The early weeks of 2022 have proved one thing: Sports marketers should always have a back-up plan because as Robert Burns wrote in his poem To a Mouse, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” Burns wrote this sage advice in 1785, long before there was a National Football League, a Major League Baseball League, an International Olympic Committee or even before Tom Brady did his flip-flop about retiring. In my opinion, the poem should be required reading every morning before PR and advertising agencies’ client planning sessions, in TV sports production meetings and in corporation and brand marketing meetings.
What the 2021 and 2022 Olympics in Tokyo and Beijing proved was that sports promotions can be a victim of world affairs and changing public attitudes. Sports marketers had to cancel or limit their Olympic PR plans because of the COVID situation in Tokyo last year, and in China this year because of the condemnation of China’s human rights polices, spearheaded by a diplomatic boycott of the games by the U.S. Likewise, NBCUniversal had to change its plans, resulting, in my opinion, in the most boring telecast of an Olympics during my lifetime. (And according to the dismal TV ratings, I wasn’t the only person to feel that way.)
It wasn’t only mega-sporting PR and marketing plans that were affected by world events this year and in 2021. So were niche sports. Phil Mickelson’s comments about his backing a new golf league in Saudi Arabia several weeks ago roiled the relatively small insular world of professional golf, as did the National Hockey League deciding not to participate in the Beijing Olympics.
After the Olympics, the possible postponement of the baseball season because of the labor disagreement between team owners and players also short-circuited sports marketing plans. I know that this is a very small sample, but among my acquaintances at dinner, during my visits to the gym and in email conversations not one person brought up the delay of the baseball season, and among those individuals are five that I know follow baseball. As for myself, I enjoy watching a game on TV in the evening but didn’t miss it when a game is postponed. Instead, I read a good book or watch a movie.
Was the lack of interest in the Olympics, as evident by the low television viewership, and the uncaring attitude of a possible postponement of the baseball season among my acquaintances a sign of things to come? It might not be, but sports history shows that it might be.
Years ago, when I was a young sportswriter, I used to spend Wednesday nights watching “name” prize fighters at a popular local arena—the Eastern Parkway Arena in Brooklyn, known as The House of Upsets—and on Friday nights listening via radio to even bigger “name” fighters slugging it out from Madison Square Garden, across the Bridge in Manhattan.
When I transitioned to the public relations business, my first major assignment, which led me into the sports marketing business, was doing publicity for a 52-week-a-year television series (for eight years) that featured a bevy of different sports—one being the weekly big thoroughbred racing event, another a harness racing telecast. Basketball and hockey events rounded out the programming. Today, I consider boxing, thoroughbred racing and harness racing niche events and so do sports marketers and televisions sports directors, given the lack of TV time they receive.
In addition, current sponsors can’t be thrilled when their athletes publicly speaking out on political matters.
Sponsors of many other sports like soccer, tennis, auto racing, figure skating, and basketball might have curtailed marketing plans because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even the International Judo Federation got involved after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by stripping Putin from his roles as honorary president and Ambassador of the IJF.
For many years, marketing experts have been questioning the effectiveness of brands spending millions of dollars on mega sports events, such as the Super Bowl and the Olympics
And during my Olympic days, when I was a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations and for foreign governments on Olympic projects, I was confidentially told by some clients that they thought the results they received from sponsoring the events was not worth the money it cost them.
One client I managed for many years wanted to be associated with events like the Super Bowl and Olympics, but didn’t want to spend the big bucks necessary to become official sponsors. What they did was advertise on the pre- and post-event telecasts and, cleverly, ran their own national sports marketing program at another time, when their message didn’t get lost in the clutter of Super Bowl and Olympics advertisements. In order for marketing plans not to become victims of world events and changing public attitudes, here’s what sponsors should consider:
Of course, I realize that many in our business disagree with the above, some because they like the prestige of working on a mega account; others because they are afraid to speak against agency higher ups suggestions—big budgets mean big profits for agencies—but most, I assume, is because they are afraid to challenge the sports organizations, client’s advertising and marketing agencies’ recommendations, as I did.
To those I say, what plans did you have to immediately replace the Summer 2021 and Winter 2022 Olympics, or did you have a back-up plan if the baseball season began late. The answer to the Olympics situations obviously was none. And I’d be willing to wager the same was true if the beginning of the baseball season was postponed.
When it comes to sports and entertainment marketing, there’s a whole lot of money on the table, making it very much a pay-to-play field.
