5 of the best sports marketing campaigns

Few things grab our attention quite like sport does. From momentous one-off events like the Super Bowl and the UEFA Champions League final, to multi-week spectacles like the Olympics and Wimbledon Tennis Championships, hundreds of millions (and sometimes billions) of people tune in to see sports stars do things very few humans can.

Because of this reach, sport is an incredibly potent marketing tool. Executed well, sports marketing campaigns can capture the attention of fans, and help brands gain increased affinity and loyalty from their audience. Numerous companies have harnessed the power of sport to bolster their brands over the years, creating some of the most memorable marketing campaigns full-stop.

To pay homage to this type of marketing, we’ve put together a piece looking at some of the best sports marketing campaigns of all time, from Nike’s “Dream Crazy” advert to Pepsi’s “Change the Game”. Let’s dive in.

1. Dream Crazy (2018) – Nike

The story of Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign goes all the way back to 2016, when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took the knee during a pre-game national anthem in protest at racial injustice in the US. Though this action has subsequently become more widespread as a form of protest, he received a lot of backlash for doing so at the time, particularly from then-president Donald Trump

Fast forward to 2018, and despite the controversy around Kaepernick’s protest, sports behemoth Nike decided to use the former quarterback in its “Dream Crazy” marketing campaign. Comprising both a video and image of Kaepernick saying the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”, the advertisement breathed new life into Nike’s iconic tagline by showing solidarity with a huge social cause. 

Though the campaign was met with disapproval by many, with some even uploading videos of them burning their Nike products, the campaign was considered a success, with the company’s stocks rising by 5% in the weeks following the advert’s release. It also won a whole host of accolades, including the award for outstanding commercial at the Creative Arts Emmys and the Outdoor Grand Prix winner at the 2019 Cannes Lions awards.

2. Rule Yourself (2015) – Under Armour

In 2015, sports apparel giant Under Armour made waves with its Rule Yourself campaign. Launched in the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, it consisted of a range of adverts featuring different Under Armour ambassador athletes, including Michael Phelps (swimming), Stephen Curry (basketball), Tom Brady (American football), Misty Copeland (ballerina), and Jordan Spieth (golf). 

Arguably the advert that most struck a chord was the one featuring Phelps. Consisting of a short film focusing on the Olympic great’s struggles behind the scenes, it concluded with the memorable message of “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light”. Like the rest of the ads in the campaign, it did a fantastic job of focusing on the individual athlete, telling a detailed story from their perspective on the blood, sweat and tears that goes into succeeding at such a high level. 

Phelps’s advert became the fifth most shared Olympic ad of all time, and won the Film Craft Grand Prix at the 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The campaign is also believed to have played a huge role in Under Armour achieving record revenues in 2016, with the brand’s earnings rising 22% from 2015 to 2016.

3. Pelé and the Pause (1970) – Puma 

Our next entry is something a little different. Simultaneously one of the first examples of sports and vital marketing, Puma’s 1970 campaign certainly changed the game when it came to marketing stunts. 

So what happened exactly? In the 1970 World Cup quarter final between Brazil and Peru, as all the players had taken up their positions moments before kick off, Brazilian star striker Pelé stood at the halfway line and asked the referee to delay the kick off while he tied his shoelaces. At first glance, nothing seemed amiss, but this all changed when it took Pelé a whole 42 seconds to do the job. 

The reason? Puma had paid the Brazilian a whopping $120,000 (equivalent to $813,445 today) to take his time tying his shoelaces before kick off, with the sports brand knowing full well that the eyes of the world would be on Brazil’s star player. And boy did it pay off. From then on known as “Pelé and the Pause”, Puma’s sales skyrocketed by 300%.

4. Change the Game (2011) – Pepsi

It’s not just sports brands that benefit from sports marketing, as Pepsi showed back in 2011 with its ”Change the Game” campaign which was based around the Cricket World Cup. The tournament, which attracts hundreds of millions of viewers, represents a fantastic opportunity to tap into a new audience base, and Pepsi utilised this to perfection during the 2011 edition.

Releasing a series of ads featuring the idiosyncratic styles of famous cricket stars, the campaign showed the likes of M S Dhoni, Kevin Pietersen and Shakib Al Hasan doing their unique helicopter, switch hit and super scoop cricket shots respectively. With this, Pepsi sent an important message to a younger audience in particular, encouraging them to ‘Change the Game’ and challenge existing conventions, just like the featured cricket players did with their unorthodox playing styles.

The drink brand’s “Change the Game” campaign won three awards at the EFFIE India Awards 2011, bagging Silver for Integrated Advertising Campaign, Gold for Consumer Product Beverages and the overall Grand EFFIE Award.

5. Secret Tournament (2002) – Nike

Another entry from Nike rounds off our list of the best sports marketing campaigns. “The Secret Tournament” was also released to coincide with the 2002 FIFA World Cup and used a creative format to win over audiences.

The premise was simple yet inventive: an advert featuring 24 of the world’s best footballers — including the likes of Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo — divided into eight teams of three, all of whom played in a skill-laden first-goal-wins tournament on a ship, in a cage. Throw in former Manchester United legend Eric Cantona as the referee and the irresistibly catchy JXL remix of Elvis’s iconic “A Little Less Conversation” as the soundtrack, and you had a recipe for greatness.

Despite the £70 million outlay, the campaign was considered a success by Nike, with president Mark Parker commenting: “This spring’s integrated football marketing initiative was the most comprehensive and successful global campaign ever executed by Nike.” What’s more, it spawned a number of copycat tournaments worldwide, with around one to two million participants.

As these campaigns have shown, the power of sports marketing is undeniable, so it makes sense if you’re considering launching such a campaign yourself. Pitch’s sports marketing service offers integrated campaigns featuring strategic and creative services, plus distribution via earned (PR) and paid media. We are one of the UK’s longest-running sports specialist agencies, and continue to work with some of the world’s biggest brands, rights holders, broadcasters and media entities. Feel free to contact us today to find out more about our services, and check out some of our sports marketing campaigns here, for the likes of Pokémon, BT, Cinch and F1.

Further Reading