How Sports Teams Create a Sense of Belonging
For sports teams, the brand is everything, it’s massive. Fan behavior in which individuals feel their own self-identity is intertwined with a team, even to the extent that the team’s performance is felt on a deeply personal level, has been widely studied by psychologists and academics and has driven sales of billions of dollars of merchandise around the world. But relying on diehard fans for sales is limiting.
In this episode, we speak with professional sports team brand expert, Anthony Partipilo, the Chief Brand Officer for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, about why sports teams need to reach beyond their inner circle of fandom to new kind of fan and how the Roughriders are doing just that.
Melinda: For sports teams, the brand is everything, it’s massive. Fan behavior in which individuals feel their own self-identity is intertwined with a team, even to the extent that the team’s performance is felt on a deeply personal level, has been widely studied by psychologists and academics and has driven sales of billions of dollars of merchandise around the world. But relying on diehard fans for sales is limiting.
Today, we’re talking to professional sports team brand expert, Anthony Partipilo, the Chief Brand Officer for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, about why sports teams need to reach beyond their inner circle of fandom to new kind of fan and how the Roughriders are doing just that.
Anthony, welcome, and thank you so much for being with us today. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about you, and your career, and the exciting world of professional sports?
Anthony: Well, thank you, Melinda. I’m very, very excited to be here. I started my career in 2004 with the Toronto Blue Jays, and I entered the retail sports landscape almost by accident, I would say. I had no intention whatsoever moving into sports, and I really didn’t think that sports teams themselves had much of a retail business. I always thought of it as a souvenir business of selling, you know, flags, and bullhorns, and that kind of thing in stands. So, I remember thinking about why I was going into this interview, and I remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t think I want to be that guy that actually runs that business,” you know? It was difficult. I came from a mass retailer, a large national retailer, and, obviously, retail was in my blood, and I was excited about the prospect of helping in some way, I just didn’t know how.
And so, I went to the meeting, and I was escorted up to the third level, and I waited in the lobby. And I could not believe, when I got off the elevator, how amazing this lobby was, because it was filled with, you know, sports memorabilia. It had trophies, and awards, and plaques, and pictures of celebrations. And I remember thinking, “Okay, well, this is a little different. This is not your usual retail.” But I remember feeling that sense of inspiration when I looked over and I saw these two giant World Series trophies.
Melinda: Yeah, that’s pretty inspiring.
Anthony: That was a magical moment for me. So, I went in and met with Lisa, who later on turned out to be my boss. And she began by sharing her vision of where she felt the brand could go and how it could develop a whole new younger generation of fans and be a brand that fans and people would want to wear every single day. So, I felt that this was too big an opportunity for me, and even though it was half of what I had been making before, it was something that I jumped into with both feet.
Melinda: So, your title is Chief Brand Officer. Why do you think that sports teams need someone in that role?
Anthony: Well, sports teams live and die not just by their wins and losses but by the support of their fans. And the fan base, Rider Nation, is by far one of the strongest fan bases in Canada of any sports team. But the CBO’s role is really to oversee and manage every aspect of a fan’s connection with the brand. I think, you know, sports teams, as a rule, are not organized all the same way. Some tend to split responsibilities across different departments, and that splits responsibilities for engaging with fans across different departments, across functional areas, rather than looking at it from the fan’s perspective. And I think what a Chief Brand Officer can do is really look at everything 360-degree, always from the fan’s perspective, and you can see how different policies from different departments or different behaviors can intersect to maybe create an outcome that is not desirable but, conversely, how you can bring together these departments, and it creates something far more magical than what they might do in isolation.
But one of the things that clubs often struggle with is when they have declining revenues and attendance and there’s a loss of fan satisfaction and engagement. Oftentimes, you know, it requires a resetting of the messages in the marketplace. A Chief Brand Officer is uniquely positioned to be able to understand that and help bring all the different parts of the organization together in a unified fashion. So, the team’s goals and ambitions need to be big enough to motivate fans to take action. And when you’re resetting these goals, the CBO’s mission is not just to shrink what’s possible to fit the circumstances but really expand it to fit our imagination. And that’s the line that needs to be crossed that moves employees and fans to react and act.
Melinda: Absolutely. And as we were preparing for this conversation, you told me an interesting fact that I didn’t know, that the Roughriders sell more merchandise than all the other CFL teams combined. What do you see as the role of merchandise for sports teams and what determines success?
