How to win at sports marketing

Senior Content Marketing Specialist

Dave Hitchins

Senior Content Marketing Specialist

There is a feast of sport in the months ahead – for evergreen fans and anyone else who just loves to get carried away by the theatre and collective euphoria of global sporting events. And it’s not just the football that promises to be particularly ‘hot’ this year. Some brands relish the opportunity to refresh old rivalries off the pitch with clever campaigns and ambush marketing techniques to steal the limelight and drive engagement. It’s almost as fun to watch as the sport!

Even if you aren’t a global mega-brand who can afford to get their logo on the shirts of every top international football team, there are many opportunities to tap into the positive energy that sporting events generate.

In this blog we cover everything you need to know to be the best you can be at sports marketing.

6 effective sports marketing strategies

Sport is universal, it brings people together, it inspires the sharpest of emotions at both ends of the scale from complete ecstasy to abject dejection. Brands can only dream of earning the adoration and loyalty that fans feel for the teams they support.

They can however enjoy some of the reflected glory through association. And it’s not just sports brands – any business can benefit from connecting themselves with sports events and athletes through endorsements, collaborations, and clever marketing campaigns.

Over the years every type of business from car makers to accountancy firms have sought to join the sports marketing game. Here we highlight just some of the most successful marketing tactics that are applied in the sporting arena.

1. Explore athlete endorsements

Some of the most recognizable global celebrities are athletes. From Messi to Federer, Jordan to Hamilton, brands offer vast amounts of money to these superstars to endorse their products.

So we got ‘treated’ to David Beckham wearing very little on giant Emporio Armani billboards during his playing career, and thankfully fully clothed in ads for Swiss watches – even ten years after he retired.

And boy can it bring results.

Take the often-quoted example of Michael Jordan’s relationship with Nike who, when they signed the deal in 1984, were hoping to make $3 million in Jordan product sales over four years. Almost forty years later Nike now generate $3 million in Jordan sales every 5 hours.

With athletes usually being near-perfect physical specimens, there are some collaborations that seem a little contrived. When Christiano Ronaldo started advertising KFC some did point out that his ripped physique suggested that he probably wasn’t a regular customer of the fast-food chain.

Even when sports stars are retired and a bit out of shape there are all sorts of brands keen to sign them up – from hair restoring products to weight loss programs. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work for them.

2. Using gamification to drive loyalty

Sports fans thrive on competition. Some get obsessed and commit to memory every result and player stat from the last umpteen years. These are the people that you don’t want to sit next to at dinner parties, but it does highlight the opportunity for brands to incorporate gamification into their marketing strategies.

From simple incentivization techniques to online tournaments that get customers competing with each other, introducing game mechanics can really boost the ROI of your campaigns and provide a rich source of data to extend and enrich your customer data platform.

There is a classic example from the sport of competitive surfing which is owned and operated at the corporate level by the World Surf League. For years a lowly surfing lifestyle magazine has run an incredibly popular fantasy league where participants from all over the world choose a team of surfers for each of the 12 events – with more points being awarded the higher your athletes place. At the end of the season the person with the most points wins a surfing holiday – worth only a couple of thousand dollars. However, fans go crazy for it, challenging friends and generating a huge amount of buzz and web traffic for the magazine, which incidentally has now gone online-only on the back of its web success.

Don’t think that you need to create a full scale fantasy sports league to be successful with gamification – there are lots of techniques that collectively can have a major impact on customer loyalty and retention. These include:

  • Enable customers to create accounts where they can earn points and win rewards for their loyalty
  • Incentivize customers to recommend friends and family members
  • Make it easy for customers to share the good news about rewards they have earned on social media
  • Create unique brand hashtags that customers can use on social media to spread your brand message and reward them when they do
  • If you have a mobile app – host games or quizzes that tie in with major sporting events or holiday seasons.

Something to be aware of when using these techniques is to provide a consistent and secure customer experience across all channels. It helps you protect the zero-party data that you earn, use it effectively, and prevents wily consumers from literally ‘gaming’ your loyalty system – for example by registering for multiple loyalty accounts using different channels.

If you are interested in learning more, check out our playbook on how to use gamification techniques in your own marketing.

3. Sponsor a local sporting event

Sponsoring a major international sporting event will costs millions of dollars, but at times when the world is focused on a particular sport, brands can benefit from associating themselves with grass roots events and leagues for a fraction of the cost.

In football for example, while mega clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester United and Flamengo dominate TV schedules and the back pages of newspapers, fans of lower league and even village football teams will turn out every weekend in support, and there will be a team for every sponsorship budget.

Opportunities for brands to explore include:

  • Kit sponsorship: Every sports team wears a kit – getting your logo on it will get fans to associate it with the team they love.
  • Local player endorsement: This is not just for the Neymars of the world. Local teams breed local heroes and endorsements from these people can add a real shine to local businesses.
  • Product placement: From clothing to footwear, sports equipment to the energy bars that players consume during breaks – there are a myriad of opportunities to get your products in the limelight.
  • Pitch-side advertising: An obvious one but not to be overlooked as the audience for these billboards can be extended exponentially when events are televised, or clips are shared on YouTube by fans.
  • Transport sponsorship: Teams need to travel to games. Getting your brand on the team bus will get it seen by tens of thousands on the way.
Team sponsorship is a key part of effective sports marketing

4. Try ambush marketing (but don’t say we told you about it)

We are not endorsing ambush marketing in sports – it can be a risky tactic if you don’t have the best possible legal advice. But it can be very rewarding for daring brands that get it right, and a lot of fun for the rest of us cheering on from the sidelines.

