Image: The Sporting News/Getty Images

Image: The Sporting News/Getty Images

As the world relives the glory days of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the sports documentary series The Last Dance, UQ Business School's Marketing Discipline Leader Associate Professor Sarah Kelly discusses why effective storytelling is crucial for engaging a new generation of sports fans in the digital age.


Welcome to the age of digital sport: interactive broadcasts, narrowcasting, big data, virtual engagement and on-demand branded content.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges and opportunities for world sport, it has heralded a new era of virtual fandom, virtual sponsorship, virtual competition and the marketing question of how to monetise them.

An image of Michael Jordan mid-air attempting to dunk a basketball in NBA match for the Chicago Bulls. The background of the image is black and white with Jordan in colour.

Image: The Sporting News/Getty Images

An image of Michael Jordan mid-air attempting to dunk a basketball in NBA match for the Chicago Bulls. All the image has revealed to full colour.

Image: The Sporting News/Getty Images

An image of Michael Jordan mid-air attempting to dunk a basketball in NBA match for the Chicago Bulls. The background of the image is black and white with Jordan in colour.

Image: The Sporting News/Getty Images

An image of Michael Jordan mid-air attempting to dunk a basketball in NBA match for the Chicago Bulls. All the image has revealed to full colour.

Image: The Sporting News/Getty Images

The current exemplar of sport-branded content is The Last Dance. The ESPN documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls attracted an average audience of 5.6 million viewers across all 10 episodes within the same day of release, making it the most-watched documentary content ever on ESPN.

But the audiences for the episode premieres only tell part of the story, as a larger overall audience continues to consume the documentary through re-airs and on-demand viewing, social media sharing and reviews.

The success of The Last Dance proves that this new broadcast opportunity and brand narrative is a golden revenue stream for the NBA – particularly while live matches can't be consumed by TV audiences – and attracts new sponsors, advertisers and fans alike.

Even if you aren’t an NBA or Jordan fan, The Last Dance is riveting. It is truthful, brutal and exciting, featuring a stellar cast who are all the more plausible because they are playing themselves.


"The behind-the-scenes series delivers Jordan into the lounge room, and audiences can’t get enough."

There’s the dark horse and Bulls coach during the team’s golden era, Phil Jackson. Billionaire owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Talented loose cannon Dennis Rodman. Rags-to-riches superstar Scottie Pippen. All-round good bloke Steve Kerr. And, of course, the megastar with charisma, Jordan. All (mostly) from their Miami mansions in the sun.

As with all good stories, there’s controversy. And the stories of those not interviewed are just as intriguing as those who are. Is there more to this story? Who is the real Jordan?

The behind-the-scenes series delivers Jordan into the lounge room, and audiences can’t get enough. The timing was perfect, with ESPN releasing the documentary early to coincide with the global COVID-19 lockdown, effectively filling the void of live sport.

Can Australian sport learn from the success of this strategy to engage with remote fans during times when live sport is not available? Or even to resonate with the next generation of fans?

This is an image of Chicago Bulls player Scottie Pippen. The image is designed to look like an NBA basketball card from the 1990s.

Images: Focus on Sport/John Ruthroff/Getty Images

Images: Focus on Sport/John Ruthroff/Getty Images

This is an image of Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman. The image is designed to look like an NBA basketball card from the 1990s.

Images: Focus on Sport/John Ruthroff/Getty Images

Images: Focus on Sport/John Ruthroff/Getty Images

This is an image of Chicago Bulls player Steve Kerr. The image is designed to look like an NBA basketball card from the 1990s.

Images: Focus on Sport/John Ruthroff/Getty Images

Images: Focus on Sport/John Ruthroff/Getty Images

Authentic storytelling, both on and off the field, can help to distinguish and reposition sport brands.

