Sponsoring Fans Instead Of Athletes

The dawning of the superstar athlete came with the adorning of sponsorships. When we, as consumers, began to care for athletes' off-the-field opinions as much as for their on-the-field talent, the sports world turned upside down. What started as sport-related shoe and deodorant sponsorships have strangely diverted to soda pop and fast food backing. Indeed, the image of the athlete reigns over common sense for fans.

Sponsors have doled out billions to share, just for a moment, the power of an athlete's image for a specific audience that only a celebrity personality can bring.

Athlete personalities used to be one way to segment society's opinions. You wanted a brash audience, you got Rodman. You wanted clean cut, you got Jordan. You wanted unknown, you got Darko Milicic and certainly paid the price. Whatever your brand, whatever your audience, whatever your budget, there was an athlete to fit the bill.

But things are changing. Today, we have all sorts of social filters with social media. Want to know who loves Ocho Cinco? There's a fan group on Facebook. Want to know who loves Frisbee Golf? They're loud and proud on Twitter. Whatever type of target market you want, you don't need a superstar athlete to find them, you just need the most passionate fans. Not only are they as credible as feature athletes, they've also already found your audience by social networking.

There's been a lot of discussion about the popularity of soccer in the U.S. Our studio, Archrival, recently teamed up with American Outlaws, who are the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team's official supporters. Not official as in they were adorned by the U.S. Soccer Association, but official because they claimed it: They're at every game to dominate the stadium.

If you can't hear them, you'll see them in "Outlawed in American flag" bandanas. They seize the streets and bombard the bleachers on game day, making them the pre-eminent fan group for soccer by sheer desire. And if you want into the soccer community, American Outlaws holds your ticket.

Sponsors could spend money for the popular goalkeeper to hawk their product, or drop some serious cash on stadium logo placements, but going direct saves you the costs of a high-priced middle man. To be sure, you'll definitely reach way less people on the surface, but you will make greater strides with those whom you seek to have the most brand equity.

The Red Rowdies are known for providing the Houston Rockets with the true home court advantage. You could sponsor Tracy McGrady for $$$$$, or you could hang your logo in the Toyota Center for $$$, or you could get the Red Rowdies to pump up your product all game as they throw off the defense for $. The Rowdies always get noticed and are always up to something entertaining. And they'd probably do it if you bought them pizza and beer before the game (¢).

It wasn't until the advent of social media that fan bases could truly organize. American Outlaws is spread out across the U.S. and stays in touch with its fan leaders in each city via Twitter and Facebook. Add in blogs, YouTube and Flickr, and you've got a whole social media smorgasbord for sponsors to tap into. Getting local street cred can be achieved by brands who couldn't have done it just five years ago.

A word to the wise: These groups, by the nature of being fans, are not always organizations that you can control, nor should you try. Being a big corporate sponsor with an iron fist will only ruin the relationship you seek. Having an organized youth-smart strategy before jumping in will help your cause immensely. Sending the Baseline Bums a bunch of All-State coozies will do more damage than good.

And, lastly, it should be noted that all of this must be tempered by realizing that no fan group can replace the complete exposure an athlete sponsorship gives. In fact, sponsoring athletes and fan groups might be the most powerful one-two punch a brand can muster. But for those products that desire to get on the field but can't afford the Manning, fan groups prove to be a worthy play.

It may not turn the sports world right-side up, but it certainly will win meaningful brand relationships. Go, Huskers.

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6 comments about "Sponsoring Fans Instead Of Athletes ".
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  1. paul myers, July 28, 2009 at 12:55 p.m.

    Its all about supporting the lifestyle in order to reach the super-fans who are the consumers you desire to reach. While it is important to sponsor the athletes, in order to be perceived as authentic and credible, it is crucial to support the lifestyle or the experience to reach the fans - especially in "lifestyle" sports or events such as surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross or other youth targeted events such as music tours.

    If you support the lifestyle, you support what the fans are passionate about and thus the fans will support your brand. That is, as long as you do it in an authentic and credible manner!

