Marketing to High School Athletes: A Winning Game Plan

Whether it is under the Friday night lights, the rafters of a Mid-West fieldhouse or among the grass, turf and clay of the outdoor fields and courts, high school athletics is a ubiquitous part of life for the average American teen. Some watch while others play, but in one way or another, high school sports affect just about everyone.

Many of the nation’s top brands have taken notice of how high school sports course through American life, and for this reason have established focused marketing strategies to reach this influential and loyal market. A variety of creative marketing approaches have helped brands tap into the energy and passion that high school athletes embody to produce an increasing return on their marketing investment.

A Growing Market

A 2017 study by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) was recently released, and the numbers present amazing growth in the sector. To sum up the findings:

  • High school sports participation increased for the 28th straight year.
  • The number of participants reached 7,962,535 — an all-time high.
  • An increase of 94,635 participants between 2015-2016 represents the single largest increase since 2008-2009.
  • Female athletes drove this growth with 75,971 new participants in 2015-2016, which represents 80% of all new participants.

This same group is part of the coveted Millennial audience, making the high school athlete a prime target demographic for many brand marketers.

The Teenage Influencer

“The goal is to gain favor with student-athletes and also their coaches, teachers, and principals — not to mention their fans, friends, and families.” – NY Times

Influencer marketing has become an essential aspect of successfully disseminating brand awareness. By coordinating and communicating your brand identity through highly-influential individuals, companies can share their message in a highly responsive style.

The high school athlete can be seen as a micro-level influencer in the sense that they are trend-setters and valued members of their social, academic and athletic communities.

Twitter recently conducted  research into the impact that influencers have on purchasing. They found that “nearly 40% of Twitter users say they’ve made a purchase as a direct result of a tweet from an influencer.” The report also found that purchase intent increased more than fivefold (5.2x) when users were exposed to tweets from both brands and influencers. What’s more, 49% of respondents said they relied on influencers to make their purchasing decisions – second only to recommendations from friends.

Clearly, the remarkable power of influencers can be leveraged within the Millennial market through tapping into the impact sports participants have in their circles.

Why target high school sports?

Most brands are not just looking for a one-time customer. Life-span brand loyalty is the ultimate goal of any marketing success. Let’s take a look at one strategy Under Armour has pursued in their attempts to build brand loyalty.

First, let’s go back to 2016 when earnings for Under Armour increased by 22% over the previous year to $4.8 billion with projections to hit 5.4 billion for 2017.


This was, in part, accomplished through the intentional and systematic implementation of a high school marketing strategy that now encompasses hundreds of high schools nationwide. Cutting into Nike’s dominance has required a vigilant and relentless pursuit of sponsorship deals with teams and athletic departments. Why poke the bear of sports apparel? Under Armour understands the importance of this market and the influential power sports figures have on consumer activity.

“For an athletic apparel brand, building a high-performance brand image and loyalty throughout consumers’ lifespan is critical,” said Dae Hee Kwak, a University of Michigan Assistant Professor of Sports Management. He goes on to mention that “Under Armour and Nike want to build that relationship early so that consumers are locked-in with either [the] swoosh or the UA logo.” – The Baltimore Sun

By building these lifespan strategies from the ground up, not only do brands like Under Armour affect the targeted audience (the athletes) but they, by extension, impact the purchasing decisions of the influenced. By establishing the brand identity early, the company can begin building long-term foundations for their growth.

Tactics for Your Strategies

So which channels should you use to message High School athletes? What tactics should be employed and what venues should be explored?

The same Twitter study mentioned earlier found that participants aged 13 – 24 were twice as likely to evaluate an influencer by their social presence and follower count as older audiences. Based on this logic, social media is a great place to start. It is hard to go wrong with digital marketing to the Millennial audience if done authentically.

You may also consider more experiential marketing venues such as pre-game parking lots and sponsored fundraisers or student sections.

Finally, if your product or service directly affects the student athlete, pursuing team sponsorships or departmental sponsorships can reap great rewards.

The final analysis

With high school athletics participation trending upward, the market for varsity sports is continuing to grow at an unprecedented rate. The key to this growth is the expansion of female athletics participation. Making this ever-growing student-athlete segment a prime target market for your products and services.

The high school athlete is a highly-influential part of their community where they are viewed as leaders and trendsetters by their peers. More and more young people are making purchasing decisions based on the opinions of key influencers, and the high school athlete plays the role of micro-level influencers for their social, academic and athletic circles.

A comprehensive marketing strategy that combines well-executed digital content with experiential marketing and possible sponsorship deals can produce huge rewards if pursued systematically with intention. Through the successful implementation of a high school athlete advertising strategy, businesses can build a lifetime of brand loyalty from one campus to the next.