Academic journal article International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship

The Role of Sports Brands in Niche Sports Subcultures

Academic journal article International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship

The Role of Sports Brands in Niche Sports Subcultures

Article excerpt

Executive summary

Considering theory on subcultures of consumption, this study investigates the role of sports brands in a niche sports subculture, athletes' perception of brands and the role sports brands play in building group identity.

A subculture of consumption is "a distinctive subgroup of society that self-selects on the basis of a shared commitment to a particular product class, brand, or consumption activity" (Schouten & McAlexander, 1995, p.43). Many sports are activity-based subcultures of consumption. Examples include triathlon, skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding: members use branded sports gear and wear branded clothing to communicate affinity with the subculture and express group membership.

Serious leisure activities can be a breeding ground for activity-based subcultures of consumption. This occurs where people who are highly involved in a serious leisure activity embrace the sports community's norms and values and incorporate them into their daily lives. Though past research has examined the role of brands in a number of activity-based subcultures, there is a gap in the understanding of how a serious leisure activity might become an activity-based subculture of consumption. This research addresses this gap.

Two contrasting cases (both trail running events in New Zealand) are researched using an ethnographic approach, with data collected from observations, photographs and semi-structured interviews. Trail running is currently a niche sport (one that attracts a small number of participants and limited media coverage) but it has potential for growth in the near future.

Observations sought information on participants' brand use, the dominance of sports brands at the events and the extent of social interaction between trail runners. Photographs evidenced the overall presence of brands at each event and the specific brands used by participants. Semi-structured interviews investigated the trail runners' perceptions of brands and the role of brands in the building of group identity. Interviewees were chosen through purposive sampling and interviewing continued until theoretical saturation was reached. Data collected at both events were analysed separately, then cross-case comparisons were made. Observations, photographs and transcribed interviews shed light on participants' involvement with trail running and their sociability. Thematic analysis of interview transcripts identified themes addressing the role of sports brands in the niche sports subculture.

In the first case, group identity as a community of trail runners was lacking. Participants in this event acted as individual competitors--athletes participating in a serious leisure pursuit rather than participating in a subculture. Brands did not play a role in building group identity. Regarding brand choice, participants in the first case displayed loyalty to mainstream athletic brands and trust in the advice of retailers. Group identity as a community of trail runners was more prominent in the second case studied. Participants in the second event were dedicated trail runners who exhibited some of the characteristics of an activity-based subculture of consumption. Here, brands played an indirect role in building group identity as participants were keen to adopt gear that other community members recommended for functionality and quality.

The paper develops a conceptual framework that explains how a serious leisure pursuit might, over time, become an activity-based subculture of consumption with concomitant consumption of specialised sports brands. A key factor driving a serious leisure pursuit to become an activity-based subculture of consumption is identified as high levels of socialising among participants, which creates a sense of community among participants and leads to individuals identifying with the community.

Introduction

Consumers build and express identity through brand choice, consumption practice and choice of leisure activities (Newholm & Hopkinson, 2009; Shankar et al, 2009). …

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