Understanding how brands achieve a human connection during live sports

Advertisers turn to live sports to launch new campaigns and re-connect with their audience.

April 1, 2021
President of Client Engagement and Marketing

Anyone who knows me well knows I love sports: European Soccer, USWNT Soccer, NFL, Men’s and Women’s College Basketball, the WNBA, and did I mention soccer of any kind?

I love sports for many reasons:

The competition. Just knowing what those athletes have gone through to get there, what their families have sacrificed, how their bodies may ache, but their love of the game keeps them going.

The emotion. The way grown men cry and beg to go to Disney World after winning a championship game – I get teary just thinking about it. No crying in baseball? I don’t buy it.

The spirit. Different from emotion, this is the captivating feeling of being a part of something when you come together sharing a love of the sport.

This third thing is hard to describe but easy to share with other fans. It’s why stadiums will fill up with fans (it’s coming back, slowly but surely) and why bars jam up full during epic rivalries (especially a game seven in the World Series) and why some homes will have four different screens on during March Madness opening weekend (two TVs, an iPad and at least one phone, if you’re at my house).

What does this type of shared experience really come down to? Human connection.

And what do advertisers work so hard to establish with their brands? That human connection.

I wanted to break that phrase apart so we can truly understand it. 1: Human and 2: Connection.

1: Human

Alexander Pope said to err is human, to forgive is divine. I agree – but I also think what makes us uniquely human is our ability to be completely unique. This individualism is what makes us each so special. It’s why I say being weird is a good thing. (Ask my kids… I say this on repeat all the time.) Life sure would be boring if we were all alike. Humanity is about making mistakes, apologizing for them and celebrating our differences.

2: Connection

Brene´ Brown defines connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and straight from the relationship. In my mind, a connection happens when that energy is charged between people, and when done correctly, it can also be made between a person and a brand.

Now, to put it all together, a human connection is that energy and force that is experienced when different people from different backgrounds come together in a shared experience. Each person may express how the experience makes them feel differently, but collectively they all showed up.

In terms of the sports fanatics, we show up to watch, to listen, to learn, to be moved.

And that energy is what advertisers want to tap into. Brands want to be a part of the action too. They come looking for the human connection, getting emotionally involved on the sidelines (read: in all those commercial breaks) while a team and their fans share in the moments of glory or agony of defeat.

In talking about the 2021 March Madness, Ad Age notes that “the tournament is going to be the best media opportunity for any marketer within this time period” and that “more than 100 brands bought ads with strong interest from insurance providers, automakers, financial services companies, restaurants and telecoms.”

So as we enter the Final Four frenzy, I have a couple of standouts that I think are connecting with fans like me in a great way:


Nike is a genius at the human connection. Have you seen the We Play Real spot? Here we have a brand that dispels the black girl magic myth for all that is hard work. Also, side note, just a quick shout out that local shero A’ja Wilson opens the spot. I watched this air and wanted to go buy a pair of Nikes – not to be like Mike, but to be more like these impressive women doing battle in their own fields.


Carmax steps up to the free-throw line with this campaign that has me hook, line and sinker. The campaign celebrates women in basketball with a twist that makes me wonder how many more spots are hiding in this fresh approach. Have I bought with Carmax before? Yes. Do I feel like they understand me and what I value with this spot? Absolutely. Carmax will stay in my consideration set next time I need to buy a car.

Both of these campaigns hit on the spirit that I referenced at the beginning. They actively engaged in human connection, all while they are selling sports apparel and cars. And as great as they are, I’m the first person to say I’m sure it was not easy to pull off either campaign. It takes research, understanding, pushing and pulling conceptually. Sometimes it takes going back to the drawing board. It takes selling the idea to clients and then it takes pulling off a production that turns these ideas into reality.

But they did it. And they did it really, really well.

Engage your brand to better connect

This March Madness has left me with a busted bracket and the notification that one of my favorite coaches is retiring (please be an April Fool’s prank!). But this round of March Madness has also struck me with a renewed love of advertising. If you are looking to engage your brand to better connect with the humans you see as customers, I can assure you that the team at Chernoff Newman can make it happen. For additional advice on how to focus on your audience and engage in innovative growth, you can gain more knowledge at this link.

If you have specific questions about this post or want to share your favorite commercial with me, please fill out the form. And Go Lady Gamecocks!


Chernoff Newman has deep category experience in agriculture, food and beverage, education and workforce development, energy, economic development, financial/insurance, healthcare and infrastructure. We design integrated marketing and strategic communications that are impactful, thought-provoking and influential. We marry ingenuity with business know-how to influence beliefs and behaviors for brands, companies and their many stakeholders. We influence attitude and inclination. We influence opinion and outcomes. And when needed, we also influence to quell contention.