The future of sports marketing

May 8th, 2018

Sports marketing is in something of a transitional period. The shift to social and digital is ongoing, but the evolution has thrown up as many questions as it has answers. Significant changes in American sports are sure to impact on marketers in Europe, while at the same time new technologies like Augmented Reality might soon create amazing new immersive opportunities for brands.

The four participants of the sporting Digital Breakfast in may were Jim Dowling, MD of Cake (an agency owned by the Havas Group which has a heritage in sports marketing), Andrew Ko, CEO & Cofounder @Personalyze (a data analytics company that has worked with some big sporting names), Chris Gratton Head of Sports and Entertainment at FleishmanHillard Fishburn (an agency that boasts many sports clients) and Ivan Lazarov, Group Head of Sales at Bridge Studio, the creative content team at News UK. We were lucky enough to get their insights into the future of sports marketing and what that means for content.

What do you think has been the biggest change in sports content marketing in recent years?

Jim Dowling, MD of Cake  – Ultimately, that younger audiences appear not to have the patience to watch live, televised sport. The average age of a live televised football watcher is over forty years old, and gets older by a year, each year.

In addition, there appears a greater intolerance of ‘official’ media commentators and punditry. Fan generated content, through channels like Arsenal Fan TV, or alternative opinion or content through the likes of Copa 90 is breathing new life into football culture; which other sports will ape, follow or take inspiration from.

Andrew Ko, CEO & Co-Founder of Personalyze – I think the biggest change in sports content marketing is the shift in using more and more data to determine what to put out there. It’s not just about putting stuff out there blindly anymore, but really understanding your audience and posting content that really resonates with your intended fan base.

Chris Gratton Head of Sports and Entertainment at FleishmanHillard Fishburn – The explosion of video as a centrepiece and absolute staple within sports content marketing and in particular deals done with rights holders has been a huge step change. For a long time the contractual rights granted to brands had been focused on pure media value, mainly for on-pitch exposure (mainly boards and backdrops) however there has been a recent shift with most brands now looking for digital rights and in particular those that allow them to tell an authentic, credible story via consistent and continuous high quality content output.

Ivan Lazarov Group Head of Sales at Bridge Studio, the creative content team at News UK –  The idea of building communities to engage people first. We’ve been working hard to get writers commenting and conversing with subscribers beneath articles to build this idea that you are part of a club, which hopefully means they are less likely to churn.

This is an idea that spreads to marketing as well. I was listening to a podcast a little while back about how NFL stores in the US are increasingly places you go for an experience, AR/VR areas where you play in a match, meet your heroes etc and they don’t try very hard to flog things to you, they just want you to fall in love with the NFL because then they have you buying things for life.

Image result for nfl stores vr/ar

What is the biggest challenge in reaching out to sports consumers on behalf of brands?

Chris Gratton – Due to the drastic increase in quantity of content available to an individual generally and in the sports arena, it has become increasingly difficult for brands to cut through with their output. The challenge is that you are competing against so much noise, which in some cases has significant paid support, that to stand out you need to be authentic, credible and sometimes disruptive. Tapping into cultural trends whilst staying true to both the sport and your brand is very important and the thing that is increasingly lost within brand content output. There is often a lack of true value add or differentiation by many brands within the sports arena who forget about genuinely what the fan wants to see, hear and in many cases love.

Ivan Lazarov – Being authentic to your audience and creating a unique piece of branded content that is as watchable as if it was non branded and is true to both brand and publisher values.

Jim Dowling – The same as it’s always been. How is your brand going to improve the sports experience for the consumer in a relevant way?

Andrew Ko – Again, the biggest change in sports content marketing also becomes its biggest challenge as well. And that is trying to truly understand the target audience and knowing what kind of content to put out that gets the highest engagement. Posting engaging content on social, particularly, has become an arms race to see who can.

Are social platforms still important? Or should brands be building their own content portals?

Ivan lazarov – Social platforms are still important but it is vital to move away from clickbait headlines and create content that is original and true to our own values and not copying formats from other brands and publishers. It is also vital to understand the role of each social platform and create content that is desirable to our audiences in the way the want to consume it.

Facebook seem to make promoting Facebook groups rather than pages and are now rewarding content that creates the most discussion in its newsfeed to show you more engaging content and less clickbait.

The other thing that we are finding from a content point of view is that we have to offer far more than the facts, even if people go to you because you are a trusted source. Even when it comes to exclusive news they are only exclusive for so long, our strategy for The Times is to offer analysis of what is going on and say to people “we’ll make you understand it.” So if we can we try to make that clear in what we put out on social – be that the words or increasingly graphics or gifs that shout “this is analysis”.

Part of this is because the biggest challenge for most people – especially during a World Cup, say – is the sheer volume of content kicking around. You may have the best article ever but getting people to see it is difficult. We support content that we think will resonate hardest via paid promotions and we also push our writers to tweet out stories that we think can take off but we do it sparingly – the reason people engage more with them than the brand is because they are authentic/genuine in how they act and we wish to maintain that.

