A journey in sports marketing, By André Richelieu, Professor of Sports Marketing and Strategic Brand Management, Laval University, Quebec City, Canada, www.ulaval.ca - www.andrerichelieu-sportsmarketing.com
Published on Thursday 22 of March: 2012-03-22 Read the article below or download the PDF version
A journey in sports marketing
Published on Thursday 22 of March: 2012-03-22
Sports marketing has come a long way in the academic world. I can remember the look on the face of my dean when I told him, about ten years ago, that I intended to build my research agenda around what was then an emerging area which was not yet legitimised in academia. It sounded like a risky business to engage oneself on the critical path of the tenure-track with such a hedonist topic!
In that 10-year span, sports marketing has grown and matured. Our discipline counts on an increasing number of established scholars who feed sports marketing journals, conferences, and university programs attracting a captivated audience. Slowly but surely, sports marketing scholars are demonstrating that not only can we study an attractive research topic and still make a valuable scientific contribution, but also that we can bring some added value to an area that touches the everyday lives of the vast majority of people around the world. Truly, aside from entertainment (cinema, music, etc.), religion, and politics, no other domain generates such a strong emotional response from consumers as sports. Sports is a unique experience where fans connect with their favorite teams and players, and develop a long lasting bond that will make them identify to the latter and swear unwavering allegiance to their heroes. Just think about Liverpool Football Club (FC) fans who, on a game day, at Anfield Road stadium or in a pub in Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Shanghai or Toronto, sing the club anthem, “You’ll never walk alone,” until they shed tears.
However, sports managers cannot and should not take fans for granted. The strong emotional bond between fans and the sports organization is a privilege for the organization, and managers are now turning towards branding as a strategic tool. A strong brand can and should help a sports organization capitalize on fans’ emotional attachment in order to build trust and foster loyalty. In return, this trust and loyalty can help a sports team capitalize on its brand and generate additional revenue, both inside and outside the sports arena, as well as beyond the club’s local market. This includes merchandising, in particular. For example, according to Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC, 2007), merchandise sales in Canada and the United States alone were expected to exceed US$20 billion in 2011. Furthermore, sports organizations compete with various entertainment opportunities for the discretionary income of families. Why should consumers spend time and money, in addition to emotional involvement with a sports team? Mullin, Hardy, and Sutton (2007) suggest that marketing executives of sports organizations should create a relationship based on reciprocity between fans and the team, by underscoring the fact that fans are appreciated and valued, as a result, this may help increase fans’ sense of belonging to the team. This in turn seems to give fans heightened satisfaction when interacting with the sports club. In fact, fans have the opportunity to become co-creators and ambassadors of the sports brand (“consumactors”), such as supporters of the Saskatchewan Roughriders who carve watermelon helmets prior to a game.
We should add that the world of sports is going through a period of great upheaval. The industry is moving towards “sportainment”, a merger of sports and entertainment. The sports product in its different shapes and forms (games, pre-game shows, special events, press conferences, rumours, trades, commercial and charitable activities, etc.) becomes the content that feeds the different platforms of media and entertainment properties which now acquire sports teams; this sports product is then wrapped-up into an entertainment coating that keeps fans interested and asking for more. There seems to be no limits on creativity, including a monkey riding a dog at the halftime of an NFL game in Denver or a wedding taking place on centre ice during an NHL game in Atlanta! In the context of globalization, this transformation of the sports industry challenges managers to find meaningful strategies and actions in order to combine sports, commercial, and financial dimensions. A few months ago, FC Barcelona became mired in controversy following the partnership agreement signed with Qatar Foundation for a record 33 million Euros per season through 2016. This deal was all the more shocking to diehard fans in that it replaced the partnership FC Barcelona held with UNICEF for the previous five years, and for which the club was paying 1.5 million euros a year; a partnership that fostered the identity of the Catalan club as a humanitarian sports brand and positioned the organization as a “difference maker” in the society. After all, FC Barcelona is “mes que un club” (more than a club).
Nevertheless, commercial opportunities are now abound for teams that have established themselves as strong brands transcending their local market and the world of sports. These teams are now positioning their clubs as lifestyle brands engaging a wider audience. For example, Real Madrid launched its lingerie collection for both men and women; the New York Yankees introduced a cap, featuring a logo smelling pink bubble gum when scratched. The risk of diluting one’s brand becomes all the more real when brand extensions go to extremes. Nowadays, going back to the roots is a popular revived strategy for sports managers, such as the reintroduction of an original logo with a bit of twist in order to modernize it (Toronto Blue Jays), or a vintage jersey worn during “the good old days” of the club (AS Saint-Étienne), are common in both North America and Europe. This is retro marketing.
However, I strongly believe the best marketing starts with ones product on the field, with the promise to deliver every time consumers are in contact with it. Unfortunately, commercial success can make managers rest on their laurels, forgetting what they stand for in the hearts of their fans. Organizations lose their identity and authenticity, which well-managed teams nurture through shrewd storytelling, sometimes even encapsulated in popular culture, such as the Boston Red Sox in the movie “Good Will Hunting”. To respond to these challenges and meet needs in theoretical conceptualization and managerial strategy, my research focuses their relevance and application to sports, as well as exploring how this nurtures and reflects on marketing in general.
Recently, I have launched a website on sports marketing, providing information and serving as a pedagogical tool (http://www.andrerichelieu-sportsmarketing.com). The website is both an information platform highlighting my research and some hot topics in sports marketing, as well as a learning companion for my sports marketing students. The website offers diverse learning tools, such as references and concrete examples, assisting with crystallizing their learnings. In the last few years, sports marketing has come a long way, indeed. Despite inevitable growing pains, the discipline offers engaging opportunities to discover a fascinating world, uniting sports and academia. I invite everybody who is interested to join the discussion!
Mullin, B. J., S. Hardy and W. A. Sutton (2007). Sport Marketing, Third Edition. Champaign, Illinois, USA: Human Kinetics.
Price Waterhouse Coopers (2007). “Global outlook for the sports market”. Global entertainment and media outlook: 2007-2011. New York, NY, USA.
About the author:
Dr André Richelieu specialises in brand management and sports marketing. His research relates to how sports teams can leverage their brand equity by capitalizing on the emotional connection they share with their fans, and how sports teams can internationalise their brand. He is a co-author of ‘Global Sports Marketing’ (Routledge Publishers, London, UK, 2012). André has been a guest speaker and lecturer at different universities in North America, Europe and Asia. He is also often invited to comment on sports-related topics in the media.
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