The Power Of Tribes In Sports

Tribes were best explained in author Seth Godin’s 2008 book of the same name, when he described them plainly as “any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, or an idea.” By this definition, everyone you know is a participant in countless tribes. You, yourself, could be a member of a political tribe, a Game of Thrones tribe, an office tribe, a Villanova Wildcats tribe, Pittsburgh Steelers tribe, or a Bruce Springsteen tribe. Even brands can be members of tribes, if they remember the rules of engagement.

These aren’t groups in any traditional sense; there usually aren’t scheduled meetings (aside from Sunday afternoons, for the Steelers tribe) — and these tribes’ connections need not be physical. Tribe members are often unaware of their connection to other members, until high fives are exchanged over a Clint Dempsey goal. In some cases, these tribes have direct leaders — although infrequently. They’re led from within and without, especially in sports. The leader role passes from LeBron James to Kyrie Irving — and back to LeBron James, but the Cleveland Cavaliers tribe remains loyal — sports tribes often transcend leadership, and are owned collectively by the tribe itself (see also: Packers, Green Bay). This fervent loyalty has rarely — if ever — been reproduced by any brand, television program, musician, or any other member of the entertainment world.

Simply put, sports tribes are unlike any other.

How so, you ask? Well for one, tribe members in the world of sport like to make it obvious. Really, really obvious. This is why you’re likely to see hats emblazoned with L’s and A’s in L.A., Cardinal red dotting every street corner in St. Louis, and “Roll Tide” tattoos in Tuscaloosa. Tribe members love what identification with a specific team says about them and their identity. Sometimes, they even love how it pits them competitively against members of rival tribes. The undying allegiance (or borderline insanity) that makes someone, like this unlucky author, a lifetime fan of a losing club, such as Hoosiers football, also subscribes them to a psychographic unlike any other.

Sponsors must work to gain entrance to the tribe and, more importantly, provide value to its members through sponsorship. Enhancing the experience of the tribe should be the goal of every brand sponsor. As with any relationship, exclusivity is important. Securing your place as the only officially recognized tribe-mate in your brand category can be invaluable. 

Sponsors can ask the tribe to reward them business only after establishing authenticity and providing something that enhances the tribe’s enjoyment. Once the sponsor becomes a tribe-mate, the upside is immeasurable — though, we as marketers work tirelessly to measure it. 

Sponsors are a critical part in delivering to the tribe what they want — whether it’s a ballpark’s experience, behind-the-scenes coverage, or in lesser-loved and under-funded sports — sometimes the existence of the sport itself. Sponsors align themselves tangentially with a tribe in values, pour a significant investment into that tribe’s culture, and wait for the reward because the reward factor is there and is equally unrivaled by traditional forms of advertisement.

Think back to the opening description of tribes. Can you name a key sponsor of your favorite reality show? Do you know what your favorite musician’s favorite quick-service restaurant is? I’m guessing not. But do you know what sneakers LeBron wears? Do you know what beer is served at your local ballpark? Do you know the presenting sponsor of the broadcast for your favorite sports league’s game of the week?

And that’s what sponsors are paying for. The recall. The sentimental tie so hard to earn. More so than in other tribes, tribe members in the sporting world are prone to giving their business to another tribe-member over an outsider. That is, of course, in cases where all other factors are close to equal — only rarely is this allegiance strong enough to overcome a major price differential or other inconvenience advantage. Meaning, tribe association isn’t likely to convince a consumer to jump from generic-brand mustard to Grey Poupon. 

The strength of the “reward factor” — how likely a consumer is to support a sponsor over its competitor is strongest in individual sports, auto-racing and the Olympics — where fans are aware that often athletes cannot compete without sponsors. It is weakest for the major team sports leagues, where fans know that sponsorship is not critical to the team’s continuation or success on the field.

This is why we, as marketers and sponsors, must strive to give tribes what they want, to go above and beyond in creating meaningful experiences, sharing original content, offering added value where others cannot.

If value is added, the tribe is entertained, the sponsor is happy, and everybody wins. Even when the team loses.

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