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Event Marketing and Communications with Sarah Hawkins of Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018

by Chris Carver
on September 17, 2017
Photo by The Irish Times


Here's a job for you: Event Marketing and Strategic Communications for major internationally televised sporting events.

And for Sarah Hawkins, Director of Marketing and Communications for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018, it's her world. She's also worked on Super Bowl 50, the 34th America's Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games— Not too shabby, right.

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Sarah lighting up with an official Rio Olympic Relay Torch in Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy Sarah Hawkins

BTW - if you didn't know. Next summer, the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 will bring an international fan base to San Francisco and the U.S. for the first time ever. And with less than a year to go, 45,000 tickets have already been sold for the three-day tournament.

So, If you can, I highly recommend going. So many great ideas for other events. It's guaranteed to be an incredible event. You can pick up your tickets at: Oh and bring your costume.

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Photo Cred:

You can imagine my excitement to talk with Sarah about how they are approaching PR, marketing and strategic communication for such a unique event. I geek out about this stuff.

I wanted to take the opportunity to learn about:

So, where did you grow up?
Barrington, Rhode Island.

I know that you were really active in sailing. Do you still sail? 
I grew up competitively sailing and raced in college. I had the opportunity after graduating to turn my passion for sailing into a career working for the U.S. Sailing Team. My first international event exposure was at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro and then the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing. Nowadays, I get on the water as much as I can, but not as often as my college days. A day on the water is always better than a day on land. 

Hobart and William Smith College Sailing Team - Sarah racing.jpg
Sarah racing back in the day for Hobart and William Smith College Sailing Team. Courtesy Sarah Hawkins

If you’re friends were a little tipsy, how would they describe you?
I am really not sure... So I thought I'd ask a few credible sources:

"The Hawk is a warm, honest and trusted friend. She is fun to be around and makes me happy. If I ever needed anything, Sarah would be there for me." – Pat Gallagher, Super Bowl 50 EVP Marketing Partnerships and Communications, friend and boss

"She is always down for a good time and can take on any project with zero complaints or fears. She hangs with the best because she is the best. As Marvin Gaye said there ain't no mountain high enough that can stop the Hawk!" – Shelley Ryan, friend

Did I hear "The Hawk" in there? 
Hah! That's been with me for a long time.
Love the nickname.

If you were a piece of event equipment, what would you be and why?
I would love to be a high speed wireless network. A reliable Wi-Fi connection gives me life and is also essential to my work output.

When did you know you wanted a career in the event world?
When I was working for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Sailing Team, during the 2008 Games in Beijing, I found new perspective in my career.

One of the sailing athletes, Nick Scandone was diagnosed with ALS, and doctors predicted he would live 18 months. Nick lived to not only race in the 2008 Paralympics Games, but he won a gold medal. I will vividly remember that day and Nick for the rest of my life. He was a true inspiration and a daily reminder to never ever give up.

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Nick and his sailing crew Maureen McKinnon Tucker at the '08 Games. Photo cred: Sail World

Shortly afterward, I moved to San Francisco and worked on the 34th America's Cup. I completely fell in love with the California lifestyle and have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work on other major global sporting events in one of my favorite cities.

As director of marketing and communications, what is your primary job responsibility?
I am responsible for driving awareness, interest, excitement and participation in the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 event. I'm tasked with creating a buzz locally through digital content that is unique, engaging and consistent with our brand, goals and objectives through marketing campaigns. Driving ticket sales and increased participation in rugby sevens is my focus. I also lead media planning and advertising.

Rugby fans—happy to wig it out at the game. Photo cred: BT


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When the Rugby World Cup Sevens came up, what were the top 3 things you were most excited about?
I was really excited to work on a rugby event in general. My first proper exposure to rugby sevens was last summer while working at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. It's such a dynamic and fun sport, it stuck with me the second I saw my first match. Shortly after Brazil, the opportunity to work on rugby sevens came up in San Francisco and the rest is history. 

The San Francisco Giants stadium is one of the most iconic venues; it is pretty cool to host an event at AT&T Park that isn't baseball related. I can't wait for a rugby pitch to overlay a baseball diamond.


Sarah is a part of the team that transforms the Giants stadium into a rugby mecca. Photo cred: Dan Cogswell

Thirdly and more personally, I worked with Rosie Spaulding, rugby sevens General Manager, on Super Bowl 50 and the 34th America's Cup. I have a huge amount of respect for Rosie and her work ethic; it is fun to have the opportunity to work together again. 


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The band. From R-L, Sheridan Spivey, Sean Hopper, Sarah Hawkins (The Hawk), Rosie Spaulding, Everett Jacobs. Courtesy Sarah Hawkins

What were the different communication challenges between Super Bowl 50, 34th America’s Cup and now the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018?
While all three are major sporting events, they are extremely different in communication strategy, event marketing goals and overall budget.


The 34th America's Cup kicked off with a global tour: America's Cup World Series, which was a nice lead promotionally into our big event. #AC34 was super cutting-edge, and fun to watch. All the racing was held inside the San Francisco Bay, which is the most amazing natural amphitheater. A big challenge for us was letting people know that America's Cup racing was not held miles offshore. In 2011, not many Bay Area locals knew about America's Cup racing, but by September 2013, it felt like a spectator sport. It was truly incredible to see new fans running from the city front to the shoreline to catch the epic racing that unfolded.

