Last Updated: November 28, 2020

There are few things in the world as widely loved as sports. The National Football Foundation reports that 49,670,895 people attended an NCAA football game in 2011, while over 110 million people watched the 2012 Superbowl, according to Nielsen. From fanatics to casual viewers, sports capture the attention of more people than almost any other kind of event.

Marketers understand the popularity of sports and have made them a centerpiece of marketing campaigns for decades. As the size and popularity of national sports has grown, the field of sports marketing has grown with it. According to CNBC, Budweiser has spent almost 240 million dollars on Superbowl ads alone over the last 10 years. As long as sports continue to thrill hundreds of millions of people, they will continue to be a prime events to deliver advertising messages.

What is sports marketing?

Sports marketing uses sports, in any form, to help sell goods and services. This particular style of marketing is less about using a single strategy and more about using the content of sports to assist marketing efforts. This is not limited to professional sports, and may include college athletics, minor leagues, or alternative sports.

Since sports can be watched on a variety of platforms, sports marketing can take many different forms. Teams sell advertising space inside their stadiums to marketers who want to purchase billboards and other print ads, while TV networks sell airtime during the events. Famous athletes also sign contracts to work as celebrity endorsers and lend their images to marketers.

Attributes of Professional Athletes

The choice of a celebrity spokesperson often depends on the way that spokesperson is perceived in the culture. The product being endorsed takes on the qualities of the endorser by association. Below are some of the attributes that professional athletes represent.

  • Physically strong
  • Successful
  • Rich
  • Champions
  • Mentally tough
  • Dedicated
  • Committed to charity
  • Self made
  • Sexually attractive
  • Famous
  • Leaders
  • Team players
  • Disciplined

The biggest advantage of sports marketing is that it allows marketers to piggyback on the popularity and devotion many fans feel towards their favorite teams and athletes. If a baseball fan has loved a specific team since childhood, any marketer who associates themselves with that team gains instant credibility in that fan’s mind. Since the revenue ultimately goes to support the team, the marketer is considered a sponsor and invested in the team’s success.

The only major disadvantage is that the sports marketing industry is so large that it can be hard to stand out in the crowd. A fan who watches a three hour football game will be exposed to dozens of different marketing messages. Marketers must advertise to a wide range of customers, but risk that their ad gets overlooked by fans more interested in the game. (See also Horizontal Marketing)

Examples of sports marketing

  • Allstate – The insurance company sponsors NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne. His car is covered in prominent Allstate ads and he appears in the company’s print and TV ads.
  • Reebok – The sneaker maker lead one of the most memorable ad campaigns of all time when they created a fictional rivalry between decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson. This created buzz for both the Olympics and Reebok.
  • Coke – An iconic ad featuring football player Joe Green signing an autograph for a young boy helped introduce the slogan “Have a Coke and a smile.”
  • StubHub – The ticket agents featured a common sports sound, the buzzer signaling the end of a period, at the ends of their ads. When fans heard the sound in the course of a game, they thought of StubHub.
  • Budweiser – The beer maker invests heavily in TV marketing during the Superbowl. Viewers look forward to the humorous new ads almost as much as the game itself.
  • Citi Bank – The company paid millions of dollars for naming rights to the home field of the New York Mets, now called Citi Field.

Who implements sports marketing campaigns?

Taking out an advertisement during the radio broadcast of a baseball game or buying a small ad space in the bathroom of an NBA arena can be easy and relatively inexpensive strategies. It is only very large companies that will be able to invest heavily in sports marketing though. Securing celebrity endorsers and buying TV airspace during major sporting events can cost tens of millions of dollars. (See also Celebrity Marketing)

Marketers use sports to reach a certain segment of the population. Typically, the target market is men, but there are exceptions. Figure skating, for instance, attracts a large female audience. Products that appeal to men like beer, trucks, and snack foods are marketed heavily during sporting events for this reason. The only real qualification for using sports marketing is having a product with a wide appeal. The maker of highly specific business software would gain nothing from the wide net cast by sports marketing.

The Most Popular Sports in the USA

It is important for any sports marketer to understand the audience for sports. Different customers favor different sports. The UFC attracts a younger crowd while the audience for the PGA tends to be older. The chart below, based on a survey by Scarbrough Sports Marketing, illustrates the 20 most popular sports in America. It contains a number of surprises that are relevant to marketers. The Olympics, for instance, are widely loved despite being held every 4 years. Major sports like hockey and golf are less popular than college athletics and individual sports like gymnastics. Marketers use data like this to help them reach their target audience.

