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Sports Marketing Strategies for Success

Building a more successful sports marketing campaign starts with understanding the challenges and best strategies for engaging today’s fans.

The numbers don’t lie: Sports are more popular than ever. Simply consider the following:

Greater access to games and information via TV and the internet has helped win the attention of growing numbers of devoted fans and casual followers alike. The commitment of people to their favorite athletes and teams has increasingly made sports an almost unmatched marketing opportunity for brands.

As the reach, number, and popularity of sports have grown worldwide, sports marketing has flourished as well. Its means and methods for engaging audiences have evolved and diversified. Its brand and financial impacts have increased, becoming a larger portion of marketing spends and an increasingly vital means of connection with target audiences. For example, for Super Bowl LVI in 2022 Amazon spent $32 million promoting its products.

What is sports marketing?

Sports marketing represents an effective tool for connecting with consumers or other target audiences through a shared interest in sports. The sport itself can range from professional and college level to alternative and even recreational varieties.

Sports can provide an effective bridge for introducing people from varied backgrounds and demographics to brands, products, and sports teams, leagues, athletes, and organizations. In addition, sports marketing efforts often promote other services, subjects, and causes through an association with sports.

Tactics used by sports marketers span a broad array of options, including broadcast, social media, advertising, community outreach, and sponsorships. Teams sell advertising space inside their stadiums, use billboards, create traditional print ads, and develop specific campaigns. Notable players are often utilized as well, employed as spokespeople and ambassadors at sporting events and across channels. The messaging venues continue to grow with the advent of new media and technologies.

Types of sports marketing

Sports marketing is a varied and multidisciplinary undertaking. The ways in which it is used and the goals on which it is focused are similarly varied, resisting narrow definitions or predictable applications.

At its core, the different expressions of sports marketing share a commitment to creatively using sports to achieve their communications goals. Here are a few different ways marketing professionals are using sports to tell brand stories.

Marketing teams, leagues, and sporting events

Promoting a specific team, league, or sporting event is a common and familiar path used by marketers to harness the popularity and reach offered by sports. In this case, the outreach may be the work of an internal marketing organization or the efforts of an outside agency hired by the team, league, or event to help spread the word.

Users of these services could include the Los Angeles Lakers, the NFL, or the Olympic Games. We might call this version marketing of sports. Strategies can include partnering with other brands to grow the audience, increase awareness, and ultimately drive ticket and merchandise sales.

Selling products

Using sports to sell products is an example of marketing through sports. This form of sports marketing has grown consistently over the last few decades as the popularity of certain sports and events has increased. The product being promoted might have little to no direct connection to sports at all, including everything from beer to burgers.

The product-focused efforts might be undertaken by a sports team, league, sports organization, or athlete. Examples of sports marketing by teams can include sponsorships, corporate events and viewing boxes, licensed merchandise, endorsements, signage, and broadcasting. Specific athletes often forge their own deals to help sell products as diverse as tennis shoes, cars, and even insurance.

Promoting athletes

Brands have long partnered with specific athletes to help raise the athlete’s profile while looking for sales uplift by associating the company with the sports personality. This practice is now well established, spanning premier sports like football and soccer and more niche sports like skateboarding and track and field.

Many athletes maintain contracts with a variety of companies, earning sums that sometimes compete with or even exceed the salaries they receive from their team. The contracts differ in scope and length with some focused on specific campaigns while others include longer-term engagements and a variety of responsibilities.

Growing the sport through grassroots sports marketing

This form of sports marketing has a slightly different goal from selling personalities or products. It markets the sport itself, seeking to increase participation as a community good. Usually referred to as grassroots sports marketing, it is normally conducted by government agencies or charities rather than private sector organizations and with a much smaller budget. It is not measured by direct financial gain but rather focuses on encouraging people to play.

Examples might include promotion of sports by the local public health organization as part of their commitment to supporting a healthier citizenry. Often, national sports organizations roll out campaigns as well to encourage new players, such as the United States Golf Association’s initiatives to invite people to take a swing at the sport.

Benefits of sports marketing

The benefits of sports marketing are varied and can advance a range of goals. Built around fans who are deeply committed to their favorite teams and athletes, sports marketing allows brands to channel that devotion and reach. These efforts can be aimed at building connections and engaging audiences to achieve the following:

Grow loyalty

Loyalty is likely to be an important feature of any brand’s sports marketing efforts, no matter if the effort is supporting a team, a player, or a product. The success of every team and player will rise and fall over time. Effective sports marketing can help organizations keep and grow their fan base despite lean times. This benefit also applies to products using an association with a player or team to drive affinity and loyalty.

Increase fan attendance at sporting events

Teams and players want full stadiums. Sports marketing can help inspire fans to go to games or matches. Campaigns and initiatives are created to celebrate the thrill of being there and sharing the event with other fans. Promotions are often used to help drive attendance. Giveaways, special guests, and new in-venue experiences are all used by marketers to encourage fans to join the event in person. Product brands aligned with the team will also often employ or support such strategies and offer exclusive game-day offers to boost attendance.  