Jim Dowling – Sport fans are a part of the human race, and like the majority, their content journey generally begins when they pick up their smartphone, and tap the requisite social media icon. It’s where it begins.

Brands should concern themselves first and foremost, with the quality of content they produce. Channels come next.

Andrew Ko – Social platforms are definitely still important as the customer-base has already been built up. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are mediums to 2+ billion eyeballs globally, ready to consume whatever content is shown to them. And the best part of social is that it’s digital and, thus, should be better equipped to track ROI versus traditional media like TV and billboards. I say “should” because it’s not quite there yet, but I believe it’ll get there within the next 5 years.

Chris Gratton – The old adage of ‘fish where the fish are’ remains true, particularly for brands in sports where the fan is more than likely indifferent about your brand and extremely passionate about the sport. Therefore trying to move individuals into a brand platform to consume content about their sport feels unnatural, disingenuous and inauthentic. In addition, a brand content portal attempting to host a considerable amount of owned content needs both extremely high quality credible content, continuous output and a lot of money to drive traffic to establish itself on the map which is why many brands do not even attempt this approach. Most will leverage social as a hosting platform to allow cross pollination of content from authentic sports channels to their own platforms. Many also use established players in the space to host branded content on their behalf, both to tap into the existing audience but also the feel of authenticity you gain from partnering with a trusted fan platform or destination.

How do you see technology changing sports marketing and content in the coming years?

Andrew Ko – I believe technologies like Virtual and Augmented Reality will help sports brands find new ways in engaging with their audience. It’ll bring a new level of interaction to fans that could probably only occur in the sports venue in the past. I know Sky Sports tried this with their 3D broadcasts of some Premier League games a while back, but imagine sitting at home using VR to fully immerse yourself in games as though you were right in the stadium! Then think of the potential of turning that into a personal marketing channel to that individual. I think it will be game-changing.

Chris Gratton – Technology is integral in sport and has been for a number of years both on and off the different fields of play, however it has with everything had varying levels of success often in early and in some cases arguably too early adoption, something very relevant at present with conversations around VAR in the Premier League. The most exciting technological developments however are really going to come in for the fan and in particular in terms of how they consume the sport both in the stadium and at home.

The connected stadium is being built for the future and you can look at the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta as the pinnacle with the Premier League following close behind. The new build for Spurs is almost complete and Crystal Palace, Chelsea and others won’t be far behind as everyone looks to push the boundaries when it comes to incorporating tech to improve all areas of the experience.

From a content point of view, VR and AR both broke onto the scene a few years ago within sport again with varying successes in different areas so it interesting to see how this affects the fan experience when someone truly cracks it. A couple of football clubs, namely Liverpool  and most recently Man United have used VR to give fans a behind the scenes experience that they will never receive (particularly for overseas fans who may never get to the stadium) which is where something like VR at present has great strength. The investment in sports is vast so it is natural for tech development to be high in the space.

Jim Dowling – AR is one to watch. Apple are investing time and resource into the AR capabilities of their handsets, primarily to drive education-based applications. However, if used smartly and creatively, AR could make a lively difference to the viewing experience whether on the sofa or in the stadium.

Ivan lazarov – Technology is constantly evolving allowing us to understanding our audiences better and interpret audience data to write compelling content.  A further evolution in tech is within voice. AR/VR is fun but can be very expensive. Voice on the other hand is pretty cheap and easy and with Wireless radio we can create content easily which can be tailored for platforms like Google and Alexa.

Do you think we take our sports marketing cues from the USA? Or we are doing things in a British/European way?

Jim Dowling – It depends on what the sport is. We can all learn from each other. The US market have often have led us in the use of technology. Stadia and smartphone experiences, for example, are ahead of much of Europe. That said, the depth of UK fan culture; beyond the results on the pitch are often the envy of US sports.

Andrew Ko – I’m Canadian so I think I have an unbiased view of this question. I think it’s a hybrid path that we are taking here in the UK. Americans like things that are really “in-your-face”. However, I don’t think that kind of tactic resonates with the British/Europeans. I mean, there aren’t even replays of goals scored at Old Trafford on the big screens! I think elements of the flashy American-way have crept up into sports marketing in the UK over the past few years, but I don’t think it will fully switch over as that would turn off a lot of Brits.

Chris Gratton – The traditional US sports experience is very different to the one we know however many rights holders and brands are taking cues from the USA, in particular with regards to the on-site fan experience. Pepsi for example, have attempted to replicate the Super Bowl model of halftime shows within UEFA Champions League, pulling big artists like Alicia Keys and The Black Eyed Peas to play and elevate both the sport and their brand exposure as a result.

As mentioned previously, new stadium builds are certainly taking the USA lead in terms of how they enhance every touchpoint for a fan on matchday whilst driving revenue. There are nuances and very stark cultural differences regarding what drives a fan not only from US – Europe but within every country and therefore everything must be tailored locally in some way to ensure relevance, credibility and authenticity.

Read more about the Digital Breakfast and book tickets here.

Ashley Norris, Content Consultant, The CMA

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