same goes for marketing managers. Showing trust in your team goes a long way toward facilitating winning attitudes on the team. In contrast, micromanaging and second-guessing can only breed a toxic culture and lack of trust. Give team members credit where credit is due and don’t be afraid to share the limelight. If you do, you’ll get return on your investment in the form of hard work, loyalty and maybe even a little gratitude.

4. Success comes when you thrive in the face of adversity.

Arguably, one of Yogi’s most famous lines of all time was “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Many pro sports players like Lakers’ backup center Dwight Howard fought mental health challenges while in the NBA bubble due in part to the 48-hour repetitive cycle of waking up and playing basketball (practice, games, repeat cycle). Others, like Lakers veteran guard Danny Green, likened bubble ball to the film ‘Groundhog’s Day.’

Without having access to the outside world or your family outside of FaceTime, Zoom or phone calls, there were challenges one can only imagine by being expected to perform at a high level while being isolated from the world. When it comes to Howard and the Lakers, they were able to do just that, ultimately winning their first NBA championship since 2010 — with fear and anxiety outside the bubble at an all-time fever pitch.

As someone in marketing, how can you preserve sanity and buy-in from a team in the face of adversity?

  • Go two-deep at every position: I get it, this idea isn’t necessarily budget-friendly. But having people whose skills cross over isn’t a bad idea. That, or have ready access to a freelance talent solution that can step in to replenish the well if it goes dry due to circumstances outside your control. Or coronavirus.
  • Having an open-door policy: In my many jobs, it’s always helped to have an understanding boss who I felt comfortable talking to if/when things “came up.” And they always do. Get comfortable addressing things early on with her or him and they will be more likely to be understanding when “s” gets real.
  • Access to mental health services: A weekly meditation class or access to a therapist who is readily available to talk employees through unforeseen and unparalleled issues can go a long way toward preserving mental health, which affects everyone differently.

Success comes when you know how to self-motivate.

5. Success comes when you know how to self-motivate.

Upon going to a popular restaurant in the ’70s, Yogi said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” With the exception of a few NFL and MLB playoff games, which let limited amounts of fans in, quite the opposite was true in 2020 with pro athletes playing in front of empty stadiums/arenas due to COVID concerns.

Regardless, I found it impressive that athletes could show up with their “A” games with nobody around.

If you’re used to playing in front of packed arenas — using crowd energy, fan noise and rabid fandom — to fuel your adrenaline, one might say that having no one (outside of teammates) cheering you on from the dugout or bench could be deflating. Without all that immediate feedback from a crowd, the psychology of the game itself also changes a bit. But regardless of how strange it was to perform in empty arenas with piped-in crowd noise, cardboard cutouts of fans and large voids of emptiness, pros refined the art of self-motivation.

So, what does this mean for marketing types?

Sometimes, you’ve got to get up for the big game regardless of what your mindset is and the outside forces in play. Whether you’re launching a campaign or managing a team for an ambitious project, day-to-day decision making should always support your big-picture goal. Regardless of outside factors that may stifle focus, knowing how to stay in the moment and compartmentalize to deliver quality results on-time is a skill.

That’s not to say you should lack awareness of what’s happening in the world. No matter how hard people work in their day jobs, we’re so connected to each other these days through social media that it’s impossible to fully block out the noise. But, sometimes the noise leads to positive change, as it did when NBA players outright boycotted playoff games in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

There are events in the outside world that scream out for attention. As a marketing manager, addressing the elephant in the room is something that your teams will appreciate at the very least — and so is action. Figuring out how your company will thrive in the face of social issues is something that can go far with your employees, freelance force and/or trusty teamlance. And in 2020, for many teams… it did.

“It’s ain’t over till it’s over.”

Perhaps the most famous line Yogi reportedly ever uttered was this one that I’m sure you’ve heard (unless you’ve been vacationing on another planet). Is there any better quote when it comes to taking a project across the finish line and not singing praises before a job is complete?

In game four of the World Series, the Dodgers were one strike away from winning… until they weren’t, when a base hit led to an ugly loss and series tie on the game’s last play. Luckily, the Dodgers recovered but unless you play until the last out, it ain’t over till it’s over. Or as Kobe Bryant once said after a Lakers playoff win in a presser that has since become a meme: “Job’s not finished. Job finished? I don’t think so.”

Get the job done, pop the bubbly later. Your boss and client will thank you for it.