The Test: A New Era For Australia's Team, a documentary series about Australian cricket's fall from grace and its battle to reclaim integrity, was a great example of an innovative response to the ‘comeback brand’ problem ever present in sport. While Sunderland ’Til I Die is a benchmark in powerful storytelling about a relatively unknown UK soccer club and its struggles to survive. It also highlights the role local sport teams play in their communities.

Who can forget the wisdom of Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights, a story of high-school football in Texas? It tackles life lessons, rivalry, leadership, adversity and commitment. Marketers know that the strongest brands tell the best stories, and sport can build audiences through branded content that relates to their story in a meaningful way – whether by featuring a star like Jordan, or an unknown wannabe struggling for selection.

This is an image of Australian cricketers Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, and captain Tim Paine feature in the documentary series The Test: A New Era For Australia's Team.

Australian cricketers Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, and captain Tim Paine feature in the documentary series The Test: A New Era For Australia's Team. Image: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Australian cricketers Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, and captain Tim Paine feature in the documentary series The Test: A New Era For Australia's Team. Image: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

The result is highly engaged fans, new audiences and a legacy that will resonate across other media and endure. The uncertainty, rivalry, nostalgia and excitement of sport – at any level and profile – makes for a powerful story worth telling.

From a marketing perspective, it isn’t just a sport brand that can be sold through a branded-content strategy. Product placement can also be an inherent part of any sports story, and can resonate when integrated authentically.

In Episode five of The Last Dance, rapper Nas is interviewed on the impact of Nike's Air Jordan shoes. He delivers marketing gold for Nike when he says, “For a kid, it was almost like owning a lightsabre from Star Wars. You needed that shoe to be like him [Jordan]. It was more than a status symbol."

Fan engagement in this digitalised sports world is challenging, especially among the ‘next-gen’ digital natives. The winning product will be the one to deeply resonate by appealing to the connected, socially conscious and interactive profile of this generation – who will represent one-third of fans over the next 10 years.

These are images showing the progression of the All Blacks performing the Haka.

Kieran Read leads the Haka for the All Blacks. Images: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Cue the All Blacks, an enduring global sport brand that is one of the first to position itself in sustainability and climate-change causes, such as clean oceans.

The All Blacks have always adopted powerful storytelling to underpin their highly valued brand, drawing on a rich history and tradition, and modernising to their current sustainable brand along with the next generation.

Watch the video telling the story behind the All Blacks' Haka.

The rise of women’s sport also provides a strong platform for memorable storytelling, as does grassroots and para-athlete sports.

Another benchmark for sport marketing in the post-COVID-19 era is virtual fan engagement, which will involve the employment of technology such as augmented reality, virtual reality, drones and holograms. This is in addition to platforms designed to aggregate and monetise big data associated with athletes’ performance and injury prevention. Smart merchandise matched with smart stadia have achieved a new level of engagement in sport that may promise rapid developments in contactless stadia experience, premised upon customised and contactless service at scale.

Strategies aimed at facilitating fan social capital – particularly in a sports world exhibiting a strong trend of geographically disparate and virtually connected fans – makes sense. At the grassroots level, video dissemination of individual or team performances can assist development, incentivise commitment to a sport and provide talent-identification intelligence through sponsored platforms.

Marketers and authors know the seven recognised story archetypes: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. Any sport, athlete or fan can be the hero in any of these storylines, and sports marketers are onto it.


These are images showing the progression of the All Blacks performing the Haka.
These are images showing the progression of the All Blacks performing the Haka.
These are images showing the progression of the All Blacks performing the Haka.

Kieran Read leads the Haka for the All Blacks. Images: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Kieran Read leads the Haka for the All Blacks. Images: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

This is an image of a basketball.

Did you watch The Last Dance? What do you think is the future of sports marketing? Leave a comment below (your comments here are governed by Facebook Terms of Service and UQ Social Media Terms of Use).

WORDS Associate Professor Sarah Kelly

EDITING AND DESIGN Michael Jones

ARTWORK James North