The concept of “sport” has evolved in such a way that it could well be said that in today’s society it has reached an almost polysemic meaning. On the one hand, “sport” is associated with its original meaning, the practice of physical exercise – individual or collective – more or less regulated. On the other hand, the concept of “sport” immediately leads us to the contemplation of the practice of sport, face-to-face or online; and, more explicitly, to the consideration of it as spectacle.

If an individual had been asked a hundred years ago whether he liked sports, his answer would have been based almost exclusively on his degree of fondness for any sport. If we do so today, on what basis will the response be built? I don’t think I’m wrong if I bet that in a high percentage (very high), the answers will be related to people “like to watch sports”.

For as long as there has been organized sports competition, there has been a feeling of affiliation. We can go back thousands of years in history to see that in ancient Greece or in Roman civilization there were already personal followers – “fans”, in today’s terminology – of renowned athletes. What is more, we have unconsciously deduced that even then sport was one of the ways to achieve personal reputation.

In today’s society this has only multiplied. Sport – understood from now on in the sense of a sporting spectacle – is based on feeling. We’ve talked about affiliation; And perhaps this is the most powerfully perceived. The feeling of identity, the need to belong… They are basic drives of human behavior. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter if the object of feelings is an individual athlete or a team.

And, in short, it is the same process that occurs in the association with a commercial brand. In other words, have athletes and teams become brands?

Sport and athletes as brands

There are many definitions of “trademark”, but many of us agree on the one that conceptualizes it as a set of signs and symbols that express the identity of a company and its products or services.

The fact is that, understood in this way, the trademark also has two levels of interpretation: the real one (which implies “things” and “actions”); and the emotional (insofar as it produces and involves “sensations” and “feelings”).

I was once told by a great professional in this field that building a brand requires talent, investment and maintenance.

It is well understood, I point out, that the product and the market to which it is aimed pre-exist. In short, a brand is something that is deliberately built, starting from a pre-existing stage – in which the product and the market interact.

The dual nature – real and ideal – that we have observed in a brand produces a triple effect, both in the person and in the collective: that is, what the brand does, how it does it and what it means (both individually and socially).

So what is a sports brand? What does a club produce? What is the product of an individual athlete? What is the market in each of the scenarios?

Let’s take it one step at a time; And let’s take football as an example. A club is an administrative structure (business, in short) that channels the sporting activity of a team in certain organized competitions. It’s as obvious as the team plays football and that this is their product. In the case of an individual footballer, for example, a central defender, he maintains and develops a position of containment of the opponent’s play, in such a way as to make it impossible or difficult for his team to concede a goal.

Where is the product?

Does this constitute a product? Or isn’t what makes it a product in both cases its “differentiation”? That is, the style that the team develops, the values it represents; the way the defender defends and “is on the field” and the attributes that characterize him. In short, we are already entering the slippery terrain of the emotional: “Why this team, these values?” “Why this particular player?” Because they “excite”. Because they “excite” me.

The team or the player becomes, by this procedure, a product, “my” product; And in this way, the question about the identity of the market is also answered: the product is aimed at all those who feel like me.

If we agree that the sport-product is so because of its emotional attributes, we will have no difficulty in accepting that sports brands are, therefore, fundamentally emotional.

All the obvious consideration made so far is worth as an introduction to the point that gives title to this article: brand management in sport. Based on what has been said above about the requirements for building a brand, I believe that all three elements are also essential for the management of an established brand. In every business activity (and sport, in this sense, is one) the objective sought and the basis that sustains everything is success. And in sports business activity, success is probably “the” factor.

Success in sports brand management

There is no doubt that the correct definition of a trademark is essential to ensure the achievement of the proposed purposes. I have been, and still am again, after many years, a consultant, and I have been tempted to say that I do not know whether the definition itself is as important as its implementation (in short, management).

I believe that many business bankruptcies are tied to wonderful and unimpeachable conceptual definitions… poorly implemented, poorly managed. In any case, I think that the management of a sports brand could be defined as “the management of the virtuous circle of success”.

Indeed, the achievement of success in each of the identified areas of responsibility (sporting, social, commercial and financial) necessarily contributes to the success of the others, contributing to the achievement of complete success.

– Sporting success. The one that inflames the fans: the one that makes the fans feel proud when he reaches it, or that they crave it when he walks away.

