Sports Marketing 101: Trends, Fundamentals, and Strategies

Sports marketing examples and strategies

What is sports marketing?

Sports marketing is a branch of marketing focused on promoting sports, a $487+ billion global market, and sports-related events, teams, athletes, products, and services using fundamental marketing principles and techniques.

We can split sports marketing into three primary types:

Let's explore!

1. Marketing of sports

This type of sports marketing focuses on promoting various sports organizations, 

through tactics like PR, ad campaigns, and social media marketing.

For example, Feyenoord, one of the most successful football teams in the Dutch Football League, curates and embeds social media posts from the sports fans, team, and players on their homepage and other landing pages using Flockler.

Feyenoord’s social media wall on its homepage was created using Flockler.
Feyenoord's social media wall on its homepage was created using Flockler.

This marketing method drives engagement and traffic to its website and social media channels, especially during the match days when social media is abuzz with fanfare.

2. Marketing through sports

This type of marketing uses sports teams, players, or sporting events as a platform to promote unrelated products and services to sports fans through tactics like sports sponsorships, brand partnerships, and advertisements.

One of the most enduring and successful examples of marketing through sports is the partnership between Nike and FC Barcelona. This collaboration, which began in 1998, has seen Nike serve as the main shirt sponsor and uniform-maker for Barça.

An example of long-term collaboration in sports marketing: Nike and FC Barcelona

The partnership has been mutually beneficial, with Barcelona earning a fixed revenue from the sponsorship and Nike reaping substantial profits from sales as the exclusive creator of Barcelona's on-field kits and fan merchandise.

3. Grassroots sports marketing

This form of sports marketing aims to promote participation in sports at the community level by building relationships with local organizations to sponsor local teams, organize local competitions, and boost participation among people of all ages.

A shining example of grassroots sports marketing is the National Football Association (NFL), which has always encouraged and fostered a love for football among the communities.

A glimpse of the NFL PLAY 60 initiative:

An example of grassroots sports marketing
An example of grassroots sports marketing

The NFL Foundation and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) have created a unique NFL Foundation Grassroots Program to provide financial and technical assistance to neighbor-based organizations to improve the local football fields. So far, they've granted $58 million for 416 projects across the USA.

Social media in sports marketing

Before we get into the different types of marketing, you cannot ignore the elephant in the room – social media because it impacts every aspect of sports marketing.

Through all the types of marketing, sports, and social media are joined at the hip and remain closely related ever since the birth of social media decades ago, as Tuck Burch, head of brand marketing at Excel Sports Management, notes about the 2024 Paris Olympics:

"Since a lot of the media consumption of the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics happened on digital platforms, we will likely see brands build their strategies around platforms like Instagram, X, TikTok, and YouTube" this summer, said Tuck Burch, head of brand marketing at Excel Sports Management."

Social media is not only a medium in its own right but also influences every other medium, from what happens in Stadia and on the race course, how that is broadcast and streamed worldwide, to how people respond to what happens in real-time and after in every platform imaginable.

Authenticity and emotion in sports marketing

Social media affects every medium of sports marketing and your messaging. It has changed how people communicate with each other and how they expect brands to communicate with them—determining your success.

The most effective sports marketing is authentic and emotional – reflecting the content with the most engagement on social media. See, for example, how Ferrari celebrated its recent win in Monaco by jumping into the sea got 3.8+ million likes.

That's ten times more than they usually get – the 10x effect in action!

An example of authentic and engaging sports marketing on social media
The experience around sports and how that is communicated via social media also matters.

Main elements of sports marketing strategy

Sports marketing is a highly lively practice that often mutates to match the sports in question. Given the variables involved, however, we can divide the elements of sports marketing into four broad categories.

1. Promotional strategy

A successful sports marketing campaign begins with sketching out a promotional strategy. This will involve:

Understanding your audience

Why does my audience care about sports? Start with the basics. Many marketers ignore this question, creating a rift between their audience and themselves. Do not take why consumers care about sports for granted. For example, many football and ice hockey clubs, like FC Liverpool, have blue-collar, working-class roots that go back a century and beyond.

sports marketers need to consider brand ethos and background
Image source: The Culture Crush. Liverpool fans show their passion for their club.

