The world’s biggest sporting events all have one thing in common. The NFL, the NBA, the Premier League, ATP and WTA Tour Tennis and the Champions League are reporting declining numbers of traditional TV viewers. The NFL in particular, reported a decline in viewership for the second straight season earlier this year across its NBC, CBS, NFL Network and Amazon packages. These are the biggest ticket sporting events in the world, an elite level of competition. If they can’t hold on to TV viewers, who in the sports world can?
You might expect figures like these to scare off advertisers, but in fact, total sports sponsorship spend is accelerating. It’s predicted to grow 4.9% globally to $65.8 billion in 2018. So, it’s clear that brands still see sports as a valid investment, and they’re right. The opportunities are still there, even if the playing field has changed. Smart brands have spotted the chance to capitalise on a fundamental shift when it comes to the consumption of sports content.
In the past, sports sponsorship was a relatively simple affair. It often came down to a logo on a shirt or beside a pitch, kitting out an athlete or perhaps sponsoring a trophy. Sports brands and clubs retained a high level of control over what the media and the public had access to, allowing press and paps only a certain amount of time with a player and placing them in the perfect spot to show off a logo in the background. This model worked because media was limited. If fans wanted to watch the Olympics, Wimbledon or the Premier League then they had the BBC, Sky, BT Sport. Brands could be confident that viewers were going to see their logo front and centre.
These rules no longer apply.
Social media has revolutionised audience behaviour. Sports can now be consumed everywhere. Fans don’t need to sit down in front of the TV for 90 minutes to watch a game. But, they do still want live action - in genres like drama, around 30% of content is now timeshifted (i.e. not watched live). With sports, it’s less than 7%. It’s almost entirely watched live. So it seems that fans aren’t timeshifting, they’re place-shifting. Two third of ESPN’s audience is exclusively mobile. In 2010, around 18% of searches around big sporting events were from smartphones. In 2016, this figure hit 83% and it’s only going in one direction.
People are second screening, triple screening and on dark social, talking about games, following moments, analysing matches over WhatsApp. This dual screen culture has led to the democratisation of sports. Fans can demand content wherever and whenever works for them. They want 15 second highlights reels on the way to work in the morning. They’re looking for mobile-friendly apps to give them the latest stats on the favourite players; real-time, behind the scenes content coupled with the instant reaction, from athletes and fellow fans alike. They want the highs, the lows, the remix replays, seeking a connection beyond the game and looking to share the experience with like-minded fans in the moment, in a way which works for them.
Even with this distributed consumption, sport retains a power that few other industries have. The power to cause debate, to witness history, to feel motivated, empowered and emotional. Every sporting moment is commoditised to the nth degree. Every moment remixed, cut up and debated over and over, dominating conversation topics globally. And yet the main creative manifestation of this change to date has come from consumers, influencers, publishers and media houses, not brands.
So what should brands be doing to catch up? Consider the user journey - what platform will the user see this content on and what are their expectations or interactions on that platform? Think mobile first - your activity needs to work as well on the small screen as it does on the big.
Sponsor brands have to understand the interconnectivity of platforms, and build content toolkits which can interact across every digital touchpoint, while having an agile and responsive marketing department set up who can respond to changes and data. It’s also important to develop an editorial eye - think in headlines and storylines to make your creative executions really travel in social. And don’t be blinkered - look at wider culture. Where is the overlap with the sport you're sponsoring? How can you use subcultures to augment or turbocharge your marketing?
The shift into a new way of thinking when it comes to sports marketing is not just about revenue. It’s about capturing a moment of culture, of history, and turn it into a way to engage with one of the most dedicated and brand loyal groups of consumers on earth.