When you think of branding in sports, it usually brings to mind endorsements from professional athletes for power drinks, athletic wear, and specialized sporting equipment. Or these days, it might hit home in the form of your favourite Major League Baseball team’s branded merchandise like jerseys and t-shirts, bottle openers, glasses and mugs. But there is a side to sport branding that often isn’t considered.
I recently participated in a soccer championship, representing Manitoba nationally in Vancouver, BC over the course of four days. It boasted six teams for the women’s division and four for the men’s. Through this competition I experienced branding in sport at a recreational level and not from the typical position of a fan or spectator but from the perspective of an athlete. It was a unique experience that made me consider the impact and reach branding could have within this specific segment of athletics.
Throughout the competition, I took note of the positive and negative experiences created by the overall event organization, the requirements by the Canadian Soccer Association of the host city, and the hospitality of the local organizing committee. For me, and I’m sure some of my teammates, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience — we were in the Master’s competition after all, a +35 division (until recently). For many of us, this was probably the pinnacle of our sporting accomplishments.
We were proud to represent Manitoba and take part in the Masters Championship — one of two divisions within the women’s league that garners a national competition. Expecting a level of recognition that reflected this, I was sadly underwhelmed by many aspects of the tournament. Since our return, and through discussions with my teammates, I realized that a lot of my experiences were tied directly to the absence of branding. This in turn raised my awareness to the lack of attention given to recreational and amateur sports as a whole.
Many would limit branding to a logo — as an art director, let me explain what branding means to me. A brand is the meaning behind the organization — who they represent and what they stand for, also known as brand integrity. It’s how an organization or service treats their employees, volunteers, clients, athletes, and representatives. It’s the tone in which they communicate, the depth of their hospitality, and the level of their professionalism. A brand is tangible and intangible — present in everything representing an organization both internally and externally.
Applying true branding to a sporting event encompasses many things. It can be the way the organizers interact with the athletes, the way the facility is maintained and presented, how information is disseminated, where scores and games are posted, down to the coordination of the closing ceremonies and the transportation to and from the venue. Every aspect of the event should be considered in relation to the brand of the organization, and further to the brand of the host city and province.
The experience of a recreational athlete is important to the success of your sport event. They are your ambassadors after all, your first point of contact and most likely the very people who will have the largest impact in creating the reputation that you want, or don’t want, to achieve.
From local to national competition, recreational and amateur athletes are the people who breathe life into a sport. And at a Masters level of competition, these are the very people who will be the volunteers and role models for the next generation of athletes — so, ask yourself, what do you want them to say about your organization? What is the message you want them to pass onto to future athletes about their experience as competitors?
I’m assuming you want them to remember your event as the best one they’ve ever participated in because your brand captured their values, attention and passion for their sport. You want them to discuss your event with the organization they belong to, share their experience with friends and family and in general, elevate the sport as a whole.
If you’re organizing an amateur sporting event, with limited funding and resources how do you create the level of engagement and positive influence that will have those ambassadors promoting your event, your association and possibly even your city, province or country? From my personal experience, these are the influencing factors:
1. Your first impression is your last
As an organizer or in this case the brand manager, put yourself in the position of the athlete. If you were competing at a national competition maybe for the first, second or third time, or maybe the only time — what would make you feel special? Is this ease of transportation to the venue, adequate change rooms, a meet and greet, or a simple welcome letter with some tourist suggestions? If there are simultaneously women’s and men’s competitions, is there gender equality in the experience? Is there easy access to event information? Do your volunteers and employees show up on time, offer assistance, spark up a conversation, or simply smile?
2. Recognition goes a long way
If athletes are competing at a national event or high level competition, they didn’t just get there by chance — they worked damn hard. Simple recognition of an outstanding performance, overall sportsmanship and even the distance travelled to get there, go a long way. Keep in mind that recognition should be done in a tasteful way, reflective of your brand. This can be done with clear communication, distinct awards (properly titled and awarded the same for both men and women) and a cohesive approach to any ceremonies.
3. Clear information and organization
Nothing showcases an event better and brighter than when it works like a well-oiled machine — your requests are addressed before you need to ask them and you don’t have to track down the details. In the digital world of today, it really can’t get any easier to create a hashtag to enable easy access to game scores, special events and memorable moments of a tournament. Schedules for a tournament can also be easily posted through pages or groups within Facebook.
4. Make it easy for you and for your ambassadors.
It shouldn’t be hard for your ambassadors to say more, do more, and share more about your event with the people they come into contact with.
Do what you can to make their experience a memorable one. What do you do when you invite guests over — tidy, sweep up the cat hair, make a fresh pot of coffee? When you think about your event being a reflection of your home, what could you do better to leave your guests with a lasting impression?
If you’re organizing a sporting event, the participating athletes are at your event because they want to be and they worked really hard to get there. So, without realizing it, you have a captive audience, excited to see what you’re offering — ready and willing to share your brand because of the sport they love. And like any good coach, you just have to give them a little encouragement.