Before you go further, imagine and test how your message fits with the sport, the team, and the athletes you associate with. Also ask:

2. Brand Building

Building a strong, positive brand is the cornerstone of sports marketing success. An athlete or team's brand tells their story and signifies the values they stand for. It's how fans connect and associate with the team or athlete.

Branding also goes beyond the jerseys. Branding touches on how fans connect and perceive the team's or athlete's journey, from triumphs to failures.

Ultimately, it is a form of storytelling where your brand becomes part of the story and memories associated with an athlete, team, or even an entire sport like Michael Jordan and Nike. Starting with the aim of generating 3 million dollars over the first four years of their partnership – in just the past five years, Nike has earned $19+ billion from its Michael Jordan-related brands and products.

Legendary example of sports marketing from Michael Jordan and Nike
The iconic image of Michael Jordan is forever associated with Nike

However, branding is for more than just big brands. Even smaller brands can build memories and stories – provided you see branding as something proactive and not a passive one-time thing you invest once in.

3. Sponsorships and partnerships

Sponsorship is the giant shark in the waters of sports marketing. In the United States alone, the sports sponsorship market reached $105.45 billion in 2023.

Sponsorships and partnerships are financial agreements between brands and sports businesses or personalities in exchange for promotional opportunities.

An example of sponsorships in sports marketing: Lionel Messi collaborating with Adidas
Lionel Messi has a long-term partnership with Adidas on Instagram

These collaborations provide a lot of leverage. In addition to the extra resources, they offer visibility, reach, and strength to sports marketing efforts. For example, Barcelona made $369.9m in revenue in 2023/24 from sponsorships alone.

Individual athletes can earn a lot of money, too. Analysts estimate that Lionel Messi earned $65 million annually in 2023 from endorsements.

There are mainly three types of sponsorships:

  • Event sponsorships. Including sponsoring existing events, from city marathons to cup finals, and organizing new bespoke events like charity game day matches.

Sports brands can capitalize on the popularity of the event, team, or athlete and the associated high viewership rates during game days after the team or an athlete wins a trophy to amplify their brands. To further increase their reach, brands can show their brand and message in various ways, such as sponsored content on a social media wall during an event.

The history of sponsorships in sports marketing

The rise of modern sports sponsorship started slowly, with Kodak sponsoring the first Olympics in 1896 in Athens. Then sponsorships, bit by bit, grew until picking up speed in the second half of the 20th century.

By the 1970s, sports organizations and stars signed sponsorship deals as we recognize them today, but for relatively low sums.

Enter television and ESPN in the late 1970s and early 1980s. TV broadcasts of the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the epic NBA championship finals between the Lakers and Celtics completely transformed the sports marketing scene, specifically sponsorships.

The Celtics - Lakers rivalry greatly influenced sports marketing
The rivalry that saved the NBA and greatly influenced sports marketing

Now, streaming and social media have changed the landscape once again. Kate Johnson, the director of Sports, Media, and entertainment marketing at Google, offers an alternative perspective for the future of sports marketing and sponsorships:

"I think sponsorships are dead as far as how we traditionally think about them," she said onstage. "When I say 'integrated marketing partnership,' I mean is…looking at the data across the various opportunities in the sports landscape and trying to figure out the right intersection to hit their core audience."

Top 5 sports marketing trends for 2024

Here are five sports marketing trends rising on the sports horizon.

1. Increasing focus on entertainment beyond the stadium

Keeping the sports audience, especially the Gen Z and Gen Alpha groups, entertained and engaged before and after the game has become a top priority for most sports industry leaders.

After all, entertainment is a massive part of the sporting equation.

But between fragmented sports viewing experiences, user-generated content (UGC), and dwindling attention spans, capturing fans' attention is becoming Sisyphus's climb. That is why many current and former athletes are becoming influencers, like former top golfer Hailey Ostrom – providing entertaining content and partnering with brands on social media:

An example of sports marketing beyond the stadia

Deloitte Insights suggests answering the following question to come up with a solution: How can you leverage social video and improve interoperability across engagement platforms?

2. Athlete branding is all the rage

You know the Shakespearean quote, "What's in a name?" As far as sports and athletes are concerned, the name (read: brand) is everything. It's simple: The bigger the athlete's brand, the better the sponsorships they get.

A classic example is how Mercedes Benz, Rolex, and other brands have partnered with Roger Federer:

It drives revenue for sports or related goods and services, bringing revenue beyond the sporting events. This is especially true for athletes with substantial social media followings that influence public opinion and drive buying decisions.