Outside of that, today’s fans expect to engage with personalized content across a whole range of channels.
In response to a changing landscape, sports and entertainment brands need to shift their mentality to a multi-touchpoint strategy rather than one big sponsorship push.
The New Challenges Facing Sports Marketing
Okay, before we dive into the specifics, it’s important that you understand the challenges facing the sports marketing scene.
People often assume that just because you’re working in an industry that people are inherently interested in, half the work is done for you. Not exactly.
As you may have heard, millennials are ditching traditional media behind for new channels and immersive experiences. We’re also in the midst of some major changes where sports and entertainment rights are changing, along with user consumption patterns.
Brands now must focus on connecting with customers on multiple channels. Sports fans now watch multiple games on multiple channels, so there’s a lot of competition for even smaller slivers of attention.
Sports Marketing Spans a Fragmented Media Mix
Millennials and Generation Z aren’t exactly tuning into local channels to watch sports these days. Fans aren’t going to sit down for two, three hours and watch one game. They might be checking in on social media, using multiple screens, and switching back and forth.
As we’ve seen with other markets, the sports industry has become increasingly fragmented, and brands need to respond by focusing on smaller points that happen throughout the buyer’s journey.
A few ways sports marketers can modernize their approach and connect with younger generations.
Live Social Content
Live content platforms like Facebook Live and Instagram Stories have strengthened the conversation between fans, players, teams, and brands. Where people once huddled around a TV set for game day, they have this rich, participative environment where they can talk stats, hear from players, and get an insider’s view.
Brands can get in on the action by sponsoring on-demand content, as well as releasing branded filters for Instagram Stories and Snapchat. Live platforms are a natural fit for sports teams and sponsors alike.
In 2017, the NBA created a series of Snapchat Shows that “aired”during that year’s finals. And rather than focus on sound-bytes, Snapchat wanted to create a narrative around the finals.
On the sponsor side, Snickers’ 2016 Superbowl campaign is another example of how brands can use social media to drive the conversation. The candy bar brand showed football player, Richard Sherman videos of fans making predictions about the game–and invited people to share their own #SB50 predictions.
The Boston Red Sox, for example, use Twitter to engage with fans during rain delays, asking for music suggestions to help pass the time. The Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco Giants paved the way back in 2017, becoming the first teams to promote Instagram Live content from fans on the JumboTron.
Or, look at the Miami Dolphins, who have used live content to share how players and coaches feel during games and practices. All of these examples highlight how live content enriches the connection between players and fans.
Outside of actual teams, products in the sports marketing space can gain a lot from live streaming. Anyone remember the hugely popular “Space Dive” by Red Bull?
It featured extreme-sports extraordinaire Felix Baumgartner in a 128k freefall from space – sponsored by Red Bull and live streamed the entire time.
It was the most watched live stream in 2012, benefitting from a huge marketing push and a storyline that was completely in-line with the Red Bull brand: cutting-edge, adrenaline-fueled fun.
Explore a Mix of Ad Channels
Younger viewers are used to seeing advertising in their online videos and leaning more on social-based videos and streaming services for entertainment.
According to Deloitte, spending on TV ads is down across the entertainment industry. Where brands might have looked toward TV ads in the past, services like Facebook and YouTube might be a smarter bet.
Clorox told Google that they decided to play around with YouTube to reach a new audience–using Steph Curry and King Bach in a branded content campaign featuring Brita, a Clorox product. David Kargas of Clorox says that the rules of TV ads don’t translate directly to YouTube and that the brand shifted their strategy to let the stars control the narrative.
While we acknowledge that Clorox isn’t a sports brand, we like that they were able to break out of their normal strategy and create something that works with this specific platform. What’s more, Kargas says that the experiment paid off. The brand saw a 2000% increase in mobile search and a 36% rise in brand favorability. Not bad, right?
Partnerships are Changing in Sports Marketing
The days of hoping your logo placement will add up to more impressions, and by extension, more sales, are over.
Sports marketing has long been defined by strategic partnerships, but given the influencer landscape we live in today, booking a photo shoot for one big campaign is no longer the end game. Instead, brands need to take a cue from successful influencer campaigns across all verticals.
Research says that celebrity partnerships are still quite valuable, but it’s important to acknowledge that the definition of celebrity has shifted.