  2. Tomasito Bobadilla from BFM Movimiento LLC, July 28, 2009 at 2:06 p.m.

    You make a compelling argument, but any of those fans would not be involved if the Image is not the driving force. Athletes are still the driving force for any fans. This also includes Music Fan Clubs. The Jonas Bros. and Myley Cyrus fans club are in the millions, sponsoring these millions of fans would not make the brand relevant without the Image/Icon/Personality attachment.

    The formula for brands is to fine those early and I mean teen early Athletes and develop a relationship to nurture their Sports activity. Ryan Scheckler and others is due in part by the infusion of Red Bull marketing managers who were close to the scene to understand his potential. Under Armour, credibility in the Apparel arena is due to being authentic in discovering and nurturing these incredible College Icons. Brands must be knowledgeable enough to see the potential of future stars before the whoring takes effect. When a Brand puts a Million in front of you, common sense will tell you to take it. Like Nike with P-Rod. The Iconic Image of the Athlete will not diminish with his core lifestyle and scene, like Shaun White. In my opinion, sponsoring fan clubs, the Red Rowdies, American Outlaws or the NY Giants Big Blue club is a benefit but not your gross generating ROI objective. My money will always be on the Image that's driving that lifestyle, whether it is skateboarding, motorcross, surfing, basketball, base jumping, or music tours....No Iconic Image, No Fans.......

  3. Marty Wetherall from Fallon, July 28, 2009 at 2:19 p.m.

    Very nice post. Social media is the great equalizer. Now NBA players find out they're traded from fans on Twitter before they hear it from their team.

    Like David Meerman Scott says, on the web, you are what you publish, and fans everywhere are building their own brands around the ideas and content they share. Fans are naturally social and their content is engaging, especially to those who share their same passions.

    My company FanChatter created a fan content aggregator/publisher that the NBA's Timberwolves are using on their homepage at Fans are coming back several times a day to see what each other is saying and join in the chatter -- even in the off-season! If sponsors can offer value in this context by showing their support of the fans, delivering timely offers, etc., that's a big win because the fans will reverberate the message both on- and offline.

  4. Mike Chase, July 28, 2009 at 2:43 p.m.

    For innovative marketers, it opens a word of opportunity to forge that deeper connection to fans.

    Brands can associate themselves with athletes who may not be big ticket endorsers in the traditional sense, but now have the kind of visibility and accessibility that is quite valuable. It also allows for endorsement contracts to be radically restructured, making deals more possible for brands who would have been previously locked out.

    A whole new and exciting world for visionary brands. Take Stewart Cink and UST golf club shafts. Cink had over 520,000 followers on twitter before he won the British and now has added over 100,000 more. All along, he listed the UST shafts he uses in his bio section. Not too shabby...

  5. Bram Weiser from MTA NYCT, July 21, 2010 at 3:48 a.m.

    Dear Clint,

    Apologies for getting to your article so long after it was published, but, as a big soccer fan here in the States for many years, I was surprised to read of this group called, "American Outlaws", in your article whom you cite as being official supporters of the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team. (Also, it's not the U.S. Soccer Association, but the U.S. Soccer Federation, or, simply, U.S. Soccer.)

    Uh, who are they again, because I've never(!) heard of them before.

    The only group that I know whose presence at every U.S. Men's National Team match is easily spotted because of their (typical) placement in the crowd behind one of the goals is Sam's Army. They dress in red, and are an organized collection of fans from across the country who make their presence felt, whether at matches held Stateside, or even at World Cup matches abroad to which they'd organized trips.

    Please feel free to visit their Website,, to learn more about them. I just wish you'd done that, though, before publishing your article, and mentioning a group whose name was news to me.

    Bram Weiser

  6. Ernst Thaelmann from American Outlaws, July 8, 2011 at 1:47 p.m.

    We are American Outlaws.

    Who the hell is "Bram Weiser", never heard of him.

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