The success of the team is one source of brand association, but other aspects of the team and its marketing, promotion, and publicity efforts can develop strong brand associations. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Logo, marks, nickname, and mascot
- Head coaches
- Entertainment package surrounding the game or event
- Stadium or arena in which a team plays
Although branding is more than just managing the organization’s logo, the logo, marks, nickname, and mascot can all create strong, unique, and favorable brand associations. Take the team colors as an example. Los Angeles Lakers fans would probably mention the purple and yellow uniform colors, Oakland Raider fans often refer to their team as the “silver and black,” and University of Michigan fans have strong associations with the “maize and blue.” When creating or changing a logo, teams should take great care to consider the ways brand associations can be developed. For example, should the nickname represent a unique feature about the location of the team, as is the case with the Phoenix Suns (referring to the perpetual sunny, warm weather in Phoenix) or the Pittsburgh Steelers (hearkening back to Pittsburgh’s history as a steel town)? Or, should the logo contain colors that are fashionable and attractive (such as the San Jose Sharks using teal in the early 1990s when that color was popular)? Or, should the nickname be easily translatable into a mascot that can create strong brand associations in the minds of kids (as is the case with Benny the Bull, the mascot of the Chicago Bulls)? All of these things need to be considered when changing the logo or nickname.
Very often the owner(s) of the sport franchise are the most visible team personnel aside from the head coach and the players on the team. Through their actions, owners can generate positive brand associations. For example, when Ted Leonsis purchased the Washington Capitals (of the NHL), when Howard Schultz purchased the Seattle Supersonics (of the NBA), and when John Henry and Tom Werner purchased the Boston Red Sox (of MLB), they all publicly stated initiatives geared toward pleasing their fans or making their fans prouder of the team. In a similar vein, Mark Cuban receives and responds to e-mails from fans of the Dallas Mavericks (of the NBA) on a daily basis. By doing this, he creates the impression that he cares about the fans’ opinions, thus creating a favorable brand association. What about George Steinbrenner, the owner of MLB’s New York Yankees? Although baseball fans who do not like the Yankees tend to have negative associations with Mr. Steinbrenner, Yankee fans tend to have very favorable associations with him because he is committed to winning championships and does everything in his power to do so.
A more obvious source of brand associations for teams is the players themselves. However, a variety of associations can be developed in association with the players. For example, associations could be formed based on how a player actually performs. Michael Jordan was perceived to walk on air, particularly in his early years with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. Shaquille O’Neal of the NBA’s Miami Heat is a supremely gifted center who just happens to be seven feet (213 centimeters) tall and weigh more than 300 pounds (136 kilograms)—thus, his size factors into the associations. Associations can also be formed around a player off the court. For example, not only is Tim Duncan’s (of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs) on-court play a source of positive associations, but his off-the-court behavior is as well. Duncan was named the 2004 “Outstanding Young San Antonian” by the Rotary Club of San Antonio, largely because of his efforts in raising money for breast cancer research and supporting educational and athletic programs for youth. In doing this, fans of the Spurs have another reason to form strong associations with Tim Duncan. Not only is he a great player, but he may also be perceived as a “good guy” or as charitable for these endeavors off the court.
Similarly, the head coach of a team can serve as a significant source of brand associations. If you are a football fan, think about the brand associations that coach Bill Parcells of the Dallas Cowboys generates: very successful coach, strict disciplinarian, very direct and honest with the media. Similar to players, the potential for associations with coaches goes beyond their actual performance on the field. Given the fact that high-profile college athletes play for their teams only for a maximum of four years, head coaches can be an even more important source of brand associations on college campuses. For example, Tom Brennan, the University of Vermont men’s basketball coach, is a popular figure in Vermont, not only because of his team’s success on the court, but also because he cohosts a humorous morning show on the radio. Similarly, Joe Paterno provides a very strong association with Penn State football. As Guido D’Elia, Penn State’s director of brand communications, put it: “The bell ringer for the [Penn State] brand is a 77-year-old man who believes in doing things the right way win, lose, or draw. That is respected around the nation and that is typical at PSU.” What about Pat Summitt? The women’s basketball coach at Tennessee is such a popular figure in Tennessee and women’s basketball circles that she has her own Web site: www.coachsummitt.com.
A word of caution must be offered with respect to players and coaches as sources of brand associations. Player mobility at the professional team sport level is as great as ever, with few players being a member of the same team for their entire careers. Further, many high-profile collegiate athletes now stay at their universities for only one or two years before turning professional. This means that a team should not singularly focus its brand-building efforts on one player, particularly when that player’s contract is nearing an end. Professional and collegiate coaches are also quite mobile these days. Thus, although they can be tremendous sources of associations, their departure can cause a significant loss of brand associations that ultimately hurts the team’s brand. One way to counteract such departures is to understand if and how the player or coach played a role in building the team brand and then sign players and coaches who either have the potential to build similar associations, or have the potential to build their own unique and favorable associations. Does this mean that owners and athletics directors should consider the marketing implication of their coaching decisions? Based on the preceding discussion of how they create brand associations, the answer is yes.