When Did Sports Become a Brand?

By: Sarah Sceery

A late fourth quarter pick by Patriots safety Malcom Butler is a game changer, giving the patriots their 4th Super Bowl victory in the last 15 years. David Ortiz knocks one out of the park for a walk off home run, keeping the Red Sox alive during the 2004 ALCS battle with the Yankees. Carli Lloyd and the US Women’s National Team have an entire nation following them as they dominate the 2015 Women’s Soccer World Cup. These moments, and so many more, are what drive the passion, following and multi trillion dollar “sport” industry in our country. But have you ever stopped to wonder, where it all began?

How did the NFL become the chosen national league? When was it decided that college hockey rules should be different than the NHL? Why are men’s baseball leagues successful but women’s have failed?

Today, our sport society is branded by people and symbols that increase name recognition, perceived product quality, emotion and loyalty among fan bases in and out of leagues. In an article led by Dr. Stephen Hardy, the authors aim to look at the history of sport branding, and how our world of sport today came to be, through the use of marketing in the past and present.

Building the brand of sport takes into consideration many factors including rules, equipment, narratives and publications, entrepreneurial initiative and names. Take the NHL as an example. Building the brand as we know it today derives from hockey’s Canadian roots. Rule changes and adaptions were made to transform this favorite past time into formality in 1917. In the 1920s, in order to compete with college markets, European leagues and our Canadian neighbors, the NHL made an expansion into the United States, again experiencing rule changes but also selling the “speed of play.” Articulated through newspapers with emphasis on photography, a new brand of hockey was being delivered to consumers. These adaptations in rules, equipment and media continue to change the game today through playoff structures, coach challenges, instant replay and checking.

The brand association with our major players today (Football, Baseball, Hockey, Basketball) all began through a link with emotional and functional benefits. Today, these factors continue to play a critical role in the alignment of how marketers can continue to build a brand and product. Even in our Boston market, franchises and colleges alike must appeal to consumers in order to maintain loyalty, develop a sporting lifestyle, drive revenue and ultimately provide the “best” fan experience. Because at the end of the day, outside of the “game” itself…isn’t that what it’s all about?

Source: Stephen Hardy, Brian Norman, Sarah Sceery (2012), “Toward a history of sport branding,” Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol.4, Iss. 4, pp.482-509.

25 thoughts on “When Did Sports Become a Brand?

  1. Abagail Stacey February 23, 2016 / 1:57 am

    With the last point that you made about making sure fans are having the best experience they can I think it crucial if you want to keep loyal fans. We did mention in class how people are going to be attracted to the teams that are in their areas, but also they need to enjoy their experience cheering on the teams they like. If someone is a Patriots fan and sees for example Tom Brady wearing a certain cleat type of cleat then they are going to want to buy that same footwear because one of the players on their favorite team wears it. Sports are branded through symbols and people like you say in your post and if people are a fan of a certain team then they will buy attire that has that sports symbol on it and if players wear or do certain things then fans are going to follow.


  2. adeangelo13 February 23, 2016 / 7:17 pm

    This is both accurate and up to date. Athletes serve as a personal brand for themselves and for younger fans who wear their apparel and model their games after their favorite athletes.


  3. Joe Sanfilippo February 23, 2016 / 7:22 pm

    I think that sports branding is the most popular kind of branding in our world today. People love the excitement of sports, which is a big reason why they are so popular. I agree with Abagail that sports are branded through symbols, and we buy certain products because our favorite athletes are wearing them and our favorite teams are sponsored by them so we can be more like our favorite athletes but to also show our loyalty to our favorite sports organizations.


  4. John Flaherty (@johnflaherty541) February 23, 2016 / 7:23 pm

    Of the big four professional sports leagues (NHL,NFL,MLB,NBA) it is interesting to me that the NFL has has dominated the “branding game.” The NFL practically owns a entire day of the week, while bottom feeder MLB and NHL teams struggle to fill their stadiums. I think the other leagues could look to the NFL to better understand how they not only market their teams but, their individual players as well. Roger Goodell made nearly $50 million last year, untaxed. How many people can name the commissioner of the NHL? Just some food for thought.


  5. Andie-Jane Phinney February 23, 2016 / 7:25 pm

    I felt this blog post to be very interesting as sports is something I enjoy very much. With just the opening paragraph, it opened my eyes to realize that these star athletes help their brand as well as drive the passion for the fan base. It’s those crucial game winning moments that prove to our fans to remain the faith in the sports team in which they follow. Being an outsider, we just enjoy the game and follow the players, not really thinking about what goes on within the brand as well as how the sports industry has changed over time. The following of the apparel, the players and teams allows us to willingly follow these sports team and remain the loyal fan base that we are. Being a loyal fan has become a “lifestyle” and something on the back ends that drives the players to perform well.


