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Brand Strategy for Sporting Teams

By Charlie Quirk
Brand Strategist at Tait Subler

6th Annual Conference

July 16-20, 2008
Book of Papers

In the twenty first century, sporting teams around the world are experiencing
unprecedented levels of fame due to technology like the Internet and satellite TV. As
such, teams can no longer rely on mobilizing fan support and sponsorship capital in
their home market alone. In the same way corporations are guided by a compelling and
original idea that forms the basis for their brand strategy, so too must sporting teams.
The purpose of this paper is to draw parallels between “conventional” brands like Apple
and Disney, and to articulate what sporting teams can learn from those companies in
the management of their own brands.

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Brand Strategy For Sporting Teams

By any definition, sporting teams today are big businesses. Harvard Professor Stephen
Greyser has observed that in recent times we have seen teams migrate from the sports
pages to the business pages and, now sometimes, to the front page (Comeau, 2005).
Like other large corporations, teams employ great numbers of people, generate profits
and losses, all the while seeking to achieve success against certain performance
metrics. And like other businesses, they have to perform well, remain financially viable
and satisfy several stakeholders who have a financial interest in them as an entity.

However, unlike most corporations, sporting teams mobilize large swathes of the
population for irrational reasons. Most of these people have no measurable tangible
stake in their success. This investment is a pure emotional one and can engender
loyalty so strong, that like an organized religion, is often passed between generations as
a birthright. And with the fervor of religion, sporting teams can inspire devout worship of
the seemingly superhuman deities of these nations.

But unlike businesses, the long-term viability of sporting teams is contingent upon being
a nation worth joining. At the end of the day, sponsors want the stands filled and the TV
networks want an audience. So in order to achieve these ends, the real challenge for a
sporting team is to build an army of followers – to inspire a voluntary enlistment into a
nation where the only payment required is loyalty borne out of a shared values system –
the inherent desire to associate with what a team represents. It is the same kind of
irrational loyalty that inspires the consumer to wear Nike sneakers, drink a Starbucks
coffee or pay top dollar for a Gucci shirt. The kind of loyalty enjoyed by a strong brand.

What Makes A Great Brand?

Great brands are built
around a core idea that
consumers come to
recognize and trust over
time. This brand theme is a
simple statement describing
what the brand stands for –
the reputation it wants to
hold. It is the constant
reinforcement of this theme
that crafts a brands unique
and compelling identity in
the minds of consumers. For
example, Apples brand
theme can be boiled down to
four simple words, “tools for
creative minds”. Disney stands for “family magic” in its movies and theme parks. Apple
and Disney are cited as powerful modern day examples because they so consistently
deliver on their brand themes. The brand theme of each company informs every aspect
of their brand activities, from pricing to packaging to product design and advertising.
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The strongest brands are what we call “movement brands” and live at the highest rung
of the ladder in Figure 1.0. Apples progression to movement brand status was triggered
by its “Think Different”
advertising campaign.
Picturing creative
visionaries like Albert
Einstein, Pablo Picasso
and Thomas Edison, the
ads demonstrated that by
thinking creatively, one
can become a powerful
force for good in the
world. It is this
progressive brand
mindset that was the
genesis for iconic
products like the iPod
and iPhone. It was, and
continues to be, pure
brand strategy brought to life.

Brands that attain movement status enjoy a level of irrational loyalty that can act as
security during slow economic conditions, or in good times give the company flexibility
to stretch into new product extensions or new market segments.

So Why Is Building a Brand Important For Sporting Teams?

The advent of satellite TV and the Internet have made sporting teams bankable brand
names in ways they could only have imagined a generation ago. Whereas in the past
the mobilization of masses was restricted by physical geography, the various channels
of distribution today have largely rendered a teams provenance irrelevant. When a fan
can tune in to watch any team they want, and buy team merchandise on-line, they can
feel as close to the action as if they lived in that teams home market.

