In no-spectators era, digital platforms are turning sports sponsorship on its head

Posted on Feb 12, 2021 by Brad McCabe



Nothing beats the thrill of watching live sporting events unfold. Those impossible acts, the surprise results and glorious victories – there is nothing else like it. Sport is emotional, it is engaging and it has the power to unify.

There is a huge global appetite for sport and, after the Covid-19 pandemic forced many spectator sports to shut down for much of 2020, fans became hungrier than ever for the excitement of live events.

While many rescheduled tent-pole sports events are due to take place over 2021, all eyes will be on the Tokyo Summer Olympics, set to launch on 23 July. Although organisers are working tirelessly to ensure the Games go ahead, there is still a real possibility that fans will be unable to attend in person.

For brands, this presents the challenge of connecting with fans without them being physically in the stadium. However, it also creates new opportunities for brands to engage fans at home and enhance their mobile and digital experience.

Without a doubt, it will be a different experience for sports fans, but new viewing patterns and behaviours were already evolving. Live sports broadcasting is being disrupted by digital devices and online platforms, meaning it is no longer a linear TV experience.

This change was already apparent in the viewing figures for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, where 3.2 billion people watched on a combination of TV and digital devices. Today, according to the research firm GlobalWebIndex’s (GWI) data from Q3 2020, 54% of global sports fans watch coverage or highlights online.

Digital viewing for the Olympics Games has been soaring since Beijing in 2008. According to e-Marketer’s Sports OTT Landscape report from January 2019, it was expected to hit new heights in 2020 with video views predicted to top 3.5bn. TV views were projected at around the 3bn mark.

Fans are also taking their conversations online as highlighted by GWI (Q3 2020) showing that two-thirds of sports fan use social media while watching TV. With duel-screening now almost universal, brands should note that mobile sports consumption is increasing multi-faceted. According to Facebook data, there are 700 million sports fans on Facebook and 400 million fans on Instagram.

The 2016 Summer Games in Rio also demonstrated how the behaviour of sports fans is changing. Facebook saw 1.5bn interactions during the games from 277 million unique users, while Instagram registered 916m interactions from 131 million unique users. The last Football World Cup generated 5.3bn interactions.

More than half of viewers are also chatting with friends via platforms such as WhatsApp sharing key sporting moments, while a third is reading the news, playing games or searching for products related to what they are watching. What does this mean for marketers, particularly sponsors?

Sports sponsorship has long been big business for brands, offering a vast, often international, reach, and a culturally relevant audience. According to the research and data company Kantar, sports sponsorship will account for 10% of all global advertising spend in 2021, hitting nearly $50bn.

Tracking the performance of those campaigns and measuring success has always proved tricky for brands. At the same time, sponsorship properties have often only been available on long-term contracts. It is no surprise then that Kantar research also found that 44% of marketers believe sponsorship is the least understood media channel in terms of return on investment.

However, digital and online platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, are turning the sponsorship model on its head. The opportunities for bespoke content and agile and trackable campaigns allow brands to target their campaigns more accurately and assess their success more quickly.

Andy Childs of Facebook’s Central Europe Connection Planning unit explains: “Sports sponsorship is in transition, with brands all vying for consumer share of mind and share of wallet. With our platform and analytics, Facebook and Instagram offer brands a unique opportunity to grow – to reach mass audiences, enhance the fan experience, trigger relevant purchases and importantly measure the business impact of sport sponsorship.“

It means not only are brands seeking shorter, more targeted sponsorship opportunities than are the market norm, but there are more ways for non-sponsoring brands to get involved in tent-pole sporting events.

With more opportunities for brands to get involved in the 2021 Summer Games, the need for creative campaigns that cut through the noise will be more critical than ever. To do this, marketers should consider these creative thought starters:

Amplify brand association

A brand should develop a meaningful link with its chosen sports event among its audience, and cut through the clutter by demonstrating its interest and reason for getting involved with the sport. Where fans are aware of the link between sponsor and property, there is a 30% uplift in commercial effects compared to where fans are unaware of the correct linkage.*

It is vital to identify a different emotional space to other sponsors, particularly close competitors, while also targeting a broad audience with content such as snackable video. Use in-stream advertising to build a stronger association.

Enhance the fan experience


To reinforce the connection between the brand and the event, offer fans something exclusive or innovative that enriches and deepens that emotional connection. Where fans are aware of the linkage and further believe that there is benefit to the property and to the fan experience (arising from the sponsorship), there is a 71% uplift in commercial effects.*

Meanwhile, offer fans a 24/7 experience through branded content and increase relevance through contextual and geo-targeting. Sponsors can also seek to augment and gamify sports consumption.

Trigger consumption opportunities

The third way to grow with sports is through sales – generating a commercial return is the most important overall objective for sponsors or non-sponsors alike. The best way is to Integrate a brand’s product or service into the fabric or experience of the event. By focusing on products connected to an event that are a natural fit or can be enjoyed during the event. Campaigns should promote relevant products or services at relevant moments, including athlete participation, home matches or weather triggers. This strategy will help improve understanding of sports event ROI.

The whole sports community from the fans and sportspeople, athletes and teams through to leagues and associations, media and influencers to advertisers and brands have all embraced this brave new world of sports. It is an evolution that has the potential to enrich the experience for everyone.
Even when fans are allowed to return to live sports events, online platforms and brands will continue to enhance and build on that experience. The potential, the reach and the creativity that online platforms can offer are only beginning to be realised.

* Professor Tony Meenaghan, Jamie Macken and Mark Nolan, Core Ireland, 2018

Article by Caroline Parry as posted on https://www.thedrum.com/news/2021/02/01/the-no-spectators-era-digital-platforms-are-turning-the-sports-sponsorship-model-its