How is a sports marketing plan developed?

Using sports to sell products presents many opportunities that bring both risk and reward. A successful sports marketing campaign can linger in the minds of consumers for years, while an ineffective one can be a significant waste of money. All marketing efforts must be guided by a comprehensive marketing plan if they hope to succeed.

The plan will begin with a number of logistical questions, such as budget estimations and resources. Sports marketing can get expensive quickly and the companies will need to use their resources wisely. They will also need to establish a time frame for the campaign. Will it run for a week, an entire season, or involve a multi-year marketing effort like buying stadium naming rights? Different marketing objectives will involve different plans.

The company then needs to know who their target audience is and how they can best be reached. This involves analyzing the company, their product, and the customer. If a marketer wants to reach males under 35 they might focus on extreme sports. If they want to reach a casual sports fan, they might focus their efforts on the Olympics. The marketer will need to examine the entire sports marketing landscape and identify the most promising opportunities based on scientifically based market research.

A team of creative professionals will work on developing ads whether they are TV spots, billboards, or radio ads. Research findings should determine the goals of the advertisements, but ad makers will develop the content that they think can best speak to the target audience. They will use team colors, slogans, and sports imagery to create a link between the product and the sport. (See also Brand Marketing)

Once the ad campaign begins, the company will need to evaluate how effective it is. Metrics like increased sales, Twitter followers, and brand awareness are all indicators of how well a campaign is being received. The metrics should reflect the goals established in the marketing plan. If the goals are being met, the campaign can be continued and built upon. If the number falls short, the marketing strategy will have to be revised.

Careers in sports marketing

Brand Manager

What do they do?

Average Salaries of Sports Marketers

  • Brand Manager
    entry level – $35,000-$65,000
    after 10 years – $70,000-$140,000
  • Sports Agent
    entry level – $25,000-$100,000
    after 10 years – $100,000-$1,000,000
  • Sports Marketing Project Manager
    entry level – $45,000-$60,000
    after 10 years – $70,000-$110,000


A brand manager is responsible for all of the marketing related to a specific brand. Popular brands like Gatorade, Nike, and Under Armour dedicate huge parts of their marketing budget to sports marketing. The brand manager will coordinate the marketing efforts across print, radio, TV, and online advertising channels.

Education and Skills

All brand managers will need to have a degree in marketing. Many have advanced degrees in marketing as well as supplemental education in communications or public relations. Brand manager is considered a senior marketing position. Marketers will need to work with a company for years before they can manage their own brands.

Sports Agent

What do they do?

Sports agents represent the interests of professional athletes. Their job is to maximize the earning potential of an athlete. Part of their job is to find and negotiate deals for product endorsements. Agents act as intermediaries between companies and athletes and are integral to getting sports marketing deals done.

Education and Skills

A sports agent will not need to have a degree in marketing, but it can be helpful. Their job is to promote the athlete in many of the same ways that companies promote their products. There are a very limited number of sports agent jobs and many people enter the field after a lifetime spent around sports and athletes.

Sports Marketing Project Manager

What do they do?

Companies that are heavily invested in sports marketing will have marketing managers that focus exclusively on this type of marketing. A sports marketing project manager will plan, design, and supervise any ad campaign that markets to sports fans.

Education and Skills

All sports marketing project managers will need to have a degree in marketing. Experience as a former athlete or a sports fan is also important. Sports marketers need to understand the mentality of a sports fan from personal experience.

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

    GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.

  2. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

Marketing to sports fans is a greater challenge than it seems. It takes a versatile set of skills on the part of the marketer to target a range of demographics through a variety of advertising channels. They face tough competition from rival companies, and an audience that is more interested in the game than the ads. The best way for marketers to prepare themselves for these and other sports marketing challenges is to train in a sports marketing program.

There are currently over 100 sports marketing programs offered in the country. These programs focus specifically on the tactics of sports marketing and offer students access to athletes, broadcasters, and marketing professionals. Most programs also include an internship component that connects students with real world sports marketing companies.

If you’re interested in learning more about degrees in marketing, contact schools offering sport marketing programs.