With that in mind, major global sporting bodies are seeking to branch out and capture
markets in new countries. The English Premier League, the National Basketball
Association and the National Football League are three governing bodies that are
currently exploring options to play regular season games in international markets if they
havent done so already. Realizing the value of international exposure, these
organizations are busily ensuring their merchandising and local marketing initiatives are
in place to ensure that capital flows across borders with the same fluidity of athletes
flocking to the lucrative Northern Hemisphere leagues. It is precisely this reason that
international players like Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox and Yao Ming of
the Houston Rockets are worth immeasurably more to a team than for their game-day
performance alone. Not only do they have the added benefit of capturing new fans, they
ensure that a rival team is also missing out on that same opportunity. Guaranteeing a
TV audience of millions in Japan or China is pure brand alchemy as teams compete to
get a foothold of loyalty in a new market.
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But players can only add so much value to a team brand. Regardless of its sport or
nationality, a team brand is judged by the sum total of what it stands for in the minds of
the fans. If a team enjoys popularity only because of a star international player, when
that player retires or gets traded, the fans will go with them.

The motto of the University of Sydney, my alma mater, is the Latin phrase Sidere mens
eadem mutato -- which means "The constellation is changed, [but] the disposition is the
same." The same can be said of strong team brands -- those that are beloved by fans
regardless of their current playing roster, coaching staff or whether the team is winning
or losing. This is true irrational loyalty that can only be described as a movement. A
team that achieves this, to the level of the Apple brand, possesses a focused brand
theme that impacts everything from draft picks and trades, to coaches, to their uniforms
and playing fields. The New York Yankees and Manchester United are two sports teams
that have become worldwide household names because they have created the same
type of well-known brand theme as product brands like Rolex or BMW. You dont have
to like them but you know what they stand for, this year, 10 years ago and 10 years from

The value of a teams brand is well illustrated in a recent Harris poll study of NFL
franchises. Of the 32 NFL teams, there are several franchises that consistently rank
near the top of the favorites list year after year. The Dallas Cowboys were the first to
stake their claim as “Americas team”, and this simple and clear position has allowed
them to build an emotional connection with many fans outside of Dallas. With the
leagues longest streak of sold out stadiums both at home and on the road, the strategy
seems to have worked. Most years the Cowboys come in at #1 in the rankings. Even
after 3 seasons of 5-11 losing records (2000-2002), the Cowboys still only dropped to
fourth place in the rankings (Harris, 2007).

The Pittsburgh Steelers are another NFL franchise whose no-nonsense, blue-collar
brand has stayed clearly defined and consistent from era to era. The publicly owned
Green Bay Packers, are another hugely successful brand largely because they have
based their brand theme on refusing to sell out to the corporate buck which resonates
with football fans feeling they have stayed true to the spirit of the sport.

Winning Games Is No Golden Ticket

The NFL examples mentioned above are proof positive that a team does not necessarily
have to be winning all the time to engender irrational loyalty among its fan base. In
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todays era where most sports governing bodies enforce regulations like salary caps
and concession draft picks designed to level the playing field, building a focused brand
independent of team performance is more important than ever. Unlike the certainty of a
McDonalds Big Mac that tastes the same in Istanbul as it does in Seattle, a teams
performance will vary from year to year. So any franchise hoping to position its brand as
a dynastic juggernaut like NBA teams the Boston Celtics of the sixties or the Chicago
Bulls of the nineties will face an uphill battle.

In fact winning is not at all necessary in building a strong brand – just ask the Chicago
Cubs. Not having won a world series since 1908, the Cubs brand has been consistent
throughout different eras – it is the uncomplicated formula of hope and disappointment,
and more importantly, the
repetition of this cycle to the
point of comfort in the routine.
Political commentator George
Will observed that “Chicago
Cubs fans are 90% scar tissue”
(Dodd, 2008). While this seems
an avoidable exercise in self-
masochism, it also strengthens
the bond betweens fans and
the franchise because it draws
on the empathy inherent in humans that causes us to root for the underdog (Sauer,
2003). As novelist and Boston Red Sox fan John Updike wrote in 1986, "All men are
mortal, and therefore all men are losers; our profoundest loyalty goes out to the fallible”
(Rifkin, 1999). Knowing this, the rumor mill has it that Cubs owners are secretly afraid of
winning a World Series because their brand is a star off-field performer largely because
it is a mediocre on-field one.

Just as the Cubs have embodied a consistent brand theme over time, a team must
come to stand for something in both winning and losing. Tod Leiweke, chief executive of
Vulcan Sports & Entertainment, the Paul Allen company that runs the Seattle Seahawks
and the Portland Trailblazers puts it this way:
“The great brands in sports have carried a lot of teams through a lot of losing
seasons… There are those with lesser brands who win, and then as soon as
they fall on hard times the fans are gone… That [susceptibility to swings in
performance] makes branding that much more important… If you have a variable
product, then you must have consistency in how you present the game, in how
you interact with fans and in how you work in the community” (King, 2007).