Anthony: Well, Rider fans are probably the longest-serving and most passionate loyal sports fans you’ll get in the country, regardless of team or league. And much of that comes from its community roots and 110 years, really, representing the province to the world. I kind of describe it as the brand community. The Roughriders have a very strong brand community, and much like other brands like Apple, and Starbucks, and Harley-Davidson, you know, they’re called Rider Nation for a reason, right? They dominate the province, 86 percent of the province is self-identified as Rider fans, they’re located across the country and internationally. They host their own events; they host their own Rider events. I mean, they have a name for it, it’s called Riderville.
Melinda: Well, that’s great, I love that.
Anthony: And, you know, they have huge online Rider groups and communities. They’re shareholders, they own shares in the organization. They’re lifelong, diehard Rider fans. You know, when families are formed and they have young children, the first thing they do is get them a Rider outfit, right? You’ve got to start them young. And they travel to away games in huge groups. Like, they’re the biggest visiting group for any CFL team. And they often sit together, and they form this sea of green at every stadium they go to. So, they’re both in large and small markets. They’re always very, very friendly, and they love to talk about their Riders, and they love to talk about the CFL. But, really, it’s all about friends and family and coming together and that community aspect that means everything to them.
Melinda: So, you have some newly redesigned stores opening. Why was it important for the Roughriders to have a new store experience?
Anthony: Well, when you have a brand that’s as dominant, as beloved in the province as the Riders, it’s very, very important that you have a presence in both North and South, and Saskatoon is the largest city in Saskatchewan. Regina, of course, is the capital and where the team plays. And about a third of our fans on game day travel from Saskatoon and the surrounding areas around Saskatoon. It’s about a three-hour drive, a three-hour trek. They come down for the day, they cheer on their Riders, and they all head up that Highway 11 back home, and it’s a fun experience. So, Saskatoon is really a youthful and vibrant city, the downtown core is growing, there’s a lot of development going on. It was important for us to have a stake in that city. It’s a huge university town, over 40,000 students at the U of S that are there.
And so, creating a space where fans can get a sense of excitement close to them in that kind of an atmosphere was really, really important. So, it helps us to continue to keep that connection and that bond when we’re not in game mode. And fans that are going to that mall, going to that center, are downtown, they can visit it, and they can come in and talk to our staff about Rider games, and share their experiences, and really enjoy it. But, you know, Midtown is a premium mall, it’s where fashion brands and stores are located. It’s undergoing massive renovations right now with new national and international retail brands that are moving in, it’s at the heart of the city. And that’s where we believe that we wanted to create this new, beautiful brand experience. And it’s only identified with the iconic S logo, very similar to what an Apple store would be.
Melinda: Cool. Can you tell us a little bit about the design and how it brings the brand alive in a physical store experience?
Anthony: Well, SLD really made it possible for us to enter this market with a refreshed store design that’s exciting and fun. Our brand is about experiences, and it embodies, really, everything that we want to create. And so, the design, and the materials, and the colors, and the feeling of having this very, very high ceiling store, it created this open-air, spacious feel like you get at Mosaic Stadium. There’s a huge graphic wall image of Mosaic, so it’s a fan view from being on the field and looking up at the scoreboard. We’ve got this massive overhead ceiling panel that’s all colored out in blue sky, and there’s just a football going overhead, so you swear you’re on the field…
Melinda: I love that.
Anthony: …and the football is just flying over your head. You know, we’ve got full-sized players that you’ll be able to take a selfie next to. Obviously, they’re mannequin players, but in full uniform, head to toe. So, fans can get a sense of, really, how big these guys are. I mean, you’re seeing them from a stadium, you don’t really get that close. You’re going to be able to stand next to these guys and really appreciate the size of these guys. It’s incredible. So, you know, it’s all about creating those moments where people can take a lot of pleasure and happiness throughout their day.
And SLD really understood at a core level the other core and, in fact, the basic core element of a sports brand. And very few companies really get it. But it’s not about what the brand says about the team, from fans’ perspective, it’s what that brand says about them personally, it’s all about self-identity. And when they put on an item that’s got that S logo, it provides a sort of sense of pride and sense of community, and that’s what inspires them and gives them a strength of empowerment and strength. So, we understand that that’s a basic need and a basic desire, and everything we do is to surround that fan with that kind of a feeling.
Melinda: Yeah, you’re leading me into my next question perfectly because I wanted to talk about the need to belong, which is so intrinsic to being a sports fan. What do you think are the key elements of the Roughriders’ brand that you think fans really identify with?