Drive ticket sales

Sports marketing is a vital tool for boosting ticket sales, including single-game tickets and season packages. Season ticket sales play an important role when it comes to revenue. For NFL teams, for example, season-ticket holders account for the vast majority of ticket sales each year. But such sales are also critical for small colleges that might rely on this revenue to finance and sustain their sports programs.

Teams also use sports marketing to motivate their passionate fans to support the team by committing for the season. Loyal season ticket holders often bring additional value by acting as great team advocates. They attract media interest for the team and inspire others to hop on the bandwagon.

Improve product sales

By aligning with a popular player, team, or league, partner brands can connect to a larger, more engaged audience than they might reach otherwise. These brands look for creative ways to draft off the fans’ devotion as a means for turning visibility into sales. Tactics might include borrowing team colors or features, using players as spokespeople, employing in-stadium signage, and creating sales promotions or events.

Connect with fans live at sporting events

Game- or match-day activations represent another potential benefit provided by sports marketing. Offering a rare opportunity to connect with your target audience at live sports events, marketers can craft memorable experiences from autograph signings to Instagrammable photo ops as a means for driving traffic and engagement. Inside the venue, social media campaigns can provide yet another way to connect with audiences and inspire action at sports events.

Challenges of sports marketing strategies

Even as sports grow in popularity worldwide, the ways in which fans participate in the conversation are changing all the time and sometimes in dramatic ways. New platforms, technologies, and preferences are upending much about how and where sports marketers reach their audiences as part of their sports marketing programs.

Mobile, social, and even virtual reality (VR) have become important resources for many of today’s fans, forcing marketers to adapt. Players must increasingly double as marketing contributors, requiring time, training, and talent. And then there’s all the noise across sports marketing that can make it feel impossible to get your message through.

Here are 8 key challenges today’s sports marketers are grappling with.

1. Fluctuating sports teams’ success or popularity

Fans can be passionate. If you are willing to spend the money on season tickets (or go shirtless in subzero temperatures to show your devotion), you’ve come to win. But we all know that the fate of teams rises and falls over time. Some years, cheering is easy. Other years, it can be tough to stay positive. Sports marketers must find ways to engage and inspire fans despite downturns in the record or popularity of the team. The challenge is real as the public may be less motivated and sports brands less interested when there are surer bets elsewhere.

2. Evolving rosters and instability on today’s sports teams

Change is an unavoidable reality for today’s sports marketers. These days, most professional sports see players change teams with striking frequency. There is no guarantee that the superstar who powered your marketing efforts this year will be around the next. New coaches, players, and even owners and cities can throw a serious wrench in any thoughtfully designed sports marketing plan. One strategy is to avoid putting players front and center and relying instead on creative concepts that don’t directly require players. Or you could consider building strategies around multiple players to protect against those surprise departures or injuries.

3. Limited access to players on sports clubs

The players you want to use in your sports marketing are likely to be busy people. It’s possible that in addition to the demands of their primary job as an athlete they may have numerous business relationships with other brands. In other words, a player-focused plan that looks great on paper may be hard to pull off if that person proves hard to schedule. Having a backup approach is wise. Consider a complementary campaign track that relies on photos or footage from games or employs animation to bring the excitement of the player to fans.

4. A varied and diverse audience for professional sports

Marketers are always talking about personas and target audiences. That’s because knowing who you’re trying to reach is the first step in actually reaching them. But sports fans represent a wide array of diverse demographics with different interests and preferences. Sports marketing must account for the various ways these audiences engage with the team and sport. Age, gender, location, state, location in the country—all of these variables will impact the messaging, creative, and execution of your sports marketing. Pursuing the right balance includes having as much data as possible on your audience and testing ideas first to see which resonate most.

5. Taking advantage of new technologies

This challenge is not unique to sports marketing as all kinds of industries struggle to keep pace with the emergence of new tools and technologies. For example, sports fans now find and share news about their teams via a variety of social media platforms from Facebook to X (formerly Twitter). If marketers want to reach their audience, they must add these platforms to their sports marketing program.

There’s also the matter of the technology capabilities in the sports venue. Wi-Fi is non-negotiable today. The ability to share and post at the game is now central to the fan experience. Emerging tools like augmented reality (AR) and VR may one day become expected too. The upside is sports marketers can use these same technologies to engage fans wherever they are. One downside for teams is the potential cost of implementing some of these solutions.

6. Enticing people to attend sporting events with new experiences

The persistent goal of teams and leagues is to motivate fans to attend the game or match. They want to fill seats. To achieve this goal, sports marketers are often tasked to develop novel activations and programs that can’t be experienced at home.

Technology can be an enticement if it enables fans to interact in new and fun ways at the event. Other common tactics include special shows or opportunities planned before the game, at some point during the game, or post event. With rising ticket prices, T-shirt cannons and Jumbotron birthday announcements won’t suffice forever. In addition to entertainment, sports marketers could try to mitigate attendee pain points like the hassle of postgame exits.

7. Measuring the results of sports marketing campaigns

The rise of data and analytics has put pressure on sports marketing professionals to quantify the impacts of their campaign or initiative. The sports brand, whether a team, league, or association, wants to know it’s earning a sufficient return on its investment and is truly moving the dial.

