Sports Brands: How to Compete on a Global Playing Field

By Jonathan Bernstein

Driven by a burgeoning middle class and new technologies, sport properties face immense challenges yet ample opportunities to increase the value of their brands. Competition is certainly fierce. All of the major professional leagues—from the NFL, NBA, and MLB in North America to the top European football leagues—are vying for the hearts and wallets of billions of new fans across the world, including Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

It’s a global playing field

Fueled by the financial ambitions of
 the leagues/clubs themselves and the adoption of smart technologies that give millions of fans access to their favorite teams, the sports industry has truly embraced globalization. During the 2013 summer season, top Premier League clubs Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United organized overseas tours in an effort to expand their reach. There is now a push to introduce American football into India with the introduction of the Elite Football League. The F1 season now has six Asian circuits in Japan, China, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and India, while the NBA is set to launch its most comprehensive overseas schedule to date.

Leveraging digital to differentiate

Social media continues to allow brands to deliver richer fan experiences before, during, and after a game. Teams in the NBA, NFL, and NHL have started to focus on “game day experiences” by building social media command hubs that elevate pre-selected fans—a smart move, as they know what other fans want, they know the chants and rituals, and they know what the expectations are. MLB has built fan engagement using crowdsourcing techniques through its “Pulse” line graph where it tracks the volume of tweets by fans during a match. Peaks in the graph naturally represent the most exciting parts of the game and allow fans to quickly check in and re-watch the highlights provided by MLB. Clearly, those brands that are best able to lever-age this technology will be in the best position to create incremental value.

What Would Alex Ferguson Do?

This year saw the retirement of Manchester United’s longest-serving manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Since taking charge in 1986, Ferguson trans-formed Man U into one of the world’s most valuable sports franchises. By institutionalizing its values, codifying a distinct working culture, and introducing elite training methods and squad rotation, he laid the foundation for enduring success by building the brand from the inside out. Ferguson’s willingness to embrace change makes him not just one of the most successful coaches in history, but also an incredibly savvy (and inspirational) brand builder.

Jonathan Bernstein ( is Executive Director of Strategy, Interbrand Singapore

RankBrand NameBrand Value ($m)Change in Brand Value