Why sports teams have fans and you’ve only got customers

  • Marketing
  • September 19, 2012
  • Oliver Haydon
Why sports teams have fans and you’ve only got customers
Ian Ransley design + illustration via Flickr

It dawned on me while watching the subtle nuisances of Rory McIlroy’s golf swing—thanks to the ultra high-speed Konica Minolta Biz Hub Swing Vision camera—the extent to which marketing has invaded the world of sport. Yes, we live in a time when even the camera has a sponsor. And while you may see Kobe Bryant’s US $25.2m salary as a positive or negative thing, you can’t argue that marketing has turned many sports into big business. However—and this is a recurring theme—in a rush to turn loyalty and entertainment into profit, marketing has overlooked the very thing that enables these astronomical numbers: the fans.

Today a customer is no longer enough. A customer won’t recommend your brand, or share your link on Facebook. A customer won’t give you feedback for free or suggest new ideas. A customer won’t forgive you for failing but a fan will. Through business, sporting franchises have learnt how to turn loyalty into revenue. Is it possible that through sport, businesses can learn how to turn customers into fans? Here are five things I believe will give you a sporting chance.


I’m not sure about you, but I found last year’s royal wedding a tad boring. There was a well-defined script and come hell or high water, it would be adhered to. Sport isn’t like that. Anything can, and usually does, happen. We love the speculation and the anticipation as much as we love the actual event.

If you want your brand to have fans, you have to be unpredictable, and that means innovating. Apple keeps its customers guessing, no one is quite sure what they’ll come up with next. It seems to be working out quite well for them.


All teams, not just the good ones, are pursuing something. It may be a world cup, the league championship, or the title of best in the world. Regardless, their goal is obvious to all, specific and measurable. That is to say, we’ll all know if they achieved it or not.

Most brands have mission statements or goals; very few of them actually work. There’s no point having a goal to be the number one in your industry if there isn’t an agreed upon metric that everyone uses to determine success. That won’t motivate your staff, let alone your fans. To create fans you need to state a goal, state how it will be measured, and a day for judgement. This is something Invisible Children did exceptionally with KONY2012. It seems to be working out quite well for them.


To a sports team, each game is an opportunity to advance towards their goal. If they should fail, they accept they will disappoint their fans, that’s just part of the gig. A sports team won’t let fear of disappointment stop them from taking the field.

If your organisation believes you have an idea that will move you closer to obtaining your goal, you should do it. So what if it fails and you disappoint your customers? Customers are no good to you anyway, you need fans, remember? As Michel Jordan said, you miss 100 percent of the shots you never take. Facebook didn't let a backlash stop them from changing its layout. It seems to be working out quite well for them.


A fan of any given team will usually have a favourite player(s). Someone they admire, someone they would like to be themselves. We watch them on television, follow them on Twitter, and read their biographies. This gives us the impression we know them and only strengthens our connection to the team.

There’s only one reason I’d stand on the sideline watching amateur sport in miserable weather, and that’s because I know someone playing. If your brand uses social media correctly, you can increase the likelihood that I will support you simply by giving me someone to support, someone I feel I know and like. This means showing us all the personalities behind your brand, not just the pin-up boy or girl.


This is the interesting part. As I alluded to before, a sports team’s primary purpose isn’t to sell tickets or t-shirts, its primary purpose is to win. People buy the merchandise because they want to display their status as an avid fan and supporter of the cause. They want to show they belong to the tribe.

If your brand’s goal or mission statement isn’t the most important priority, then forget it, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Commit to the cause and those that agree with you will happily buy your products to show they believe what you believe.


This probably sounds like a lot of difficult work, and that’s because it is. You do of course have an alternative. You could hand over $13 million annually for Lebron’s fans. If you intend to sell anything in India you’ll need another 2.1 billion rupees (US $42m) for the use of MS Dhoni’s, and to cover off Europe, a meagre £8.7 million for Lionel Messi’s services ought to do it. Then all you have to do is sit tight and prey none of them are rampant sex addicts.

Happy days.

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  • Advertising
  • January 21, 2019
  • StopPress Team
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