But as with marketing strategy more broadly it can be difficult to calculate progress on some common goals like brand awareness or affinity. Sports marketers report that sponsorship deals can be especially hard to measure. Despite those hurdles, expect to be asked about results and keep measurement in mind as you develop your sports marketing strategies.

8. Going omnichannel in sport marketing

It’s been touched on elsewhere on this list, but the growing importance of new communications channels represents another issue for sports marketing. Gone are the days when marketing strategy could focus just on TV and radio with a dash of print. Sports marketers must bring or have access to a wider range of expertise.

Today’s sports enthusiast uses many digital channels and expects his favorite team or product to do the same, providing a seamless, satisfying experience across all of them. Consumption is just the beginning. Consumers now desire immersion. It’s up to sports marketers to figure out how to deliver it and do so reliably.

Sports marketing industry trends

Even though the sports themselves may have changed little over the years, what consumers expect from the experience of following their favorite teams continues to evolve. To keep up, sports marketers must, as Wayne Gretzky once said, skate to where the puck is going.

Several trends, both technological and otherwise, are opening up new and exciting ways of thinking about and enjoying sports. Today’s sports marketing professionals will want to think creatively about how they can harness the power and promise of these developments to elevate their next campaign and deliver for fans.   

The growth of e-sports in the sports industry

Among the most notable recent developments in sports is the rapid rise of games that weren’t originally categorized as sports at all. Here we’re talking about e-sports and gaming, a pair of fast-growing sectors that offer new opportunities for sports marketing.

Long graduated from bedrooms and basements, video games have gone competitive, now attracting millions of viewers, players, and sponsors worldwide. Newzoo predicts the number of occasional viewers and enthusiasts of e-sports will grow to 640.8 million worldwide by 2025. Serving this new audience will require first digging into the unique culture and values of its teams and their devoted fans.

Personalized, data-driven content

The success of any marketing effort is directly linked to the marketer’s success at delivering content that the audience cares about. That’s always been the case, but sports fans, like other kinds of fans, increasingly expect material and experiences that reflect their interests, goals, and preferences.

The growing availability of behavioral data about audiences is enabling tailored content that can help boost engagement, drive loyalty, increase sales, and optimize marketing budgets and programs. Collecting, analyzing, and making the most of this data commonly involves customer relationship management (CRM) systems, artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) tools, and, often, partnering with an outside vendor with the requisite expertise.

The opportunities with wearables

After years of excited headlines, signs suggest that wearables are finally coming into their own. A $55 billion market in 2022, the category is forecast to grow to $142 billion by 2030. Fitness trackers and smartwatches originally defined the space and are only getting better and more sophisticated, providing marketers with one more pathway to stay connected to their sports-minded audiences.

Meanwhile, all kinds of new wearable products are coming to market, including Nike’s HyperAdapt self-lacing shoe and Google Glass smart glasses. Google has even partnered with Levi’s to create a jacket made of threads composed of electrical fibers, enabling the wearer to answer calls, play music, or take photos right from their sleeves. Marketers will want to explore how these innovations might be used to delight audiences in future campaigns.

The rising focus on diversity and inclusion

Sports aren’t just games; they’re a reflection of the broader culture. As diversity and inclusion receive increased attention across society, the same focus is coming to sports as well. The joy of sports is available to everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, or physical limitation.

Sports marketers will find a rich variety of ideas to explore here. Consider spotlighting athletes from different backgrounds in the creative. Conceive and develop merchandise that fits all types of bodies. Ensure that your content is accessible to all, such as including closed captioning in videos. In short, demonstrate that the sport welcomes all players and fans.

The power of AI to reach sports fans

You can’t escape the subject of AI these days. It’s transforming virtually every industry it touches. The use cases for sports include the obvious like tapping data to benefit player analytics and advance marketing’s understanding of audience makeup. It can also enable more personalized, more immersive fan experiences; automate certain sports marketing functions; and even deliver scores and updates via chatbots.

AI helps marketers in more practical day-to-day ways as well by improving how brands manage and use the content they already have. AI offers an invaluable means for managing and accessing material from digitized storage. With AI, marketers can not only unlock new data-driven insights to support enhanced content but also make the most of their existing content.  

A move toward sustainability

Just as they are doing with other brands outside of the sports industry, fans, athletes, and sponsors are putting pressure on sports organizations to make sustainability and social responsibility priorities. More than ever, they demand that sports entities act ethically and in an environmentally responsible manner.

Using sports marketing strategies, you can tell this story for your team, athlete, or product. Convey to the audience that their support amplifies the good the person or organization you represent is doing. Showcase the stories. Celebrate the successes and inspire others to join in. But remember, these commitments must be real. Being inauthentic here can do serious damage to the brand.

Race by the competition with a sports marketing strategy that’s built to win  

Sports marketing strategies offer an effective means for helping connect an ever-growing global sports fan base with the teams, leagues, players, and products they love. By employing a combination of traditional methods and new and emerging techniques and technologies, today’s sports marketing professionals help us feel like an important part of the teams we call our own.

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