Marketing of FIRST

With much discussion of Battlebots, BBIQ, and other robot competitions, I think that we need to discuss the marketing of FIRST. I’ll start out with some history, and then end with some opinions.

1992: - 28 teams, winners went to the White House, some TV exposure on local stations and PBS, NBC Today show covers the event slightly (I think).

1993-95: single digit teams, teams (Champs and Chairman’s winners) still went to White House, ESPN coverage started, local TV and PBS coverage

1996-98: FIRST moves to Disney, teams stopped going to White House, ESPN coverage ends in '98, local TV and PBS coverage

1999: FIRST contracts an LA producer to make a 30 minute documentary video, while they ask many teams to spend more time and money to document their seasons (10-16 teams submitted footage, 2 teams were chosen to be profiled), no more ESPN, no White House, increase in local, state, and PBS coverage… but mostly upon the efforts of individual teams.

2000: Some national TV news shows begin to cover event (20/20, Dateline, etc.), Nickelodean video is taped and edited… but was it shown? Discovery Science Channel airs a couple of shows, increase in local and state support.

2001: A & E “the Competition” shows FIRST as a fun and challenging competition, National TV news magazine shows do stories on FIRST (Today show, 20/20, Dateline, etc), local and state media outlets still covering local teams.

The above history may be a bit inaccurrate, but it’s not too far off.

Here are some observations and opinions (please add yours):

  1. FIRST HAS INCREASED, BUT MARKETING HASN’T. The number of teams, events, and sheer size of FIRST has grown dramatically over the years, but the media coverage has only slightly increased… or even decreased in some areas.

  2. SPEND MONEY ON MARKETING. Other lesser-quality robotic competitions have sprung up and gotten media coverage while FIRST has not. While FIRST didn’t have this competition years before… they do now. In the early years, FIRST devoted little or no cost to marketing to the media. The other competitions have done two things that FIRST has not done to get themselves on TV, and therefore expanding their competitions:
    2a. They have spent money on marketing (significant money)
    2b. They have made a competition that is easy to understand and media-friendly.

  3. MAKE TEAMS QUALIFY FOR NATIONALS. If the “national media” is going to take FIRST seriously, then FIRST needs to have a legitimate “Championship event”. These media people are not going to be inspired when they see a game that is decided on too much luck, or if they see a “box on wheels”. By FIRST initiating a qualification process to get to the Championships, this is a step in the right direction.

  4. ALLIANCES? I am a fan of “alliances” in FIRST competitions, but the media just doesn’t get it. If FIRST is going to keep alliances, then they gotta spend much effort to make the alliance process easy to understand and explain, from qualifications to the finals. In order to bring the media on board with FIRST, they must make an effort to make alliance-type competitions understandable and excitable.

  5. Get rid of the mindset that we are NEEDY. FIRST cannot depend on the national media to cover the Championships or any Regional just out of the goodness of their hearts… team sponsors must get involved. Many of the BIG sponsors probably would put up advertizing money if FIRST had a TV contract. I would look forward to seeing the Motorola, GM, Baxter, Computer Associates, Delphi, NASA, (etc.) commercials during a broadcasted event. FIRST should ask their major sponsors to give advertizing money to start the TV momentum rolling.

  6. Make the game UNDERSTANDABLE. The game must be understandable and easy to explain. It can still be complex, but students should be able to explain it a reporter without the reporter putting down his/her pen 3 minutes into the explaination.

  7. FIRST should make marketing deals (TV deals, etc.) based on business cases, not on emotional ties and relationships. FIRST is big on loyalty to suppliers and companies who have stuck with them over the years, and they are not as open to new companies who want to “get on board” now that FIRST is big. Also, the correlary to this is that FIRST needs to get over some of the impasses they have had with some companies. Two extremes in this case would be Disney and ESPN. FIRST will barely discuss the option of leaving Disney, while they probably won’t ever discuss the option of getting back on ESPN.

These opinions are debatable, that’s for sure. Along with these, there are more points out there… I’ll stop for now.

Andy B.

Good post Andy. I would like to make a few points.

  1. Currently, FIRST’s main marketing campaign is the Chairman’s Award. A big portion of the Chairman’s Award is “spreading the good word of FIRST” (read: marketing FIRST). One of the reasons that I’m not a huge Chairman’s Award supporter on our team (that is, I typically vote against our team putting forth any big effort to win the award) is because I find it kind of fishy that FIRST’s “biggest award” is also the one that gets them free marketing. Maybe I’m too cynical. (Before you send flames, I’m a big supporter of FIRST in general, but that doesn’t mean I have to like everything they do.)

  2. I’ve stated this before, but FIRST needs to buy air time to show the competition. CART, the IRL, the American LeMans Series, Trans Am Series, and virtually all other racing series that aren’t NASCAR or F1 get their TV time by buying time slots. The series then pays for the time slot by selling their own advertising and keeping the money. It’s more or less a giant infomercial. FIRST would be wise to take their lead, buy the time, and then sell the ad space. Like Andy said, I’m sure Motorola, Delphi, GM, and others would likely buy the space. Without this approach, I don’t know if FIRST is going to be able to convince a network that it should show the competitions. If they buy the time and the ratings are good, the networks might then decide to take over. Without a time buy, I don’t think FIRST has a very good chance of getting any TV exposure.

  3. Convince sponsors to do cross-marketing. For example, Honda makes engines and sponsors teams/races on the CART racing series (has anyone noticed that I’m a racing fan?). Honda then indirectly promotes CART by having their drivers and cars in some TV commercials (the latest one getting a lot of air time shows Michael Andretti’s Motorola sponsored car and the dialogue, “Will we win? Hopefully. Will we finsish? Probably. Will we learn? Definitely”. The reason that they cross market the CART series is that the more people that watch CART races, the more valuable their team sponsorships are (since there are more people seeing their engines in action). FIRST needs to convince more of its sponsors to also promote FIRST in the hopes that as FIRST grows, their sponsorships become more valuable (i.e. the money they spend on sponsorships will reach more people). The only cross marketing I know is National Beverage, and I still haven’t seen that yet.

Just an FYI but I do know that the national champions (and I’m assuming chairman’s award winner) went to the White House in 1996. Clinton was not around but Gore was. If anyone debates this I can show them the picture of Gore driving Tigerbolt. :wink:


I have heard from folks that know more about these things than I do that there are promoters that will line up TV and advertisers for a given series of events for a given share of the advertising income. Many sporting events and other series use the services of these promoters.

One thing that these promoters require is some say as to what it is that they are promoting. This would require that FIRST give up some control (or at least grant someone else veto power). FIRST (i.e. Dean & Woodie) have been very reluctant to let anyone have any say over the game or the tourney format. This may be the reason that such a deal has not be made before.

For what it is worth, I think that this would be a good bargain.

But, I suppose it is more complicated than I realize. Most things are.

Joe J.