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The Interview - Hanna Gebel, European Marketing Manager at Spikeball Inc.

It was a pleasure for SPSG to interview Hanna Gebel, European Marketing Manager at Spikeball Inc, and Spanish champion of Roundnet. Hanna used to study at ESADE Business School where she attended the “Sports Business and Marketing” course led by Carlos Cantó, which was also attended by Cristina Martí, Consultant at SPSG Consulting. It has been very interesting to learn all about a "new" sport (popular in the USA but at a growth stage in Europe) that is gaining popularity in our country, Spain, and understand the procedure this requires. Hanna talks to us about the strategy this requires, as well as giving us insights of market trends in the different markets she has worked, and how this affects the chosen strategy.

You are a pivotal element of the growth of a sport (Roundnet) which is quite new in Europe, as you are the European Marketing Manager of Spikeball, the leading company in the sport. Can you elaborate a little more for the audience the main milestones of the history of the sport and its main characteristics?

Roundnet is played similar to beach volleyball: 2v2, where each team has three touches to bounce the ball onto the trampoline-like set. It’s a 360-degree game, meaning there is boundaries. It can be played anywhere: on grass, turf, sand, or indoors. Spikeball Inc. is the leading equipment company for the new and trending sport. It was launched in 2008 by CEO and founder, Chris Ruder, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. What started out as a toy being sold out of Ruder’s basement, has now become a global sport with its first ever world championship in September 2022.

The growth of the sport and its main milestones are directly related to the brand. The vision of the company goes beyond selling sets, or even providing the best equipment: Spikeball Inc. is committed to developing the next great global sport. Players, generally between ages 18-25, started organizing the first recreational leagues and tournaments as early as 2012. To really kick off the competitive scene, in 2014, Spikeball Inc. started organizing its Spikeball-owned tournaments, today known as the Spikeball Tour Series (STS). The STS events are considered the highest level of competition in terms of professionalism.

In May 2015, Spikeball Inc. appeared on Shark Tank’s season 6 finale, allowing for a reach of 7.04 million viewers just in the United States. After the TV exposure on Sharktank, there was a spike in popularity, leading to an increase in competition. To protect their brand trademark from cheaper off-brand sets, Spikeball Inc. named the sport roundnet.

Today, roundnet has established its place across the whole world: there is clubs and associations, governing entities such as the International Roundnet Federation, PE classes have adapted roundnet training, and 9 broadcasts have been featured on ESPN2.

You are the European Marketing Manager of Spikeball. What are the main challenges you are facing when trying to get Spikeball more popular in Europe, in comparison to the USA, where your company is the leader and the sport is also more popular?

Around 2015, the ball game started spreading organically to Europe through the community. Spikeball Inc. and roundnet are expanding rapidly across Europe, however, they are still a few years behind its development in the US. The main challenges we face in Europe are (1) brand awareness, (2) brand identity and competition.

The high brand awareness in the US has led to the interest in partnerships with Spikeball that further grow the sport tremendously. For example, for the tour series, Spikeball gets to work with several US sponsors. Also, ESPN2 reached out to the brand to stream our broadcasts. We are now starting to push these expansions also in Europe: For the first time this year, the tour series went abroad, with several tournaments both in Canada and in Europe (Paris and Ghent). We also filmed our first European Broadcast where four nations compete against each other in a mixed tournament. This will allow the sport to be legitimized and professionalized, which will grow the awareness of the sport and the brand.

Spikeball has invested high efforts on building a strong brand identity – a fun, sporty, quirky brand that our young players identify with. The consistent omnichannel brand experience, whether online on social media, the website or text, or offline at tournaments or in the store, has increased customer loyalty. As we are a few years behind in Europe, there is lower customer loyalty and higher competition. So, the company has begun deploying best practice strategies to accelerate European development as well and establish it as the official brand of roundnet that it stands to be in the US.

