Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

What are the Strongest Sports Brands and How Do They Continue to Dominate?

BRANDING! We hear about it all the time and it’s a vital part to any industry (including sports). But what is branding and what does it have to do with so many industries? Most people reading this probably understand what branding is, but here’s a brief rundown just in case. The American Marketing Association (AMA) says that “branding” is a name, term, sign, symbol or design (or a combination of these) that is used as a way to identify a company. This separates and distinguishes companies from each other. If a company or a person is good at branding, then they’ll be able to convince consumers of what their brand is – being successful in branding means that consumers are going to think of your brand as an answer to their problems.

To gain some insight about sports branding, I referred to a very interesting Forbes article by Peter J. Schwartz titled “The World’s Top Sports Brands.” Schwartz talked about the constant battle that goes on off the field that people never think about and looked at four different sports areas: athletes, businesses, teams, and events. In each area they found some interesting information about the top brands, and I’d like to elaborate on that!

Everyone’s favorite athlete (sarcasm) was still at the top of the list according to the Forbes article: the wonderful, trustworthy Tiger Woods. At this point everyone and their mothers know Tiger Woods, and it has nothing to do with what he accomplished on the golf course. According to the article, Woods held the top spot amongst athletes with a brand value that hits an extraordinary $82 million. This may be surprising to some because of how bad his image has become in the last year, however, his endorsement deals up to that point were so massive that he’s way ahead of the next closest three people. Woods may be following in Kobe Bryant’s comeback footsteps (Bryant managed to improve his questionable image and his income since 2003).

The real question is how did the Tiger Woods brand get so strong? He obviously knew what he was doing because he was able to create a strong name brand that remained powerful even when he messed up as much as he did. Tiger Woods knew how to sell himself and that’s how he created such a strong brand. He knew that he had to be different then the rest of the golfers. He not only looked different but he was able to create this mysterious powerful figure that intrigued people.

Nike has created a strong brand by connecting with consumers

Nike has created a strong brand by connecting with consumers

It was no surprise that Nike was the number one sports business on the list. Nike has one of the strongest brands you can find anywhere! Their brand is worth over $10 billion and it is known worldwide. The largest part of their brand is attributed to their merchandise with the Nike logo – fans all over the world use their products. Nike has created a strong brand by understanding the importance of connecting to the consumer! They accomplished this by using professional athletes that consumers love and trust. Michael Jordan is the biggest of all the athletes, and he was definitely someone they trusted!

The second sport business on Forbes’s list was ESPN: the media giant had nearly $10 billion in revenue. They seem to be continually successful by expanding rapidly and creating a large amount of resources. They get their brand out everywhere possible, including restaurants, the Internet, TV, books, and movies. Just like Nike, ESPN understands how to target their audience. Both of these companies should be viewed as powerhouses that truly understand how to create a strong brand. When someone thinks about sports they immediately think about ESPN and Nike!

It’s important to build a brand that distinguishes you within your industry. You must understand how to build your brand and gain (or re-gain) consumer trust, otherwise you won’t get very far. Also, using well-crafted promotional products to generate brand recognition is vital to being successful as a company. Looking at some of the top brands in sports can teach us all a lot.

What’s your favorite sports brand? Do you think the brands on this list deserve the recognition?


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  1. Jill Tooley

    It’s amazing how much these sports figures can screw up and STILL get a bunch of hype! Tiger Woods seems like the type of person that everyone loves to hate, and I think that’s partly where the brand fascination comes from. Although, I heard a couple of sponsors were dropping him this year…so apparently that fascination isn’t totally permanent.

    Nike and ESPN do represent the sports market pretty well. They’ve both been around for eons and they’ve managed to gain the trust of their users. I’d consider both of them credible sources and outstanding examples of good branding!

    Good post, Joe 🙂

  2. JPO

    Nice Post. I have a feeling that Nike has tried to mandate that the athletes it sponsors be as least controversial as possible. Michael Jordan was never really outspoken about anything, thus appealing to as many people as possible. Tiger was on the same path until…. well…. you know….

  3. Scooby DOO!

    What article about strongest sports brands does NOT include something about the BEARS. You MUST be a packer fan. Go E-A-G-L-E-S!

  4. JJ "Suite G"

    Nike will probably remain one of the top sports brands in world for quite some time. Heck, I’m not even a “sports guy,” but their brand immediately comes to mind before any other. That kind of brand recognition doesn’t go away easily. They could endorse a dozen more “controversial” athletes and still be on top.

  5. LK

    I think ESPN does a good job branding. They even branched into an area where you may be surprised to see ESPN but, to me, was a GREAT idea. This year on Dancing with the Stars, they ocassionally had 2 guys from ESPN on the show doing short humorous clips where they discussed the dancers. I think this was a good idea because a lot of the celebrity dancers on the show are athletes so this isn’t an area unrelated to ESPN. Also, I’m sure there are a good number of husbands/boyfriends out there that are forced into watching this show (or even secretly like it) and having guys from ESPN on DWTS probably makes it a little more enjoyable for them to watch and further gives ESPN a good image in their eyes.

  6. LGroce

    There was a lot of talk about LeBron James’ brand when he was debating about whether to stay in Cleveland or go to Chicago, New York, and Miami. I’m not sure made the best decision because there has been a huge backlash on LeBron. I think from a business perspective LeBron made a very poor decision.

  7. Bret Bonnet

    It kills me inside that Tiger Woods made this list…

    I think we should take Tiger Woods, Ben Roethlisberger, and Michael Vick, strap them to the back of a rocket, and blast them ALL into outer space.

    I bet the Chicago Bears would be in the top 3 “brands” in all of sports if there was such a ranking…

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