  6. Ronald Zampanti February 23, 2016 / 7:26 pm

    I completely agree with this article regarding the branding of sports. A sport itself may not “kick off” or gain attraction unless there is a likable or talented athlete to gain the fans attention. This is especially true for teams. The teams that are more likable are usually the teams that win or have one or a few superstars. Brands of sports also help market equipment and products in that these items will sell more if everyone on a fan-favorite team is wearing that piece of equipment. Since sports are brands, they need to be aware of the fans wants and needs. Without satisfying the interests of fans, the brand can become disliked and lose out on potential money.


  7. Meghan Gulbrandsen February 23, 2016 / 7:27 pm

    I think the idea of different cultures having their own impact on the same sport is very interesting. This is because they are in fact the same sport, but by having these different cultures allows there to be room for many different viewpoints to effect opinions of the rules which in the end alters the game a little.


  8. Kevin Poulter February 23, 2016 / 7:30 pm

    Talking about the last point you made about how a brand is associated with a emotionally and functional benefit is true. It links the true fans with a player they look up too. For example Christiano Ronaldo is one of the biggest names in soccer and his fans want to wear those certain cleats or the gear that their idol wears. Brands excel through the players that they have sponsorship with.


  9. Erique L'Heureux February 23, 2016 / 7:32 pm

    This is very true. I think that in today’s world it is very important to give fans exactly what they want to see and with. With the rise of social media this is easier than ever. This could be changes to rules or regulations or even making teams uniforms look more attractive. Professional sports are dependent on the people who watch them and the best way to improve branding is to be as responsive to what people want as you can. For instance many people are put off by the overuse of pass interference calls in the NFL so perhaps Goodell should revise the rules to cut back on refs throwing their flags. Unfortunately Mr. Goodell doesn’t have a very positive brand himself so that’s little more than a prayer.


  10. Kayla Regan February 25, 2016 / 6:22 pm

    This post brings up some very valid points regarding the importance of branding in professional sports leagues. Although some may like a team simply for their skill-set, there is often more depth to what makes a loyal fan. The people, symbols and products, as mentioned in this post, that are promoted throughout the team’s publicity, are often what attract fans. The NFL’s success in branding is interesting to me and the other professional leagues should adapt their strategies to further their own branding success.


  11. Alicia February 25, 2016 / 9:00 pm

    I really enjoyed this article because I strongly believe that sports industry is becoming one of the most popular industries in the world.So many people enjoy sports and it is something that many people can have a conversation over no matter how different their views may be on other things. Sports are something that bring people together. The NFL and the MLB are two of the largest professional sport leagues and the NFL is growing rapidly by the day. It is important to give the fans what they want because without fans, there would be no successful sport franchises. The fans deserve a great deal of credit for the success of professional sports. Fans look to sports for a number of reasons including self-esteem enhancement, entertainment, a need for affiliation, and family ties. I know, personally, I am a huge football and hockey fan purely because of my family ties. These reasons are what drive fans to every game and promote the success of professional teams, which is why it is crucial to keep the fans happy.


  12. Eddie Rouxinol February 28, 2016 / 5:59 pm

    I think one of the most interesting things about the development of the sport brand is the unique brands that athletes are establishing for themselves. Following in the footsteps of Jordan, many people are beginning to release shoe lines or clothing and accessories as a way to promote their brand. They are attaching their image with connection to their player number and team logos to cater to the fans of the established team brand. Players that have developed their brand on an global scale such as Lebron James or Christiano Ronaldo are taking the player branding to a new level with the development of large product lines and the stretch into other markets beyond sneakers or apparel.


    • ssceery March 2, 2016 / 10:41 pm

      This is true and a really good point emphasizing the growth of co-branding between athletes and products. It helps to promote the athlete and the brand cohesively. However, if the relationship goes array or something happens to either brand’s image that certainly becomes an ethical issue. Thinking Tiger Woods…


  13. Justin Flory February 29, 2016 / 10:44 pm

    Sports have become a big brand because people look up to and admire their favorite athletes. Lebron James for example has over 28 million followers on Twitter and is one of the most influential athletes in the world. He also has a huge lifetime endorsement deal with Nike. Nike uses his image and star power to sell their products, because when people see ads with Lebron wearing Nike products, they go out and buy them. This allows for kids to emulate their favorite players by wearing the same gear as them.


  14. Courtney Bernard March 1, 2016 / 8:04 pm

    This is a great article on the brand awareness of sports in today’s society. I loved your representation of brand recognition in professional sports related to emotional and functional benefits. In the past couple years, money spent on sponsorship and endorsements in companies and products has skyrocketed with the use of athletes in their advertisement. Fan loyalty to local teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL really show how crucial it is for a specific brand to tie its recognition with a sports team or athlete. Take Tom Brady for example; he is sponsored by multiple brands from UGG Australia, to Under Armour, and Smart Water. Fans of Brady are emotionally invested in his performance on the field with the Patriots, and his consistency has allowed fans to stay loyal to his personal brand. This leads to success in any sponsorships and endorsement deals he is involved in, thus, building the ever-growing empire of brand awareness in sports.


