In 2023, the global transfer market has been impacted heavily by Saudi Arabian spending, as a range of talented stars swap Europe's top leagues for the Middle East's most ambitious football division. This unexpected turn is a reflection of how the global game has been transformed irrevocably by money. As evidenced in the €700m-per-year personal contract offered to Kylian Mbappe by Al-Hilal, the £375,000-per-week+ salaries of Premier League stars like Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland, and the cash being splashed on elite coaches like Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone, football is ludicrously wealthy.
One of the ways in which the world's biggest football clubs help generate such staggering funds for themselves is through lucrative partnerships with global brands and corporations. Think football shirt sponsorship deals, stadium naming rights, and official partnerships — their presence in modern football is undeniable. But this relationship goes two ways. Brands and companies also use football (and other sports) as a powerful tool that allows them to gain widespread recognition and status. It's this phenomenon that will represent the bedrock of this article, as we explore the role of marketing in sports.
We'll explain what sports marketing is, take a look at how it can be seen in football, and answer the question 'What are examples of sports marketing?' by shining a light on some of the most high-profile sports marketing campaigns to have ever been launched.
It makes sense to start things off with a simple sports marketing definition.
Sports marketing is a broad term that can relate to a number of different practices; however, the umbrella term relates to all marketing strategies that aim to promote or advertise events, equipment, products, services and companies using a sports team, organisation, or individual athlete.
We can divide sports marketing into two camps: marketing sports as a product, and marketing via the promotion of sports. The first camp is about advertising and marketing a sporting event, team, or organisation to consumers, while the second type of marketing is about using the powerful vehicle of sports broadcasting and promotion as a way of shining a light on other brands and companies — essentially, making use of sports to sell one's products or services.
The motive behind sports marketing is simple: sports have the power to reach huge global audiences, so why not take advantage of this appeal as a way of boosting sales and revenue? Take last year's FIFA World Cup in Qatar, for example. The tournament was viewed by over half the world's population — what better vessel could there be for advertising a sports product or brand?
Sports marketing also often makes use of powerful individuals to help sell a product. Across the world, there are millions of passionate fans of individual players such as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, meaning that using individual athletes to market a product can be an extremely impactful marketing tool. Switch on the TV and you'll soon see an elite athlete donning Nike or Puma gear in front of a camera, or taking a break from performing to hydrate with a well-known drinks brand — this is a perfect representation of sports marketing in action.
The huge success of global sports such as football (or soccer) owes a massive amount to the fans whose passion and hunger for the game is what makes it such an amazing spectacle. However, the success of the modern sports industry, at least in a financial sense, has been influenced heavily by forces outside the control of your typical match-going football fan. One of those influential forces is sports marketing.
Sports marketing matters because it influences how we absorb sports on a profound level. Sports events rely heavily on marketing, which allows games to be advertised to wide audiences. When a TV channel advertises its own broadcast of an upcoming major sports event, that's a form of sports marketing, as is any promotion of future matches you see whilst watching your team live at the local stadium.
These are examples of marketing of sports, but marketing through sports is an equally important aspect of sports marketing; whether it's gambling companies being displayed on the shirts of Premier League football clubs or elite competitions like the UEFA Champions League signing commercial partnerships with businesses like Heineken and Mastercard, it's extremely common for huge corporations to use football to market their products and services.
Why is sports marketing so effective? Well, a lot of it comes down to just how culturally embedded sports are in most modern societies. A mutual love of sports can prompt easy communication and interaction and unite people from different backgrounds under the banner of a common interest. Similarly, many people are happy to accept the presence of marketing strategies in a sporting sphere more than they might in other areas of life.
Sports also offer businesses the opportunity to connect with people who might not otherwise be exposed to their brand, increasing brand awareness amongst new audiences and thereby generating new revenue sources. On an individual basis, fans' consumer decisions can be influenced by seeing star players and athletes associated with certain products, services or brands.
However, none of this works if it isn't handled right; sports marketing needs to be cleverly targeted, aligning a company's values with the values of a sports enterprise so that the two can benefit from one another. A comprehensive marketing plan involving budget estimations and resources, a time frame, a list of values and a set of key protagonists is essential is any sports marketing campaign is going to be a success.
Soccer teams and global brands understand that the loyalty a football fan has for their team is far stronger and more tribal than anything a commercial brand could hope to generate in a consumer. Football fanatics often have an obsessive attitude towards their own team that makes them primed to soak in anything promoted by or alongside their club. As a result, sports marketing has made huge inroads within the world of football.