As Chace Garnett, a leading voice in athlete branding, writes:

"Influential is the keyword there because athletes were some of the original influencers. They were idols we watched on television and wanted to emulate. People wanted to wear MJ's shoes, so they bought Nike. They even wanted to wear the same Hanes as him with the tagless undershirts."

This is why sporting organizations are pooling money into branding for individual athletes.

3. Integration of social commerce

Over the last year, we've seen more and more sports businesses offering social shopping options to monetize the engagement athletes and semi-athletes receive on social media platforms. E-commerce is merging with influencer marketing and social media in ways that were difficult to imagine just a decade ago.

E-commerce is merging with influencer marketing and social media

The rise of social commerce also ties back to the increase in athlete influencers. Imagine liking a shoe your favorite sports star is sponsoring (Coco Gauff and New Balance's Coco CG1 shoes, for example) and ordering it directly on the platform.

This is the power of social commerce.

4. Immersive experiences are having a big moment

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies have recently gained traction for providing immersive and interactive viewing experiences to fans outside the arenas.

They're helping sports organizations bring fans closer to their favorite stars with 360-degree live broadcasting of the matches, stadium tours, interactive games, and more.

The NBA, for example, pioneered the trend by broadcasting 27 live games via VR technology as long back as 2014.

A snapshot of NBA's VR match streaming

Beyond fan engagement, VR/AR technology is also proving effective in stimulation-driven training sessions, performing a player's performance analysis, stadium mapping, and promotions.

5. Fan engagement apps

Fan engagement is the heart of sports marketing. It's sports marketing 101 for brands to engage and interact with fans before, during, and after games to increase participation, engagement, and loyalty.

Fans are passionate people who often seek a connection with the sport they love, athletes, and teams they follow across social media. An official mobile app from a team or athlete they follow offering goodies, fun activities, and educational materials can take the relationship between the fan and the brand to the next level. 

Fan engagement app from the New York Rangers

A positively engaged fanbase also leads to more ticket sales, sponsorships, merchandise sold, and more, improving revenue streams. This makes fan engagement apps a new core building block of sports marketing.

Sports Marketing FAQs

1. What's the concept of sports marketing?

Sports marketing promotes professional sports and sports-related events, teams, athletes, products, and services. It relies on the influence and reach of sports and its associated bodies to generate awareness, interest, and sales for related products and services.

2. What are the three types of sports marketing?

There are three broad types of sports marketing:

  • Marketing of sports: Promotion of sports and sports-related events, teams, athletes, products, and services.
  • Marketing through sports: Promotion of unrelated products and services by leveraging the influence of sports, events, teams, and athletes.
  • Grassroots sports marketing: Promoting sports and encouraging participation at the community level.

3. What are good examples of sports marketing?

  • NBA Summer League's Giant Ball Campaign. In 2023, the NBA transformed Las Vegas's MSG Sphere into a massive, traffic-stopping basketball ahead of the NBA's Summer League series. On July 7th, two months before the annual event, the Exosphere (the Sphere's exterior) lit up as a giant ball for the first time, displaying a welcome message for the teams, players, and fans.

    This brilliant Sphere and the NBA marketing tactic exploded on social networks. It created an eye-catching visual spectacle for the onlookers, making them stop and take pictures of the massive structure. As people started sharing videos and photos of the giant ball on social media, it started capturing the attention of fans and general audience alike.

  • New Balance's Call Me Coco Champion Campaign. When Coco Gauff, the rising tennis star, was gearing up for the US Open in 2023, her apparel sponsor, New Balance, started preparing for a gamble, and they won.

    At only 19, Coco Gauff clinched her first Grand Slam title with the US Open win against the world no. 2, Aryna Sabalenka. Among the many moments from the day were her victory celebrations, wearing a simple tee with the NB logo and a powerful message to the world: Call Me Champion.

    This reactive sports marketing campaign was a resounding success, hitting every nail. Once the news of Coco's win reached social media, so did the photos of her in NB. Interested consumers started searching for the tee, made available on the brand's website as limited-edition merchandise.

    The timing was impeccable, and NB sold out every one of the t-shirts.

    Gauff also wasn't the only one wearing the t-shirt. Her parents and other family members donned a similar tee as they cheered her on, showcasing the meticulous planning behind the campaign.

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