It’s hard to miss the tangible imprints of sports marketing: iconic Super Bowl commercials, proud declarations of “The Official Soda of the MLB,” and enviable sports shoes customized to match a star player’s success. Glowing brand names light up stadium entrances, and painted logos sit under inches of ice in hockey arenas. Sports marketing is everywhere, and works tirelessly to remain at the forefront of the intersections of brand interest and sports fandom at a city and national level. But can a team’s fan base actually influence, or ‘lift’, the success and perception of a brand?

We started to answer this question in 2013 by focusing on brand lift among a variety of well-known brands and professional sports teams in the Pittsburgh area. Now, we have expanded that study beyond Pittsburgh to include a number of prominent sports cities across the country — Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Dallas, and Chicago. The brands we explored largely held some degree of sponsorship with at least one of the teams in each city. While these cities are far from all-encompassing, they provide a snapshot of the relationship between a sports team’s fans and a brand’s ‘lift.’

Similar to the 2013 study, keep in mind that the ‘lift’ seen in the charts below corresponds to perception among sports fans versus non-sports fans, and does not correlate to a brand’s overall success. In the same way, a ‘negative lift’ does not imply that a brand is poorly perceived; instead, it means that there may not be a specific fan base that values a brand more highly.

In this first figure, we’ll show how we reached the questions and methodology that sparked our exploration into sports marketing and brand lift.

At face value, we can see that adults in the Chicago area are nearly 60% more likely to be favorable than unfavorable toward United Airlines. To focus on sports marketing within Chicago, however, we decided to dig deeper. Does the Blackhawks playing at the United Center have any impact on the audience more likely to drive United Airlines’ success? Are Blackhawks fans more excited about United since their team plays there?

The questions we asked were straightforward:
1) How closely someone followed a specific team or organization
2) Their overall opinion of a brand

From the above figure, United Airlines sees around a 14% brand lift among fans of the Chicago Blackhawks, insinuating that fans of the Blackhawks seem to value United more highly. We used a similar method across all brands and teams we explored:

While not every brand has a relationship with every team we explored, observing the connection between brands and all sports teams in a city helped us look into the impact that a brand’s connection — through proximity or sponsorship — has on a team’s fan base. From the start, we can observe that global athletic apparel, equipment, and food and beverage companies — including Nike, Adidas, and Dick’s — see some of the highest brand lift among sports fans in the cities we observed. Gillette sees the highest brand lift among Boston sports fans; overall, Taco Bell seems to see a significant lift among sports fans across the country.

None of these observations are particularly difficult to find, but determining why they occur is a bit more complicated. So we took things a step further by asking the following:
1) What impact does team sponsorship have on brand lift?
2) How does naming rights significantly influence the probability of lift?
3) Will brand lift be higher for brands with headquarters in a particular city?

Brands Sponsoring Teams

Pizza Hut, a sponsor of the Pittsburgh Steelers since July 2018, saw a 13.9% brand lift among Steelers fans (with 10.1%% among Pirates fans and 3.9% among Penguins fans).

Perhaps more notably, the popular Beats by Dre saw a massive 22.1% brand lift among LA Lakers fans — second to a 23.1% lift among LA Kings fans.

Coca-Cola and Ticketmaster both saw lifts among fans of the Boston Celtics, whom they sponsor. Vineyard Vines, however, a sponsor of the New England Patriots, saw a lift among Patriots fans of only 5.7% — less than half of the lift that occurred among Boston Celtics fans. The only brand that saw a lift among Boston Patriots fans was Gillette, likely for reasons beyond just sponsorship.

Brands With Naming Rights

Brands with naming rights to a stadium or arena typically saw their greatest brand lift among the fans of the team associated with that stadium. For example, among Pittsburgh sports fans, Heinz saw a brand lift among Steelers fans more than 11 times higher than that of Pirates or Penguins fans. PPG, the most recent company to hold naming rights over the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins, saw nearly twice as much lift among Penguins fans as their predecessor, Consol Energy.

