How 3 Sports Leagues Leaned Into Brand Purpose More Than Ever This Year

Executives share why it was increasingly important in 2020

a panel of four faces in a oom call
All three speakers agreed that sports leagues are uniquely positioned to effect change. Adweek
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Brand purpose has long been a focus of marketers who want their brands to stand for something bigger than the products or services they sell. It’s been such a buzzy topic that the Association of National Advertisers named “brand purpose” its 2018 marketing words of the year.

Speaking at today’s virtual Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit, executives from three sports leagues discussed the importance of establishing brand purpose and the challenges that come with it.

“Brands are spending a lot more time and resources trying to identify their purpose and develop strategies,” said Jill Gregory, Nascar evp and chief marketing and content officer. “There’s more attention on this area than ever before, which I think we would all agree is really good.”

JoAnn Neale, Major League Soccer’s president and chief administrative officer, said sports leagues in particular have the “unique ability and power to effect social change” since they often have a lot of influence.

Jessica Berman, deputy commissioner and evp of business affairs at the National Lacrosse League, said the bar has become higher in this space as more brands double down on finding their purpose. She said although that is a good thing, it can make it more difficult for brands to stand out.

Each executive found that taking a stand and having a purpose was especially important this year. Berman pointed to a recent example involving the World Games, an international sporting event that’s set to take place in Birmingham, Ala. next year.

A Native American team called the Iroquois Nationals initially wasn’t invited to compete since it doesn’t represent a sovereign nation. This decision spurred backlash in the lacrosse community.

“People who know the sport of lacrosse know that the sport is deeply rooted in the indigenous community,” she explained. Although the Iroquois Nationals aren’t a part of the National Lacrosse League (NLL), the organization put out a statement in support of the team.

Ultimately, the organizers of the World Games reversed their decision, and Ireland’s lacrosse team gave up its spot in the competition to let the Iroquois Nationals play instead.

“Seeing the outpouring of support from everyone in our ecosystem, within the NLL and more broadly, was one of those moments that I felt really proud,” Berman said.

This summer, Nascar made the decision to ban the Confederate flag from it events after Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in its top racing series, asked for its removal.

“It was a very visible and direct message. Risky, given some of the sentiments of our fan base, but it was the right thing to do,” Gregory said. “We wanted to make a statement that Nascar was a place where everyone was welcome. If you have a symbol of hate that makes people uncomfortable, then that wasn’t something that we wanted at our facilities.”

When Major League Soccer returned this summer after taking a hiatus due to Covid-19, a group of more than 100 of the league’s Black players organized a silent pregame demonstration to honor George Floyd, who was murdered by the police in Minneapolis in May. The league helped organize logistics of the peaceful protest.

“That was a really compelling moment for all of us,” Neale said.


@Minda_Smiley minda.smiley@adweek.com Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.
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