Sport is more than a luxury, it’s the next innovation battleground

Sport is not just the players on the field and the rankings on the ladder. According to Nora Henriksson, it's more important now than ever for sport to prove its worth.

2020 marked the sudden end of sport as we knew it. No games, no training, and players were separated not only from their fans, but from each other. Postponed tournaments and cancelled league games made headlines. And sponsors saw their investments evaporate into thin air.

Then came the return of (most) sports, and so far it has been somewhat anticlimactic for fans. This could also turn into the biggest crisis ever for a business that’s been growing tremendously the past 20-odd years. Global spending on sponsorship rights fees is set to fall from USD$46.1bn in 2019, to USD$28.9bn in 2020 – numbers based on projections from sports agency giant Two Circles.

Whether sports leagues aim to recapture growth and appeal to new fans, or brands aim to extract value from sponsorships now and in the near future, both challenges face a common solution: both must work together to innovate and redefine what a virtualised sporting experience looks like, and how it functions in fans’ digital lives.

It’s time to learn the new rules of sports marketing

When dividing marketing budgets, many brands look upon sports and sponsorship as a luxury, rather than a necessity. And if the connection with the big target group that football fans represent feels like an uncertain investment, it’s not hard to understand why it’s considered a luxury many feel they can do without.

In other words, sport needs to prove its worth: look further away than the game experience and dig deeper to find new target groups and create new ways to entertain. Fans have deeply passionate bonds with their favourite teams and athletes, offering a rich opportunity for brands to connect authentically and emotionally charge the marketing message.

As brands begin to envision the future of virtualised sports, they must innovate rather than try to recapture experiences of the past. Think augmented reality that visually fills up the stadium to portray the cheering of viewers from home to energise the players, or integrating social polls and fan-led interviews into broadcasts. These ideas wouldn’t have been considered a year ago, because brands and sports leagues didn’t feel an urgent need to provide them. Now, they’re table stakes.

These creative tech solutions create new possibilities for broadcast and content to evolve, and that capacity will live on, as will new habits. Engaging from a distance, like watching an away game or just watching from home, could be a whole new experience after crowds are fully let back into stadiums again.

To innovate, the ball is in brands’ court

Sponsors know the value sport can bring. They have invested in this business to be a part of that. The time for pushing the brakes on sponsorship is not when that value and attraction is moving into a bigger, digital space.

It’s rather a momentum for content – virtualisation bringing a fast development of creating ways to connect the fans with the players and the game. And along the way, sports and athletes will pick up not only the supporters that are hungry for material after a long wait, there will also be new target groups to create relations with.

Gen Z weren’t particularly loyal stadium visitors. But when livestreams and content are reshaping the digital space, new ways to be entertained by sports emerge – ways that can grow the younger audience and collect valuable data on how to make the content even more attractive along the way.

And more important for brands, these new digital touchpoints and features offer a variety of ways to reach fans that engage with sports in different ways: there’s the diehard fan who seeks community and togetherness in watching their favourite team play, or the more casual and passive viewer who merely enjoys the social aspect and water cooler talk the next day. Rather than focus only on core fans, virtualisation offers opportunities to squeeze return on investment (ROI) from more targeted, contextual touchpoints and features.

It’s time to take a step out of that comfort zone and embrace the creativity and technology that is flourishing in the empty space that COVID-19 has left us. Pulling back could mean sending the football business back a decade or two in time. Staying in the business could be driving change  – and gaining a huge amount of insights along the way.

Nora Henriksson is the managing director of MediaMonks


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