Our focus for Super Bowl 50 was on the 50th year milestone and the celebration of the past 49 Super Bowls. In nine days we had 1.1 million people – both Bay Area locals and out-of-town fans – visit our hosted events including Super Bowl City, the 50th Mile and the NFL Experience. We gave $13 million back to the local Bay Area community, the most money ever raised by a Super Bowl Host Committee. Most people don't know about the philanthropy and community aspect of the Super Bowl. It was an amazing story to tell through the Super Bowl platform.


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If you have a Super Bowl 50 truck trailer and you don't take a photo sitting on the roof, did it really happen? Courtesy Sarah Hawkins


Rubgy World Cup Sevens 2018 marketing has a different focus than the other events I have worked on. Ticket sales and promotion of the sport are clutch. Part of the task here is letting people know that a World Cup is coming to their backyard and that they don't want to miss out. It is an opportunity for kids to see their rugby sevens Olympic heroes up close and personal for the first time ever on home soil.


How are the communication teams structured between the three that you are a part of?

Very different actually!

The 34th America's Cup was composed of three groups: Event Authority, Race Management and Television. Between all three we had a very large group of people working towards the same goal of highlighting 'the best sailors, the fastest boats.' My role was primarily digital within a large communications team. I worked closest with television, focused around livestreaming and digital content creation.


Super Bowl 50 also had many larger groups, notably NFL digital. We aligned with NFL to produce our event app, as well as social media strategy both locally and nationally (really globally, due to the nature of social media). The overarching marketing message was focused on participation locally at Super Bowl City.


Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 similarly to Super Bowl works within many larger groups, including World Rugby. Our friends in Ireland have a global marketing approach, while we are very driven locally—however, we work in lockstep to communicate digitally across social media and the website.


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The Hawk sets her sights on three laptops... and a monitor. Courtesy of Sarah Hawkins

You mentioned the educational component. That's going to be a critical for Rugby World Cup Sevens. Can you explain some of the challenges that come with marketing this sport? 
The key to understanding rugby sevens is making the sport relatable. There is a lot of crossover between rugby sevens, football, soccer, track and field. There are several rugby sevens athletes who have played or currently play other sports as well, which helps create more interest.

What would you say are the top marketing channels you're going to be leveraging to drive ticket sales? 
The San Francisco Giants are our ticketing partner. They obviously know ticketing at AT&T Park better than anyone. We play our promotional video at Giants home games, and it is really fun to watch baseball fans reactions when they see our video and realize what is coming to their stadium. The buzz is really electrifying.

In addition to digital marketing at the Giants' baseball games, we also target other rugby sevens events such as the HBSC Sevens Series, World Rugby tournaments and USA Rugby events.

Our marketing channels are geared towards local sports fans, and event goers in the Bay Area. I think we'll have a good turnout. Rugby fans are very passionate and loyal; we anticipate a very international audience as well.

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Homepage takeover of the San Francisco Business Times. Courtesy Sarah Hawkins

Right. How important is it to engage the rugby community here in the U.S.?
It's critical. Existing rugby communities are the best ambassadors we could ask for, because they already love the sport. They can help spread the word organically, which is truly the best messenger of all. Word-of-mouth beats any promoted post on any social media platform. If you have a friend that is super engaged in rugby, they will likely tell another friend about it. It's a huge organic influencer for us.



"Word-of-mouth beats any promoted post on any social media platform." twitter-128.png


Absolutely. How has the early response been from rugby enthusiasts? 
It's been very positive from both the rugby fans, as well as the SF Giants season ticket holders.

Photo cred: World Rugby

Are there any new developments within social that you're really excited to explore?
I love Snapchat and Instagram Story, it is such a great way to show behind the scenes exclusive content. It is all about making the sport and athletes accessible to both the fans in the stadium and at home.

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Follow the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 action on Snapchat @rugbyworldcup

Do you personally use Snapchat? 
I love Snapchat. Life is more fun when you live in the moment!

Is that your favorite platform? 
Snapchat and Instagram are tied for my favorites. 

Do you think that live social feeds will play well with the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018?
Absolutely. I think it's a great opportunity to tell a story. People really engage with that type of content, especially when it is exclusive behind the scenes footage.

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Making sure followers never miss a rugby highlight with video vignettes on IG @worldrugby

Switching gears a little bit, what's the best career advice you've been given? 
The best career advice (and maybe life advice) is to keep moving forward. Everything happens so quickly in the events world. It's really important to keep driving the team and the event forward. You have to be super on top of it, bust also adaptable in real time.

If you were to give an event industry state of union address, what would be the top three topics you'd discuss in your speech? 
I would focus on sporting events for positive change. One of the amazing parts of a huge sporting event is the community aspect. For Super Bowl 50, we created the 50 Fund, which was our legacy program. We helped over 500,000 youth and families in low income areas.


"I want to focus on sporting events for positive change." twitter-128.png


San Francisco boys youth rugby at play. Photo cred: San Francisco High School rugby team

Do you have any parting wisdom for folks in the event industry?
No one wants to know how to build a clock, they just want to know the time. 


"No one wants to know how to build a clock, they just want to know the time." twitter-128.png


I'm really excited to keep up with how this evolves. It's going to be an awesome event. 
Thank you, we are really excited. Hope to see you in San Francisco next summer, July 20-22. 

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