Sports marketing: how your team can win, even when it’s losing

It’s no secret that I am a fan of Butler University men’s basketball. Every year, during the NCAA basketball tournament, I turn into a rabid fan. God help you if you mention the phrases: “Cinderella team” or “bracket buster”.

I hate both of them because one makes it seem like a fairy godmother came down and granted the team a ticket to post-season play; while the other makes it seem like their road to the Final Four was out of the blue.

Butler has been to the NCAA tournament 15 times in its history. Two years in a row, they not only appeared in the Final Four – but were in the championship game. Both times they lost – first to Duke, then to UConn.

In the years immediately after their near-championship runs, Butler University saw an increase in student applications and increased donations. The road to the Final Four amounted to $500 million in publicityand that’s for a team that didn’t even win! 

What is behind that publicity success?

They tell a great story.

Butler University is in the heart of Indianapolis, Indiana – a state where you’ll find a basketball hoop in nearly every backyard, driveway or over a barn door. Basketball is a religion in the Hoosier State. But it’s not just about basketball. It’s about being the “little guy” going up against the behemoth schools with more money in their athletics programs – like Duke, Michigan, Syracuse and more.

A 1999 study found that “the common arguments frequently made to justify committing large resources to college athletics – that they directly or indirectly support the school’s educational mission or its finances – do not stand up to empirical scrutiny.”[i]

That means you can spend all the money you want on an athletics program, but it doesn’t guarantee success and it doesn’t guarantee fan loyalty.

Most people aren’t making a decision based on facts anyway. An MRI study looked inside the brains of people who were picking their favorite brands and charities. People were three times more likely to choose brands with which they had an emotional connection.[ii]

If that feels “woo woo” to you, consider this: which smartphone is better? Samsung or iPhone? Diehard fans of either one will argue until they’re blue in the face about their phone being the best. And while they might cite facts and figures to back up their argument, the reality is – the brand has made an emotional connection with them. As a result, they’re rabid fans.

So what does that mean to an athletics program?

When you’re winning, the stories you tell may seem easy to find: the final score, the stats, the team record.

But here is some food for thought. While I remember that Butler lost the final championship games, I cannot tell you what the score was or what their team record was that year. I don’t really even care. What matters to me is that “we” went to the championship game. “We” played our hearts out. “We” came close. And I am proud of their effort.

I’ve made an emotional connection with Butler and will pick them every time!

People don’t remember the score, they remember the story.

And the story is what will keep you going, long after the game is over.

Dawn Dugle is the CEO of Dugle Media, a company specializing in strategic brand storytelling.


[i] Zimbalist, A. (1999). Unpaid professionals: Commercialism and conflict in big-time college sports. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[ii] Murray, P. N. (2013, February 26). How Emotions Influence What We Buy. Retrieved July 08, 2017, from


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