Sports Authority: A Name without a Brand

03.09.16 / David Lemley

A recent article discussed the woes of Sports Authority with the headline: Sports Authority Is Sinking Under Discounts And Naming Rights.” Really? There’s no doubt, as the article cites, that Sports Authority has some major problems. What the article doesn’t explicitly say, however, is that these problems are of their own making. But they are.

In a nutshell: deep discounting to move out merchandise due to slow sales, paying a whopping $6 million per annum to have its name—Sports Authority Field—on the Denver Broncos’ stadium, and a $20 million default on its $343 million dollar debt all led to the company’s declaration of bankruptcy under chapter 11. These are the reasons given for the company’s demise. The company itself cites increased competition, as well.

And then of course, the lamentable state of retailing is yet again pointed out in other articles discussing the demise of Sports Authority. After all, retail giants like Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Radio Shack, Sears, Barnes & Noble are all going the way of the dodo bird; and with good reason in every case.

But coming back to Sports Authority, there’s more to the story than the company’s sinking under discounts, debt and naming rights. Let me ask you this question: what comes into your mind when you hear the name “Sports Authority”? Summarize their brand in a few words. Can’t, can you? Nor can I. And that is really the crux of their problem more than anything else.

Not saying they haven’t made bone-headed business decisions here, but Sports Authority is literally a name without a brand.

Make No Excuses

Brick and mortar retailers are finding it harder to pull in customers. Etailers are taking their customer base away from them. Competition is intense in every category. To all of that I say this: too many retailers aren’t giving customers a reason to believe. Too few are giving customers unique and compelling experiences. If they did, they’d have fans pouring into their stores. People can buy merchandise anywhere, but what they’re hungry for is the experience more than the product. Let that truth sink in.

Now think of this. Think of the sports names that represent meaningful brands. You know: brands that have meaning, substance and values, that they live and breathe up and down the line.  In spite of a tough economy, in spite of increased competition, these brands are in it for the long haul. They can withstand tough times. They can even flourish because they attract customers and then turn them into brand fans. Their fans do purchase from their websites but they also enjoy coming into their stores because it’s always a great experience.

Who am I talking about? REI comes to mind. LL Bean. Cabela’s. Bass Pro Shops. Eastern Mountain Sports. All of these companies are brands. Brands with a clear position and value proposition. Brands with a vibrant story. What’s Sports Authority’s position, proposition and story, anyway? Hmmm, can’t seem to recall… isn’t that the larger point?

And here’s the thing: when you own a brand, it dictates business decision making. It actually helps you to avoid making bone-headed mistakes that could derail your company because anything that isn’t brand-centric and customer-centric simply isn’t done.

Naming a famous sports complex might stroke the egos of the inhabitants of the C-Suite but it doesn’t do much else. Don’t tell me that wasn’t why Sports Authority chose to fork out millions to put its banner in the Denver Broncos stadium. After all, competitor Dick’s Sporting Goods did it, so the mentality was likely one of not being outdone.

Strong sports brands help to support and underwrite events in their local communities—the ones that make sense for them and their fans. No need to blow millions on extravagant stuff. And you know what? I’ll bet legions of Denver Bronco fans bought their team jerseys, hats and sweats online or from a competitor—not from Sports Authority. That makes this tale even sadder.

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