– Social success. The one that determines the pride of belonging and serves as the basis of a social model.

– Commercial success. The one that derives from the commercialization of products and services associated with the brand and monetizes the exploitation of intangibles.

– Financial success. The one that generates recurring business and, therefore, in the long run, solvency.

Talent guarantees the precise definition of the brand and an ambitious and viable proposal for its exploitation. It means knowledge of markets and the state of the art of technologies and modes of social relations on the Internet; as well as requiring sound financial practice. In a globalized world, the playing field of prominent brands is precisely the entire world. Detailed knowledge of each market is therefore essential, for which an in-depth analysis of social behaviours and consumer habits is required.

Investment is critical to building a successful operating model. The best ideas – generated in-house or outsourced – have to be paid for.

Maintenance is vital, because the process cycle is almost organic, not immutable. As it is oriented to the individual and society, it is evolutionary, so constant monitoring is necessary so that its permanent redefinition and adaptation is possible. And we must not forget the adoption of the obligatory measures in the field of security in the exploitation of the trademark (registration, monitoring, prosecution of fraud).

How to Succeed

In each of the four aspects of success, we can define plans and actions aimed at achieving it. To achieve sporting success, it is essential to create a technically competent squad; but it must be configured by a profile of star players who have links with each of the target markets. The achievement of this basis is undoubtedly the responsibility of the sports management, but it would not be unreasonable to think that the commercial management could say something in this regard (and when in a company there is a shared or crossed responsibility, there is no greater guarantee of success than an integrating top management).

To ensure social success, it is necessary to clearly define the values of the club and establish the mechanisms that relate them to the fans and society. And for this, you need to have a good knowledge of how social networks and the media work.

Commercial success involves the establishment of alliances; the search for the best sponsorships and the proper management of their implementation; as well as the selection of the best prescribers and distributors.

From a financial point of view, success implies the definition of a balanced operating model, in which the main sources of income (capacity: members-subscribers and tickets, television rights and commercial exploitation) are well structured and recurrent.

Application to the individual level

Everything that has been said so far is in a collective key, in terms of team branding, but it can be perfectly extrapolated to the individual level, to the personal brand of the elite player. The process of building an individual brand must have the same three ingredients – talent, investment and maintenance. It is crucial to get the values and attributes that define a personal brand right, because on that basis the whole fabric will rest. What feelings do you connect with? Who is it for? What’s on offer?

The definition and implementation of a personal brand implies undertaking the same projects (and, therefore, the corresponding investment) as in the case of a collective brand. Consequently, the follow-up actions will be the same; to which must be added, in addition, all those related to the cumbersome and casuistic field of the exploitation of individual image rights and the management of their collision with the image rights of the collective, or with those of the retransmitter; as well as the difficult relationship between the trademarks at stake.

Brand management in your environment

A penultimate consideration. We were talking earlier about a globalized world. And I would add now that it is a very closely interconnected world. These two factors mean that a sports brand must also be managed with the tools of today’s global, connected world. A sports brand with aspirations of global relevance must have a global projection, which does not necessarily mean a uniform projection. It is difficult, but essential for success, to know how to combine the different planes; Adapt the gear (direction and speed) to the terrain. It is necessary to have a deep knowledge of new (not so much because they are recent, but because they emerge almost all the time) consumption habits and purchasing procedures.

It has been said that sport – in the sense we give it here – is spectacle. In this way, the product is defined, to a large extent, by its conversion into audiovisual content. If a club is a content generator in the entertainment market, the definition of the model of exploitation of audiovisual rights (or the discretionary margin that the law allows in each country) is vital for the achievement of a successful and sustainable model.

It might seem that all the magic of effort, individual or collective, has been lost; the admiration for the plastic arts and the beauty of the game; the excitement of victory or the disgust of defeat… It might be thought that what was originally a feeling has in the end become a cold commercial exploitation. Everything seems to point to this being the case…, but the fact is that it is not. At the end of the story, no fan goes out into the streets to celebrate a successful income statement of their club; but to cry with joy or sorrow – with emotion, in short – for the victory or defeat of their team.

If you want to know more about brands in the world of sports, you can visit our brandAbout #5: Brands & Sports

Ignacio Muñoz

Consulting Partner at Branward®

Photos: Shutterstock