Anthony: Well, first of all, it is connected to the province at a very, very deep, core level. Rider fans have grown up Rider fans, their parents were Rider fans, their grandparents were Rider fans. All of the memories and moments that they have growing up, many of them are tied and connected to going to games and being with family and friends. But, again, it’s this very, very powerful sense of identity, and there’s an awesome sense of responsibility on the part of the brand that shows that we feel and care in everything that we do, it really guides everything that we do, and there’s a sense of responsibility. Look, you know, especially now going through the crisis that we’re going through, life is hard, and it’s full of many ups and downs, right? And our job, really, is to create those experiences that bring joy and happiness. And if we can do that with a brand that is so beloved, then that’s a huge responsibility, and that’s really what’s most important to us.
So, you know, we’ve got a lot of great event ideas, and once we get past this COVID situation and we’re playing football again, we’ll be able to bring that full entertainment team and experience to the store, we’ll be able to bring the star players to the stores so fans that might not otherwise be able to get to a game will actually be with Rider players. And we know that they’re following them, we know that they’re watching the games, but being up close with them and being able to share their experience and their love for the Riders with the players directly means so much to them. So, we’re going to bring our entertainment teams, our mascots, our cheer teams, our drum corps, we’re going to make that mall alive with Rider passion once we get back to playing again. So, I can’t wait for that.
Melinda: That sounds fantastic. I’m just curious. I mean, you’re talking about people who’ve lived there for many years and many generations, but I also imagine that for those, say, university students who are coming into the province and are not from there may help them to really bond to the community, having such a powerful team that everybody loves so strongly. My last question is what would you say the top three most important things a sports brand needs to be able to nail to be able to keep that core base excited but then also have a bit of a broader reach?
Anthony: So, that’s a great question. I think there’s three main things. We could come up with a list of about 10. But three core ones that really came to mind when you asked me that question. So, number one, know the fan, know what they want, and make sure that they get it. So, really nothing gives us more pleasure than watching the faces of the fans that are smiling, and laughing, and cheering, and excited. And players will tell you they feel the same way, that they get a tremendous amount of pleasure and enjoyment out of that. And the possibilities to be able to do that are endless. And so, if your job has that as its main goal, you can do pretty much anything. The new store experience really, for us, is one of those opportunities to be able to engage the fan and better know the fan up close, where they live, work, and play. So, know the fan.
Number two, I would say, never take the fan for granted and have a relentless dedication to the most loyal supporters. I mean, at the end of the day, you’ve got to give fans reasons to be loyal. That’s our job, is to continue to give them reasons, as opposed to sit back and accept that they’re loyal. And when you put the responsibility and the onus on us as a club, that gives us tremendous bandwidth to be able to entertain and engage them all kinds of ways.
I would say the third one, really, is complacency, and complacency kills. You’ve got to stay fresh. Don’t be afraid to try new things and always keep growing. The idea of never stop growing and never stop improving, that’s really what, I think, drives us on a daily basis. And look, if you look at the crisis that we’re currently in, if there’s anything that it’s taught us is that people have a human basic need to come together and to socialize, right? It’s a very, very powerful basic human need. And it’s vital that we do that, and all of us need and crave it. So, for us as a sports team, our job is to create those spaces for people to be able to connect, and engage, and socialize in a safe environment, and it’s a big role that helps us, you know, moving forward in order to try to keep our fans happy and healthy, both in mind and body. So, nothing will shake our desire to be together, we’re going to be united in green, and we’re going to cheer on our Riders soon. So, that’s what drives us every day.
Melinda: That sounds like you have such a great job, to hear you describe it, I can tell you really enjoy what you do. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, and we cannot wait until you have those stadiums filled up again.
Anthony: Can’t wait for it. Thank you.
Melinda: It sounds like what Anthony’s saying is that it’s not about what the brand means in and of itself, it’s about how the fan sees themselves in the brand and how it’s a reflection of their self-identity. Professional sports teams play a part in community building through a shared sense of identity. So, in a way, the fans are actually contributing to the creation of the brand itself. It’s a nice little loop, as long as you’re inclusive and, to Anthony’s point, you know who the fan is, and you don’t take them for granted. Thanks again to Anthony and the Roughriders, and thanks to you for listening.
Anthony Partipilo is a proud member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders executive leadership team responsible for Marketing & Branding, Corporate Partnerships, Game Day & Events, Ticket operations, Retail Operations, and Communications.
Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.