In Chicago, both the Bulls and Blackhawks play at the United Center; each saw a 14.2% and 19.2% brand lift among fans, respectively. A number of factors could have contributed to this disparity, although a possible one is the success of the Blackhawks in comparison to that of the Bulls.

In New York, while MetLife only saw a 0.7% brand lift among Jets fans, Giants fans contributed to a 17.4% brand lift. Among Dallas sports fans, AT&T saw a 16.3% lift. In Boston, as mentioned previously, Gillette saw a massive 30% brand lift among Patriots fans.

While this does not encompass all the stadiums with naming rights in the cities we studied or, more broadly, all stadiums in the US, the starkly high brand lift associated with the brand’s stadium and team starts to answer one of the questions we asked back in 2013 — maybe sports fans are more inclined to positively view a certain brand because it is associated with their team.

Brands Headquartered Near a Team

Among brands headquartered in or near a specific city, Gillette saw the greatest brand lift in Boston. This, in combination with Gillette’s naming rights to the Patriots’ stadium and team sponsorship, likely all contribute to the extra name recognition among Patriots fans. Also in Boston, Dunkin’ followed closely behind Gillette with an average lift of 19.1%.

Dick’s Sporting Goods also saw a notable average 15.7% brand lift among sports fans in the Pittsburgh area; the greatest lift was seen among Pirates fans (19.4%), with the Steelers following (16.8%) and then the Pirates (10.9%). Although headquartered in Pittsburgh and with naming rights to stadiums, Heinz saw 7.4% lift among fans, while PNC saw a surprisingly low 3.2% lift.

The LA Kings contributed to the majority of lift for brands we explored in the Los Angeles area, with the most notable lift associated with the LA Lakers being Beats by Dre. In a similar way, fans of the New York Giants contributed most to lift among New York brands.

Brands Sponsoring National Organizations

Based on the above chart, NBA fans consistently see the most lift, with NFL fans following close behind. With historically athlete-focused product lines, it is not surprising that Adidas, Gatorade, and Nike saw the highest brand lifts among national sports fans with averages of at least 10%. However, despite sponsoring the NFL, NBA, and NHL, Ticketmaster saw relatively low brand lift among fans of the three organizations — even reaching a slightly negative lift among NHL fans.

In addition, despite its sponsorship role in the NBA, Pizza Hut only saw a 1.7% brand lift among NFL fans, while the NFL’s former pizza sponsor, Papa John’s, saw a 4.9% lift among fans. Pizza Hut’s controversy post-acquisition of the “Official Pizza of the NFL” title in 2018 (involving former title-holder Papa John’s) strained relations with the New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys. However, in this process, Pizza Hut picked up a Pittsburgh Steelers sponsorship last year, which is likely why brand lift among Patriots fans and Cowboys fans is so low in comparison to the Steelers’ lift (13%). On the other hand, national lift among NFL fans for Papa John’s hovers around 5%, whereas lift is around 2 times as large among Dallas Cowboys fans.

In respect to PepsiCo, the 7.8% lift among NHL fans pales in comparison to that of Chicago Blackhawks fans, where a lift twice as large occurs.

Brands Sponsoring Women’s National Soccer Team

Following their World Cup win this past July, the US Women’s National Soccer Team’s success reached an all-time high. Among several of their top sponsors, Nike and Verizon saw incredibly high brand lifts at 23.3% and 14.6%. The Nike lift is particularly interesting, as Nike makes the team’s uniform and has seen surges in their jersey sales since the World Cup win this past July. For all four sponsors we observed, however, all saw a lift greater than 5.0%, indicating that the relationship between fans of the US Women’s Soccer Team and a sponsoring brand has the potential to be a strong one.

Overall, it appears that a correlation does exist between a brand’s geographic or sponsorship-driven connection to a sports team and that brand’s perception among fans. While this certainly does not occur among all brands and all teams, the strength of a relationship between a team and a sponsor can be incredibly influential in how that brand is perceived among fans. In the future, we hope to observe how a team’s success — both during the regular season and at a championship level — increases or decreases lift in the shorter-term.