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Brand Strategy Sports Marketing Marketing

Brands should embrace sports fans, not superstars, to tell more emotional stories


By Joe Smith, Strategy partner

May 14, 2024 | 5 min read

With a delightfully huge summer of sports ahead, AMV BBDO’s Joe Smith urges marketers to bring fans to the fore rather than focusing on superstar endorsements.

Guinness ad

“Of all the things that don’t really matter, sport matters the most.” – Tim Vickery, football writer and broadcaster, Brazil. I love this quote.

It perfectly captures the illogical yet irresistible allure of sport.

We know sport shouldn’t matter so much. But we can’t help what it does to us–the drama, the unpredictability, the agony, and the glory.

Whether it’s kicking a ball into a net or sprinting around a track faster than everyone else, sport uniquely captivates us.

Sport dominates live TV viewing. In the US, 14 of the top 15 most-watched live broadcasts in 2023 were American football games. Only the Oscars made it on to the list at number 15.

Sport continues to drive newspaper sales and online clicks. It tops podcast charts and triggers major spikes on social media. Even without live events, the largest streaming services are scouting for the next Drive to Survive or Welcome to Wrexham to draw in new subscribers and keep them returning each month. And by 2025, over 318 million eSports enthusiasts are expected worldwide.

This vast audience gives sports fans significant influence. They can build communities and shape cultural agendas, or they can cause brands to falter. It was fan backlash, for example, that halted football’s proposed ‘Super League’ despite significant financial backing from Europe’s top clubs.

In sports marketing, athletes have traditionally been the focus. However, fans are often depicted as mere background figures, waving flags, reduced to clichés due to various rights restrictions.

We can do better.

While sports stars have featured in many memorable campaigns, like Channel 4’s Meet The Superhumans and Nike’s Dream Crazy, there’s a shift towards celebrating the fan experience.

With the Euros approaching, brands will line up for endorsements from the stars. Marketing teams across the country will scour the list of potential Olympians for their next campaign faces. These endorsements can boost a brand’s visibility and sales temporarily, but we should consider if there might be a smarter investment or a more compelling story to tell.

After all, not every brand can afford to feature Cristiano Ronaldo or Simone Biles. And with top stars endorsing multiple brands, each new partnership can feel less authentic.

But any brand can capture the essence of being a fan–viewing the action from the perspective of those in the stands, not the millionaire athletes.

It’s time for brands to harness the power of fans to tell more authentic, relatable, and emotional stories about how sport truly moves us, placing innovative ideas, not just superstars, at the heart of their campaigns.

Here are four campaigns that effectively capture the emotional impact of sport on its real heroes–the fans:

  1. Quilmes – Coincidences: Fans are superstitious. Quilmes drew parallels between 1986, the last time Argentina won the World Cup, and 2022, inspiring belief in fans that history could repeat itself.

  2. Guinness – Don’t Jinx It: As the Rugby World Cup approached with Ireland ranked number one, Guinness resonated with Ireland’s cautiously hopeful fans, capturing decades of dashed hopes with a campaign that urged them to keep their dreams quiet.

  3. Michelob Ultra – Dreamcaster: Michelob Ultra used new technology to enhance the fan experience, helping Cameron Black become the first blind basketball commentator on TV, showcasing how ambition can transform engagement.

  4. Heinz – The Heinzjack: During the 2022 World Cup, Heinz creatively circumvented sponsorship restrictions with a campaign centered around a German named Heinz, demonstrating how creativity can flourish within regulatory confines.

Of all the things that don’t really matter, sport matters the most. By focusing on the fan experience rather than the superstars, we connect our brands to emotions that resonate universally.

Brand Strategy Sports Marketing Marketing

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