Win or Lose? Factors of Engagement with Sports Brands
Kate Kirkpatrick in Brand, Brand Design, Brand Engagement Survey, Sports

Image © Gensler

Whenever my husband and I travel outside of the United States, we like to play a game called “count the American sports logos.” On our last trip to Italy, we spied over 50, including those of the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Los Angeles Lakers, and to our surprise, the Washington Wizards (we saw a full-on official John Wall Washington Wizards jersey). But the ones we saw the most belonged to the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys. Surprise, surprise.

The Yankees may have aged in recent years but the boys in pinstripes are still a household name for being winners. Since 2000, they’ve won the American League East division 10 times and captured two World Series trophies. The team’s slogan (Our History. Your Tradition.) hints at the franchise’s storied past—arguably the most storied of any American sports franchise—while inviting fans to participate in the construction of a present-day Yankees tradition. It’s historical and contemporary at the same time.

The Cowboys, another storied American sports brand, have had mostly under .500 records for the past decade and change. They’ve specialized in disappointing football performance, sexy cheerleaders and a Godzilla-sized (and priced) stadium more than actual on-field play. Yet according to Emory University Sports Marketing Analytics, the Cowboys enjoy the NFL’s greatest fan equity, a measure of fans’ willingness to support a franchise. And the same researchers found that the Yankees have their league’s lowest price-performance sensitivity, meaning their fans remain loyal win or lose.

So what can we learn from these two teams who both inspire high levels of brand loyalty despite very different levels of on-field performance? How does a sports brand engage fans when they’re delivering more Ls than Ws? How do you engage new fans to join the tribe of a less legendary team? Is the magic formula for building a base who loves you enough to wear your logo around Rome something other than championships?

These are some of the questions that I and my colleagues Tom Milavec and Evan Hathaway are asking as we start a new Gensler research effort titled “Win or Lose: Factors of Engagement with Sports Brands.” Our goal: To create a new dialogue with our sports team clients around what enhancing the fan experience is really all about.

It seems like everyone talks about the “fan experience” without a satisfying articulation of what that experience is. Sure, we can try to help people experience actual games in an engaging and enjoyable manner, but we see a need for further insight into what constitutes the fan experience outside of the arena so that teams can better understand and augment it.

Gensler delved into the science of branding in 2013 with our Brand Engagement Survey. This proprietary research effort helped us begin to understand why consumers fall in love with certain brands while shunning others. It also taught us that sports fans are the most brand-engaged consumer group: Sports fans averaged a brand engagement score of 20.2 compared with 16.6 for all other consumers.

The survey results revealed that sports fans tend to have long-standing connections with their favorite teams. They also tend to buy and wear a lot of team merchandise. These two findings did not surprise us.

We were surprised, however, to get some insight into why sports fans are good customers. They buy merchandise as a means of showcasing loyalty and identifying with the tribe but also say that they really appreciate the look and feel of their team’s jerseys, tee-shirts, hats, and other items – at a higher rate than the fans of technology and other consumer products. Their appreciation of design was something we didn’t necessarily anticipate, and want to explore so we understand its link to sales and ongoing satisfaction with their brand engagement.

The survey also showed that as a group, sports fans care more about familiarity and trust than innovation and freshness. They value tradition and a sense of continuity over the promise of something new. They want their teams to win now, but they also gain something from remembering the thrills of past victories or even the agonies of noble defeats. Detach a team brand from the history of the franchise and risk alienating longtime fans who watch sports year after year for the kind of comfort that only comes from continuity.

For us, brand questions always start with why – why does something have more or less meaning to people? To understand where sports fans gain meaning and how design can help strengthen that emotional connection, we’re focusing our research on the NFL. Four of the five top sports brands from our research were NFL teams. Obviously it’s an 800 pound gorilla with a dominant influence on not just sports but popular culture. Yet despite its success, the league faces challenges in the form of stadium attendance, controversial franchise names, and the danger of head injuries and the health risks they pose. Using the NFL as our “focus group,” we hope our research provides a more full-fledged understanding of sports teams brands and the emotional connections they foster.

Of course, my favorite place in Rome was the coliseum where I saw a historical marker noting that the rich sat in reserved seating with shade and servants while the ordinary folks had the nosebleed seats where they drank and gambled. Apparently the slow march of time only changes so many things, and we’ll see if history continues to repeat itself.

Kate Kirkpatrick is a writer who found a career in design based on her fascination with people and figuring out why they do the things they do. In 17 years at Gensler, she’s worked in brand design, practice management, marketing, executive communications as well as advising Gensler's D.C. office on beer and wine selection for social events. She’s a Washington Nationals season ticket holder and NASCAR aficionado working her way through a bucket list of big college football games. Contact her at
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