This is no more evident than in American college football where the players are not paid
and in essence, choose to sign their letter of intent on the basis of the schools brand
alone. To sign with a storied program like Notre Dame, Ohio State or Michigan
transcends any rational decision. Each of these schools can have an unsuccessful year,
but each regularly manages to attract the nations top recruits. All are greatly polarizing
figures, but none of them could be accused of being ambiguous as to what they
represent. Knowing that attending that school will more likely provide outcomes that
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another college program may not inspires irrational loyalty and explains why each of
these “brands” attracts the nations best high school talent year after year.

Money Is Not The Panacea Either

In sports like Major League Baseball and European soccer where the money restrictions
are more relaxed, a team brand cannot rely on a rich owner to throw the checkbook at
recruiting the biggest names in the sport. Since the turn of the century, Spanish soccer
club Real Madrid thought it hit upon a
winning brand strategy when it aimed
to add a high profile Galáctico (or
superstar) to the roster each off-
season. Yet despite assembling
names such as Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo
and Beckham, the term came to be a
tongue-in-cheek way to poke fun at
the franchise. Despite winning a
league title in 2002, the policy brought
mixed success and the term Galáctico
is no longer in use.

Even if a team does achieve the holy

grail of a championship, it may be
largely ephemeral popularity that it
enjoys. London club Chelsea FC was
bought by Russian billionaire Roman
Abramovich in 2003. In an instant,
Chelseas franchise brand, which was
once as a “lovable loser” (much like
the Chicago Cubs), was now
something different altogether.
Dubbed by the English media as “Chelski”, the team has become a polarizing symbol of
a corporate fat cat chasing titles with little real ties to the team or community. As a
result, the team is often a target for opposing fan vitriol. The club may may have won
two league titles with its nascent wealth, but the severance of its historical
ties/ownership, not helped by the abrasive persona of former manager Jose Mourinho,
have combined to squander much of the goodwill Chelsea once enjoyed. As Trizia
Fiorellino, of the Chelsea Supporter Group put it, “Most fans think Roman Abramovich is
the savior of the club, most are very grateful, but the club has lost a bit of its soul and
weve become really disliked” (Dart, 2008). Or in other words, Chelseas on-field
success, has done some damage to its brand. Fan jerseys may be selling, home games
at Stamford Bridge may be the hottest ticket in London, but now that the fans are used
to winning, only time will tell if they remain on-board when the team starts struggling or
Abramovich decides to sell the club.

Adding to Chelseas brand dilemma is that its fan bandwagon is less likely to enjoy the
smooth rolling as more and more European soccer clubs become playthings of rich
foreign investors whose involvement in the sport is solely to chase championships and
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be hailed as a messiah. When Abramovich bought Chelsea in June of 2003, Fulham
was the only other Premier League Club with foreign ownership. Now there nine clubs in
foreign hands, and this number is only likely to grow (Bower, 2007). All European soccer
clubs face this scenario as foreign capital from sports-mad tycoons is injected into the
system. Teams like Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United all pose future or
immediate threats to Chelsea in terms of spending capabilities. Chelsea would do well
to reconnect with its historical brand strengths before it becomes one of several soulless
teams with no brand personality that exists only to win championships.

How To Build A Strong Sports Team Brand

Like building any strong movement brand, the key is to climb the brand ladder as
outlined in Figure 1.0. To do this, a team brand must develop a focused brand theme
that is both relevant and differentiated from the competition. What is the team going to
represent? Professional or cavalier? Having squeaky-clean discipline, or toting a bad
boy attitude with swagger to boot? Blue-collar teamwork, or superlative individual feats
for the highlight reel?

How can the teams theme be summed up in a few words? What is the reputation
desired for the team besides “winner”? Just as Volvo stands for safety, and Rolex
stands for prestige, a team must come to stand for something that no one else does or
its popularity will come and go with its on-field success.