But firstly, what is ambush marketing exactly?

Basically, it is a strategy that brands use to get exposure during major events by directly or subtly associating themselves with the event without paying for official sponsorship rights or getting official authorization. It can take many forms, from sneaking banners and logos into the background, to elaborate subterfuges planned months in advance.

For example, where major sports events are held in cities that share their names with other places, there are all sorts of opportunities for cheeky ambush campaigns. The London Olympics in 2012 was particularly susceptible due to the United Kingdom’s colonial past resulting in many places around the world bearing the same name.

  • Gambling chain named Paddy Power paid for giant billboards to be put up all over the city claiming to be the “official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London”. Only when you read the very small print did you realize that they were referring to the little agricultural hamlet of London in eastern France where they cunningly did sponsor the annual egg and spoon race.
  • Nike are arguably the GOATs of ambush marketing, and they choose to showcase their talents in the biggest arena of all. Starting at the LA games in ’94 they probably peaked in London 2012 with multiple adverts featuring everyday athletes from ‘Londons’ as far away as South Africa, Jamaica, and Ohio in the US. As well as it being a real punch in the nose for rival Adidas, who had paid over $100 million to be the official sportswear partner for the games, they further entrenched their bold brand reputation.

5. Run parallel campaigns

A less risky tactic is to run marketing campaigns ‘inspired’ by the major events, but which don’t cross the line into the ambush category.

Campaigns can include imagery and copy that suggest the event, without actually mentioning it. After all, you can’t copyright a picture of a football. The connection is even easier to make when the sporting event is front and center in people’s minds.

Going further you could include supporting content like video clips from similar events, interviews with former athletes, and articles about related subjects – for example the latest trends in athlete footwear.

Or you could take a more direct approach.

In the UK during 2018’s world football tournament, a well-known used-car website launched a campaign offering to give away a free car ‘every time England scored a goal’. No mention of the event or even the sport, but people knew exactly what they were referring to and it was a huge success. With England enjoying their best tournament success since ’66, they did have to give away 12 cars though.

(Did you notice that we didn’t mention the event either – but you knew exactly what we were talking about?)

6. Learn from eSports marketing and the rise of social viewing

Leveraging social media in sports marketing is nothing new as social channels were quickly recognized as being ideally suited to extending the reach of campaigns.

What is relatively new and growing exponentially is social viewing. This is where people watch live events through feeds on interactive streaming channels like Facebook, YouTube and niche channels like Twitch, which is used by gamers to live stream their game play.

Indeed, gaming has been a driving force of the social viewing phenomena with eSports events continually breaking records for viewer numbers. Mainstream marketers are only now waking up to the opportunities and following the lead of eSports marketing in Asia, which is a few years ahead of the rest of the world.

In 2021 the APAC region comprised more than 50% of the global gaming market in terms of both revenue and market share. Globally the market is predicted to grow exponentially, outstripping every other mainstream sport according to a study by Acumen.

eSports growth projection

So, what can marketers learn by looking East?

  • Discard your preconceptions of the typical gaming fan. eSports is cross generational – anyone of any age and social status can be a fan. Studies in Asia have found that the average age of gamers is now 35 – and women are the fastest growing audience demographic.
  • Learn the landscape – eSports is an umbrella term for a host of different gaming types and genres – from first person shooters, to football simulators, to intricate team strategy games. Each will have their own community of devoted fans with unique attributes and demographics. Know your target market and learn how best to engage with them.
  • Be authentic: People love watching streamers play live because it is real and raw. There are moments of drama, frenzied action, and pure comedy. Streamers sweat, swear and even cry, and viewers get to experience it all along with them, and participate in the comments section. We are not suggesting that you include four letter words in your ad copy, but don’t try and push your brand with gimmicks and gaming clichés – fans will see right through it.
  • Accept virtual reality is the new reality. With improvements in both AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) and the coming of age of metaverse worlds there is a golden opportunity for brands to offer an immersive cross-brand experience. Whether it is with product placement, event sponsorship, or any of the myriad of virtual opportunities that don’t really have a name yet – see the example of Dominoes opening a branch in the metaverse world Decentraland where you could order a pizza that actually got delivered in the real world.
  • Go grass roots. eSports is no different to conventional sport in that sponsoring mega global events like the League of Legends World Championship will cost millions. Luckily, just like football or tennis or any mass participation sport, there are many layers of non-professional gaming leagues that are incredibly popular. This is now catching on in the US where more than 500 universities now have their own eSports teams that compete in national events, that are even getting airtime on TV networks like ESPN and FOX.

With the ‘major world football event’ starting in November, there is no better time to get your game face on.

The Gamification Playbook

How to use game-mechanics to create loyal customers and boost engagement

Download playbook
Sep 26th, 2022
9 min read
Senior Content Marketing Specialist

Dave Hitchins

Senior Content Marketing Specialist