Marketing Sports

“Passion” and “engagement” are probably two of the most over-used words in today’s marketing vernacular. Yet when it comes to describing the audience delivered by live sports events, they are also probably the most accurate. This has become particularly resonant to me of late, as I observe and analyze sports fans both professionally as a marketing researcher and anecdotally as an avid fan who will, this year, complete my bucket list of all 30 MLB stadiums. (The opening of the new Marlins Park in Miami next year will render that accomplishment temporarily short lived).

At a time when every marketer is jumping on the social media/viral marketing bandwagon — often, it seems, just because everyone else seems to be doing it — it’s important to pause and recognize that the literal audience gathered for a sports event was and remains the original embodiment of a social community driven by special interest. Coming together to watch a sports event is like being in a fraternity or sorority in that you are in a most comfortable and cherished environment, surrounded by people who share your enthusiasm and connection with the event before you.

Think back to the times that you’ve easily engaged in conversation with total strangers seated next to you at a game. I recall traveling to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis once, to watch my beloved “Tennessee Oilers” (during their transition to Tennessee Titans) and striking up a conversation with a fellow fan. It turned out that, like me, he had followed the team since he was a kid, and despite living in another state, made a point of traveling to see the team whenever he could. We shared common perspectives and an instant bond was forged. I had found a kindred spirit, and I distinctly remember elements of our conversation many years later.

That type of circumstance has always provided me with a vivid illustration of what a number of recent studies that we have been involved with, have revealed: Sports strips away socio-economic differences and creates an egalitarian playing field (pardon the pun) for those who come together to escape the stresses and distractions of every day life and share the aura and pageantry of sports among “friends.” And it is this environment, I surmise, that provides the unique and differentiated power that live sports can deliver for brands that intelligently and thoughtfully make themselves a part of it.

Fellow sports fans can represent the most trusted and basic form of social media and viral marketing. Those who were watching ESPN rather than CNN late last Sunday night (May 1), saw this first hand, as word of Osama Bin Laden’s demise cascaded from section to section of Citizens Bank Park. The transmission of this information, not by jumbotron, but as it traveled from person to person, ultimately culminating in a collective eruption of patriotic “USA” chants takes on deeper meaning as we think about the viral marketing strength of sports. I’m sure that those who were at the game, whether Mets or Phillies fan, will always remember it as well as other aspects of the overall fan experience.

As I watched this phenomenon unfold, and then again revisited it on countless YouTube postings the next day, it reinforced so much of what my experiences around sports have drawn me to conclude. The opportunity to become a part of a collective experience bigger than yourself is ubiquitous with live sports, and it is truly differentiating relative to other marketing mix elements. For brands that make the effort to understand the fan mindset within that environment and activate accordingly around it, the potential return on investment can clearly exceed the sheer audience GRP equivalent.