In Figure 1.1, team brands are situated on the ladder relating to how strong their brand

• Chelseas brand lives at the merely functional level, as its brand strategy is currently
based on the rudimentary functionality of winning games.
• The All Blacks, the New Zealand national rugby team, are one step higher as their
iconic uniforms and pre-match
Haka war dance, are unique in
world rugby and strike an
emotional chord with rugby fans
of all nationalities.
• At the third rung, the Dallas
Cowboys forge a strong values
connection as “Americas
team”. Their brand manages to
inspire fans far beyond the
borders of Texas.
• At the movement level is the
indisputable juggernaut that is
the Green Bay Packers - the
quintessential movement brand.
Their fan loyalty and passion all
over the world, win or lose, have helped make their brand as one of “the true football
fans team.”

Sports Marketing Association - 6th Annual Conference July 17, 2008 Gold Coast, Australia. 7
While sporting teams will always be judged by their on-field performance, this measure
alone is a long way from determining the strength of their brand. Like any strong brand,
a sporting teams must remain both unique but also relevant to their fans and
stakeholders. This can best be defined by taking a comprehensive audit of the existing
team equities, and leveraging those traits to clearly articulate a brand theme that can
become the platform for all brand activity.

Ultimately, the desirability of the brand is contingent upon an original and relevant brand
strategy that like all great sporting franchises, remains consistent and focused through
the ages. Teams ignore this fact at their peril.

Defining this brand theme to act as the central strategic pivot will not only simplify and
focus marketing and communication, but also help to engage fans and sponsors able to
connect more deeply with the team. Because they will know, win or lose, the team
stands for something they can get behind.

Sports Marketing Association - 6th Annual Conference July 17, 2008 Gold Coast, Australia. 8

Bower, T. (July 29, 2007) The Big Sell Out. The Guardian, Retrieved July 5, 2008 from,

Comeau, R. (Fall, 2005) Making Your Passion your Work: Professor Stephen Greyser and the
Business of Sports. Harvard University Alumni Bulletin, Volume 39. Retrieved July 2 2008 from,

Dart, T. (July 7, 2008) Roman Abramovich Gave us Success at Cost of Soul. The Times.
Retrieved July 10, 2008 from,
Dodd, M. (March 30, 2008) For Cubs Fans, its “next year” for the 100 time. USA Today.
Retrieved April 14, 2008 from,

Harris Interactive (October 1, 2007) Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts are Two Favorite
Teams Among U.S. Adults Who Follow Professional Football, According to Harris Poll. The Harris Poll
#95. Retrieved February 12, 2008 from,

King, W. (November 5, 2007) The Top Team Brands. Street & Smiths Sports Business Journal.
Retrieved May 10, 2008 from,

Rifkin, G. (October 1, 1999) How The Boston Red Sox Touch All the Branding Bases. Strategy +
Business, Retrieved April 16, 2008 from,

Sauer, A.D. (October 13, 2003). Throw the Cubs A Curve Ball. Brandchannel. Retrieved February
13, 2008 from,


Figure 1.0, Tait Subler. (2001) Tait Subler Values Connection Ladder. Minneapolis, MN. Tait, B.J.
Earls, M. Franzen, G.

Figure 1.1, Tait Subler. (2001) Tait Subler Values Connection Ladder. Minneapolis, MN. Tait, B.J.
Earls, M. Franzen, G.

Figure 2.0 Apples Think Different Campaign Posters. Retrieved May 29, 2008 from,

Figure 3.0 Harris Interactive (October 1, 2007) Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts are Two
Favorite Teams Among U.S. Adults Who Follow Professional Football, According to Harris Poll. The
Harris Poll #95. Retrieved February 12, 2008 from,

Real Madrid Parade Beckham, BBC Sport Football Wednesday, Retrieved July 2, 2003 from,

Sports Marketing Association - 6th Annual Conference July 17, 2008 Gold Coast, Australia. 9
Charlie Quirk: Consultant at Tait Subler
Charlie joined Minneapolis based international brand strategy firm Tait Subler
( in early 2007. Since that time, Charlie has played an integral role
with project management and analysis on a number of Tait Subler projects including
Best Buy China, The Tiger Woods Foundation, Five Star Appliance (China), Memjet
Technologies and Kardia Health Systems. Prior to Tait Subler, he was based in Dubai
where he helped clients such as Qatar Airways, Nissan and Miele develop their regional
brand strategies.

A native of Perth, Western Australia, Charlie enjoys reading, cheering for the Vikings or
Twins at the Metrodome and strenuously recommending antipodean vineyards. A
lifelong Australian rules football player, he now feebly attempts to stay fit in his role as a
playing coach of Australian football club, the Minnesota Freeze.

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