If a fan is intrigued by a smart kit announcement video and decides to head to the club shop and buy a shirt, they've been influenced by effective sports marketing. If they decide to try a new brand of crisps or energy drink after seeing a product advert at their team's stadium, that's sports marketing in action. Because of their enhanced sense of consumer loyalty, football fans are regularly targeted by these promotions.
Social media is also used as a tool to boost marketing practices; on sites like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, attempts are made to attract fans, promote upcoming matches and events, and reaffirm supporter loyalty. How these social media marketing campaigns are targeted is super important; sports marketing experts will always consider what their target audience is. Age, location, interests and income will all be taken into account, with companies and organisations tailoring their output to certain social media platforms or other distribution tools such as TV and radio, depending on who they want to connect with. Pitches to these audiences are tailored, and brands try to maximise return on investment (ROI) using the power and reach of celebs, influencers, and strong, consistent messaging.
Effective sports marketing campaigns can be extremely memorable, sticking in the minds of consumers for years after the events themselves. Here are a few examples of sports marketing being used effectively.
The 1970 FIFA World Cup intensified a high-profile clash between sports brands Puma and Adidas. War was declared when Puma broke the 'Pelé Pact', an agreement between the two manufacturers that due to the Brazilian's unrivalled superstar status, neither of them would approach him for sponsorship.
However, Hans Henningsen, a Puma representative, reached out to Pelé and offered him a total deal worth $120,000 for a simple gesture: seconds before kick-off in a quarter-final match between Brazil and Peru, the iconic striker strode to the centre of the pitch and asked officials for a pause so he could tie his shoelaces.
As the world's cameras (broadcast in colour for the first time) zoomed in, the logo on his boots was unmistakeable: Puma had pulled off a sports marketing move that would go down in history.
The late noughties heyday of La Liga saw Guardiola's Barcelona pioneering their incredible 'tiki-taka' style and Real Madrid attracting galacticos such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, and Karim Benzema.
Today, the Premier League has overtaken Spain; however, La Liga remains one of the world's best, and a 2020 league marketing campaign was designed to celebrate this fact by promoting perhaps the world's most famous match: El Clasico (Real Madrid vs Barcelona).
In October 2020, La Liga's 'The Red Carpet' event saw them mark the match by rolling out the red carpet in seven iconic global locations including Sydney Opera House, London's Tower Bridge, Delhi's Red Fort and The Vessel at Hudson Yards in New York City. Selected for their prestige and entertainment, these locations held football freestyler performances, El Clasico watch parties, and various other events, marketing this global sporting event in extravagant style.
Following a difficult season shaped by the Covid-19 outbreak and the absence of fans in stadiums, Ajax launched a campaign to honour their supporters' dedication. 'A Piece Of Ajax' saw the club melt down their 15th Dutch title win into 42,390 little stars, which were distributed between every single Ajax partner and season ticket holder.
Paying tribute to the people who the club ultimately represents, this sports marketing campaign had a huge impact, making the news in 150 countries and earning a media value of 12 million euros, while also winning several sports marketing awards.
Lionel Messi is arguably the greatest footballer of all time. He also happens to be one of the most commercially successful athletes of the 21st century. Put those two things together, and you'll see why last year's link-up between Copa90 and Budwesier was such a hit.
To mark Messi's breaking of Pelé's remarkable 46-year-old record of 643 goals for a single club, the 644 Beer Toast saw Copa 90 partner with Budweiser to create 644 personalised bottles of beer, distributed to all 160 goalkeepers scored against within Messi's incredible run.
Legendary shot stoppers such as Buffon, Casillas, and Oblak each posed with their customised Budweisers, shining a light on his historic footballing moment in a light-hearted way that had the affiliated brand front and centre.
Genius sports marketing.
Sports manufacturer Nike are known for collaborating with athletes with expertise relating to the product, whether it's Michael Jordan, Rafa Nadal or Usain Bolt. They've launched a number of clever marketing campaigns over the years, while also aligning themselves with athletes promoting a positive message, such as Colin Kaepernick, who became the face of Nike following his famous kneel during the national anthem.
At the heart of the brand's commercial message is a simple phrase that is now probably the most renowned sports marketing slogan in history: 'Just Do It'. Competitive, direct, and action-centred, and used in campaigns featuring footballers like Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe, 'Just Do It' has inspired and motivated consumers and athletes ever since its introduction as Nike's slogan in 1987.