  15. Meg March 16, 2016 / 3:28 am

    This article is an interesting understanding of the development of sport branding. In extension, athletes themselves are becoming their own brand and have to maintain their image. Fans become invested in the players, and they start to follow their careers as they go to different teams. Fans also follow their endeavors outside football, such as commercials and sponsors. It is important to understand the brand aspect of sports, as its not just all fun and games.


  16. Julie Wusenich March 22, 2016 / 8:57 pm

    Great blog and article, Sarah! I agree that it is important to create the best fan experience, as without fans, the sports teams (professional and college alike) wouldn’t have the following they do today or be able to create the hype around upcoming games, playoffs, etc. Teams depend on the loyalty of their fans and they need to continue to evolve their brand to do so.


  17. Chansamone Voralath March 27, 2016 / 9:35 pm

    I enjoyed reading this article. Sports have gained its popularity in brand awareness especially when involve athletes and a company products. When customers see their favorite athlete wears a shoe or t-shirt of certain brand, they want to wear it too. This goes to show the power of the influence this athlete has on its fans. That is why more and more companies are using athletes in their advertising and marketing campaign to promote a company brand and product.


  18. Aishwarya Gunti April 2, 2016 / 11:54 pm

    Such an eye opening article! I never realized sports to be brands. They have entangled in our lives so subtly in long run that barely someone would have noticed when they gained status of brand. At this point I also wonder why some brands like sports take such a long span of time to project themselves as brand whereas others just evolve so quickly?


  19. CJ Enos April 3, 2016 / 3:59 pm

    What a great article. I might even take this a step further in that I think some of these sports have gained popularity with the kids now days more involved with sports. More kids are playing hockey, football and baseball which has them playing these sports into high school and college. As the kids grow up playing sports they look up to the professional sports teams. If you think back to our parent’s child hood there was more free type play and less organized sports. Now it seems as though almost all kids are into one sport or another. As a kid I we never had Lacrosse and now you see a lot of kids playing it.


  20. alexzahlaway April 15, 2016 / 12:27 am

    Great point about how sports and their brands have created an emotional connection because if you ask anyone who supports a team it will most likely be a large part of their life. I’d say the experience outside of the game is actually even bigger than the actual time when the game is on because so much of sports teams business comes from merchandising, branding, ads, etc. Another huge driver in branding for sports comes from the big names and amazing athletes and how they are used almost as much for channels of branding as their actual skill. You see sales campaigns for companiesusing these stars/teams to market products and it seems to work extremely effectively with a result on sales. Great topic and blog!


  21. Aidan Kelly April 22, 2016 / 3:57 pm

    I agree with Alex, sporting events today are much more than just a game. There is so much going on behind the scenes and off the field that sometimes the actual sport is lost. As discussed in last class, advertisements are everywhere in sports. If you look at professional soccer jerseys it is almost difficult to tell which teams are playing since their jersey emblems are crowded by advertisements. Soon the NBA will be putting advertisements on their jerseys and it’ll be interesting to see if other sports leagues follow.


  22. Colleen Flynn April 27, 2016 / 1:42 pm

    Sports is a very powerful thing all over the world. I think the idea that sports and culture is really interesting. Every culture and country have their own take on sports. With that being said, sports is a business, but also a very emotionally driven business. Fans become emotionally invested in their favorite sports teams. That is why many whole-heartedly support their team, despite losses or a bad record. A die heart fan supports a sport team “business” through emotional support. The sports industry is quite powerful today and has come a long way from a simple game. It is a business and a lot of money is invested to provide the best for the players, fans, and sport “companies” themselves. Branding in sports could be argued as one of the most popular brands out there, worldwide.


  23. Hechuan May 7, 2016 / 12:55 am

    When I first heard that sports can become a brand, I feel is so incredible because in my mind, sports has nothing to do with market. It seems like I was wrong. For example, redsox has become a very successful brand. I think it’s a good idea to make the sport teams become a brand. It has a great help with their management, also gain more fans of their teams.


    • Sam Walsh May 12, 2016 / 5:29 pm

      I like how you mention the Red Sox here, as they are a great example. For a long time they were the lovable losers of the league, always playing second fiddle to the Yankees. Ever since 2004, though, they’ve become this international brand, establishing the whole Red Sox nation. Now, no matter where you go (outside of the Bronx, New York) more than likely you’ll end up seeing a Red Sox hat, shirt, or some other product with the iconic “B” on it.


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