Obviously, in any given sport, the generation of revenues is a critical part of the business. Sponsorship, ticketing, media rights, merchandising, licensing, academies, etc. are ingredients of the revenue equation. How does the future look like for the sport of Roundnet in terms of revenue streams?

To develop the sport now in the world, we need to build a revenue stream. For that, we are focusing more efforts on professionalizing and legitimizing the sport, whilst growing awareness. This year the tour series expanded globally, the first world championship is taking place, there will be several features on ESPN, tournaments are being elevated in terms of professionalism, the stream is improving, and our reach growing.

Digital media is the key driver of growth currently. Hence, digital media rights, especially for the short form media, will play a huge role in the future as well. This media allows the sport to connect directly with the younger generations, that are fans of the sport already. Yet, we are also working on growing viewership through reaching consumers through more traditional channels in Europe. Within the sport we need to increase the visibility of the competitive scene, not only on social media, but also through the television. So, as mentioned we filmed our first European Broadcast that we hope to bring on the TV across Europe.

Through these efforts we hope to involve more sponsors in the sport. And, as the sport becomes more global, we also want to make sure to involve international brands where we are looking to establish long term partnerships.

Sports, generally speaking, are experiencing a dramatic evolution over the least years due to a fragmented audience and the open and “democratized” access to the sport audiovisual content (via OTT, social platforms, influencers, media platforms such as Twitch or Youtube, etc.). As a sport marketing expert, how do you envision the future of non-dominant sports (in comparison to the likes of football, basketball, F1, tennis, etc.) in terms of media exposure and, specifically, the type of content that will attract the interest of the audience?

With the rise of the “attention economy”, referring to the lower attention span younger generations have due to the saturation of stimulation, new channels have gained importance in fan engagement. There is a shift away from traditional TV consumption and new entertainment formats are disrupting the sports industry. These short-form videos and highlights as one can find on TikTok and Instagram Reels have allowed minority sports, like roundnet, to increase awareness. So, Spikeball Inc. is utilizing on these platforms as well, where we post highlights of rallies from our tournaments. And it is that content that has the most reach.

Secondly, we can see a huge shift towards User Generated Content. If we think about Spikeball’s content overall, there’s so many different levels of the spectrum: It might be rallies from people on an ESPN broadcast, or it might be User Generated Content from some friends playing in their backyard. This allows us to directly engage our consumers, addressing the casual fan. With the sport being so new, there is less rules on how an equipment brand has to be. We can be innovative and try out new things constantly, together with the community.

The trend we see the economy moving towards, is that fans are more interested in stories – even with more dominant sports. Fans want to get to know the people, the players. Our Avid Fans will also follow the longer content, and for that, we stream tournaments on Twitch or YouTube. The content that, I believe, will move the casual fan towards an avid fan, is the UGC players are making. Pro players have made videos on YouTube where you get to follow them along a whole tournament day. This is the content that tells stories and gives insights into actual people’s lives.

You have been living in the USA for many years and also in Europe, where you were born and you live as we speak. In terms of sport innovation (with or without technology), can you identify any relevant difference between the USA+Canada and Europe?

Yes, indeed. I spent most of my time in Texas in the US, and in Germany and Spain in Europe, allowing me to be that bridge between the different cultures. Experiences in sports, especially as a fan, differ vastly. With disrupting technologies and changes in consumer behavior, innovation in the sports industry has become more important than ever before to keep fans engaged.

The United States is known for its entertainment and customer service. This carries through to sports as well. We now live in a time of “Sportainment”, the mix of sports and entertainment. This offers consumers a value-added brand experience, broadening the viewerbase. Already in high school in the US, you will find cheerleaders, a band, a dance group and other performers to make an American football game more entertaining. This way, not only avid fans follow the sport, but anyone can enjoy it. Within professional sports, the US takes it to another level, think of the half-time show, the SoFi Stadium Screen or the Jacksonvill Jaguars swimming pool to watch an American football game from. The US set an example on fan experience long ago, and we are now starting to see Europe catching up.

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