What is sports marketing and how to launch a successful campaign

6 minutes

Sports marketing is how businesses level the playing field of commerce. For athletic organisations, sports marketing not only sells tickets to the big match, it inspires enduring team loyalty in fans. For non-athletic organisations, sports provide promotional opportunities around a high-profile event that draws passionate viewers from every corner.

Although it falls under the umbrella of marketing, sports marketing can be a broad topic in its own right. Just about any business, of any size or budget, can engage in a creative campaign involving sports. To illustrate this, we walk through what exactly sports marketing is and how to develop a promotional strategy for and around sports.

What is sports marketing

Sports marketing is the promotion of a product, service or organisation through the sports industry. Whether the sport is professional or amateur, worldwide or local, well-known or niche, any athletic event can act as a vessel for marketing.

Sports marketing is split between two broad applications based on what is being promoted:

  • The promotion of a sports team, athlete, event or the sport itself
  • The promotion of products through association with the sport
Brand identity design for rising baseball star George Valera

Source: Ian Douglas via 99designs by Vista

In the former case, the people who engage in sports marketing include team managers, agents, venue owners and sports leagues. In the latter case, almost any business can take advantage of sports marketing regardless of whether their products/services are directly tied to sports.

In one example of sports marketing, P&G, the owner of several hygiene and cleaning brands, found a way to connect their brand with a family-oriented ad with the Olympics. They produced the ‘Thank You, Mom’ campaign for the 2012 Olympics in which athletes honoured the impact their mums had made on their athletic career. Just as P&G connected their products to the sports event through family, a florist or a greetings card small business can run a similar campaign for a smaller-scale sports event.

Ultimately, the goal of sports marketing is for promotions to connect with sports fans or participants. Team owners, for example, want to reach spectators in order to sell tickets and merchandise. Small business owners want to reach spectators in order to sell products. To use an appropriate metaphor, sports is the ball, marketers are the players and sports fans are the goal post.

Sports Marketing FAQ

How is sport marketing different from general marketing?

Sports marketing is a subset of general marketing, and the main distinction is that it concerns the sports industry, either as the product or as the promotional medium. When the sports industry is the product, marketers are promoting a product directly related to the sport, like a team or event. When the sports industry is the medium, marketers use a specific sports team or event to promote the products indirectly related to the sport.

How to combine sports and marketing

There are a variety of direct and indirect ways marketers can channel the sports industry for promotional purposes. This means a successful sports campaign requires understanding both marketing principles and the sports industry.

In Sports Marketing: A Strategic Perspective, textbook authors Matthew Shank and Mark Lyberger identify three main parties concerned in sports marketing campaigns:

  • Spectators: Sports viewers, the common target audience for promotional materials
  • Participants: Players and athletes, who act as partners/influencers in promotional sports campaigns or the target audience (in the case of fitness equipment, gear, supplements, etc.)
  • Sponsors: Businesses who provide advertising revenue for the sports industry
Sports app avatars feature different character expressions

Source: Heyjuly via 99designs by Vista

Additionally, there are different types of sports products for small businesses to work with:

  • Sports events: Actual games and matches and the athletes that participate in them
  • Sporting goods: Physical goods like licensed merchandise, clothing and accessories and other collectables relating to sports 
  • Sports training: Personal trainers, gyms and other forms of instructional institutes for sports
  • Sports information: Media, journalism and content that delivers stories and news related to sports

The challenge of sports marketing is to identify a target audience with a particular sports product and develop a relevant marketing campaign. The ultimate focus of that campaign is on satisfying consumers, and that’s where the 4 Ps of marketing come into play:

  • Product: Having a desirable product that addresses the consumers’ needs
  • Place: Making the product available in the appropriate place
  • Promotion: Increasing consumers’ awareness of the product
  • Price: Keeping the product accessible and affordable
Football shirt with a custom logo

Source: Benchmark Studio Group™ via 99designs by Vista

Finally, a sports marketing campaign will usually be tailored around a particular marketing channel:

  • Branding is the actions that a business takes to shape the perception of an organisation. For sports marketing, branding can involve any and all visual materials that distinguish one team from another, like team uniforms, logos, merchandise and mascots. More abstract visuals like team colours can be repurposed in a variety of ways, from victory fireworks to outfits worn by fans. Even non-visual elements, like the particular chant fans shout from the stadium, reinforce brand identity.
  • Advertising involves direct outreach and paid promotions. For sports event marketing, advertising includes a poster advertising the location and price of a match, purchased advertising space within a particular venue, adverts aired during filmed sports events or purchased naming rights to a stadium.
  • Content marketing focuses on the production of written or video content for promotion. For sports marketing purposes, businesses might produce their own content, like sports social media content or sports-themed blog articles for SEO traffic. They may also sponsor sports content creators in exchange for promotion.

How to develop a sports marketing strategy

Outline a goal

Like many business goals, a sports marketing campaign exists to solve a problem. This problem could be as straightforward as low shop traffic, or it may be more abstract, like a poor brand perception. In either case, a sports marketing campaign will be ineffective without a solution-oriented goal.

As a whole, marketing objectives take their lead from business objectives. Business objectives concern all employees within a company and tend to be broad, like increasing sales by a certain percentage. Marketing objectives are singular implementations of that agenda, for example, reaching a new target market or increasing sales through a specific channel.

Illustrations for a sports-themed phone game app

Source: Denny Aryadi via 99designs by Vista

Because marketing objectives are more specified, marketers often use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound) criteria in order to define a goal. So, a clothing brand might create a line of spectator flags in order to sell five hundred units in time for a local sports event.

Plan a sports marketing campaign

Planning a sports marketing campaign involves coming up with promotional content that in some way addresses your marketing goals. Researching other successful sports marketing campaigns is the best place to find inspiration, and you’ll notice that many brands repurpose themes inherent to sports.

Here are some starting place ideas based around common sports themes:

  • Aspiration: As with fitness, sports inspire viewers to improve themselves. Likewise, small businesses can highlight how their products help their customers become better people or simply invite their audience to document their self-improvement journeys, like the Chicago Blackhawks did in the #WhatsYourGoal social media campaign.
  • Heroes: MVPs inspire awe and hero-worship among sports fans. Brands can show how even ordinary people can become heroes. For example, the Lionhearts campaign by the Football Association honoured community members who made a difference during the COVID lockdown.
  • Community: Team sports are all about working together to achieve a common goal. Similarly, small businesses can show how they are teaming up internally with employees or externally with the local community.
  • Competition: Just like athletes on the pitch, sports fans compete among themselves. Brands can channel that competitive spirit into a campaign, as in Reebok’s Subway Pump Battle. Using an interactive poster, Reebok inspired South Korean commuters to compete in exercise challenges while waiting for the train.
  • Aspiration: As with fitness, sports inspire viewers to improve themselves. Likewise, small businesses can highlight how their products help their customers become better people or simply invite their audience to document their self-improvement journeys, like the Chicago Blackhawks did in the #WhatsYourGoal social media campaign.
  • Heroes: MVPs inspire awe and hero-worship among sports fans. Brands can show how even ordinary people can become heroes. For example, the Lionhearts campaign by the Football Association honoured community members who made a difference during the COVID lockdown.
  • Community: Team sports are all about working together to achieve a common goal. Similarly, small businesses can show how they are teaming up internally with employees or externally with the local community.

Competition: Just like athletes on the pitch, sports fans compete among themselves. Brands can channel that competitive spirit into a campaign, as in Reebok’s Subway Pump Battle. Using an interactive poster, Reebok inspired South Korean commuters to compete in exercise challenges while waiting for the train.