COHN Voices: Sports Authority

September 6, 2016

The Fall of Brand Marketing at Sports Authority

In need of some brand marketing wisdom and inspiration? Swing by 2434 W. Caithness in Denver, the COHN headquarters and home to dozens of brilliant marketing professionals. It often seems there is no marketing issue this team can’t tackle.

Last month, we put this to the test by asking our experts how they would handle the PR and Tourism crisis emanating from Rio de Janeiro: How can Rio salvage this enormous tourism opportunity before it’s too late?

The blog post, which kicked off a new series we’re calling COHN Voices, was a huge hit with our readers, providing a chance to peek behind the curtain and see how the creative and strategic juices flow at COHN.

For the second episode of COHN Voices, we’re looking back at Sports Authority, the beleaguered sporting goods retailer that closed its doors this summer.

Rather than address any business shortcomings—monstrous debt from an aggressive acquisition strategy, the $6 million per year stadium sponsorship, etc.—we’ll instead “stay in our lane” and simply discuss the company’s brand marketing errors that contributed to the eventual demise of Sports Authority:

Looking back, did brand and marketing mistakes ultimately doom Sports Authority?

Jeff Cohn, President & CEO:

From my perspective, it’s a straightforward brand and brand activation issue. Sports Authority (SA) was a typical big box retailer that rode the wave of big box store expansion in the 90s and 2000s. They drove their business on price, location, and promotion, but little evidence of strategic brand strategy. I think the company took the perspective that more locations, more merchandise, and more brands would lead to success. And perhaps that did work for a while.

However, consumers today want brand experiences. They want customer service. They want online engagement that reflects their needs and wants. They want cool, slick, fun. And they tend to prefer brands that have great design standards (think Target, Ikea, etc). SA did little of that. They were all about price and selection. But go into their brick and mortar stores and the feeling was flat. The people unengaged. The atmosphere boring in what should be an inspiring arena.

And finally, I’ll say this somewhat self-served comment. SA used a 100% in-house agency model. They hardly relied on outside agencies to help guide, build, and grow their brand. Their reputation was that there was no desire to invest in the services we provide. An outside agency might have made a big difference in helping SA to survive. It would have been a far better use of marketing dollars versus the tens of millions of dollars spent on a stadium sponsorship.

Amy Larson, VP Marketing:

When Sports Authority bought out Gart Sports locally, they were smart enough to keep the things that customers loved about Gart — SNIAGRAB, the sports castle, etc. As a parent of kids who play sports, they were our go-to retailer. I much preferred the convenience of Sports Authority than trying to deal with the madness of Dick’s at our giant shopping mall. The employees were friendly, someone always greeted you when you walked in, and the time I bought a basketball hoop, were kind enough to help me get it loaded in my truck.

My guess on where they went wrong was trying to be too big. While stadium/venue naming rights are a great opportunity for building visibility and brand awareness, does that sponsorship automatically lead to increased sales? Six million dollars can go a long way… if it’s driven from the right direction.

Ali Lego, Chief Operating Officer:

I think it comes down to brand distinction. Why would I shop at Sports Authority versus one of its competitors? They were basically just a department store or distributor; it’s not like you chose to shop at Sports Authority for Sports Authority products.

Honestly, the entire Sports Authority brand for me personally was related to the Gart Sports Castle (on Broadway in downtown Denver), where it truly felt like a fun field trip to go there. Each floor had something new and different and distinct, and you walked through and experienced Sports Authority the way shoppers do at IKEA. Plus, you could physically try out the goods there, whether it was a golf club or skis or mountain bikes. I even remember that only one of the check-out counters had this Gatorade candy that I liked, so I would seek out that register when I paid.

At the end of the day, I had multiple reasons to go to the Castle that didn’t necessarily have to do with the products they sold. The Castle used to give you that same experience that REI still does today, and it’s really how Sports Authority should have positioned its brand and shopper experience from Day 1.

Lisa Wieting, VP Planning & Integration:

After 10 years working in retail, I have seen two types of companies:

1. Those who chase the bright, shiny objects with the only goal of being first, “innovative,” and/or buzz-worthy.
2. Those who have a strong brand and build a long-term but flexible strategy around that brand.

From my peripheral view, it appears that Sports Authority fell into the common trap of investing in the “bright, shiny object” vs. investing in brand and strategy. My question to SA would be, “What was your long-term plan to leverage that big purchase and how were you going to tie it back to your stores to differentiate from your competitors?”

So often in retail, I see a company simply trying to one-up the competition through gimmicky or outdated strategies. While that approach may gain some initial buzz, it is short-lived if you don’t have a smart game plan to stay relevant and interesting.

Chris Thomas, Creative Director:

The stadium sponsorship is a big deal, and you really can’t overstate the failure there.

From a sponsorship standpoint, other Broncos partners do such a better job in activating their sponsorship. It’s a huge cost, and you need to take advantage of every dollar you’re spending.

Take UCHealth, for example, with their multiple campaigns tying in with the Broncos through health and medicine. And they’ve been keeping that presence in the public strong across multiple channels; whereas Sports Authority really never did anything that memorable. I’m honestly not even sure what they got from the sponsorship besides increased recognition.


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