Incentive-Based Sponsorship Models
Social media has shaken up the traditional sponsorship model. Where brands once made bets on top athletes without the metrics to measure their ROI, they now have mountains of data at their disposal that shows what campaigns are working and which ones aren’t.
More brands are looking toward incentive-based sponsorship deals with athletes, paying athletes based on the results they generate versus perceived value. Sponsor brands can now set goals that an athlete needs to hit–be it a certain number of conversions or a specific engagement rate–and pay them when they reach those goals.
This approach allows brands to pay for the sponsorships that bring in the most business and help appear relevant to the consumer.
Emphasize Storytelling in Sports Marketing Partnerships
Not all sports marketing needs to be flashy or feature star athletes.
In fact, sometimes it’s all the better for not. Take, for example, Proctor & Gamble’s 2018 Winter Olympics “Thank You, Mom” campaign.
The campaign tells the stories of the mom’s of these Olympic athletes, and how they’ve been their children’s biggest advocates since the beginning.
Pretty hard-hitting for a home goods and cleaning supply brand, right? But the risk paid off for the brand, big time, and it was named one of the top campaigns of the 21st century by Advertising Age.
Why did it work so well? Because it featured epic, relatable storytelling. It used a subject we’re already super-charged about – sports – and made it relatable.
My advice? Look for the little things. Most people can’t relate to being a major athlete, whether it’s Olympic or pro status. But they can relate the motivation, support, and dedication it took to get there. Look at how your product plays into one any of those driving forces, and go from there.
Build Social Campaigns Around Authenticity
Between the sheer volume of data breach scandals, promoted posts, and celebrity endorsements, authenticity, and transparency are more important to consumers than ever. With that in mind, sports marketers need to think about how to build real connections with their consumers.
Here are a few things to consider as you begin developing a social media strategy:
Use Feedback to Give People What They Want
Social media not only provides an immediate connection between a team and its fans, but it’s also a great place to learn more about what your audience wants.
Fans are getting pickier about the content they choose to engage with, and you’ll need to spend a good deal of time getting to know your audience if you want to be successful.
When content marketing and social media first came on the scene, the guiding strategy was publishing regularly to gain visibility. Now that these spaces have become saturated, brands need to stick to a creative and cohesive approach to content that resonates with fans.
To uncover these insights, we recommend looking at the most successful content you’ve put out across all channels. Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter all provide in-depth analytics so that brands can see things like best posting times, whether live posts trump static photos, and how UGC performs against branded posts.
Fans Expect to Connect with Athletes
As marketing has shifted as a whole in recent years, so too, has sports marketing. Where an athlete was once a spokesperson or the subject of a documentary feature, today’s athletes are active on social media, and many participate in the social and political discussions of the day.
According to Google, this increased access has sparked more interest in who athletes are as people.
As with influencers and even traditional celebrities, fans tend to engage more with content that tells a story. At events, fans can pull out a phone and live stream the game. Athletes can share behind the scenes glimpses into their lives on and off the field.
In response, brands need to think about how this expectation of access plays into their strategy. Deloitte’s 2019 report on sports industry “game-changers” talks about the industry moving toward this idea of athletes as content creators.
Athletes benefit from having a strong personal brand, just like any star, and are increasingly sharing behind-the-scenes tidbits in live feeds, stories, and traditional posts.
What sets sports and entertainment marketing apart from traditional B2B or B2C marketing is, it doesn’t take much to get your fans involved. Fans already want to be part of the action, and chances are, they’re already live-tweeting or Instagramming their reaction to the big game.
Big brands like Adidas and Nike are already capitalizing on the power of UGC. As we’ve mentioned in the past, a whopping 92% of customers trust UGC over traditional advertising methods.
UGC presents an opportunity for many brands that fall into the sports vertical. Earned media, particularly on Instagram, provides brands more opportunities to learn about your audience by facilitating a conversation between customer and brand.
UGC also has the numbers on its side, generating more engagement (likes and comments) on Instagram than content coming directly from the brand.
The challenge of user-generated campaigns is that the brand needs to demonstrate value to the customer–what is it that makes people want to be a part of “the team?”
Wrapping Up Sports Marketing
Like all industries, social media has changed the game for sports and entertainment marketing. Brands need to focus on reaching more fans where they are, rather than hedge their bets on traditional ad buys and product placement.
While we can’t predict how this industry will shift over the next few years, one thing is for certain, brands need to embrace flexibility if they want to compete in this crowded, fan-driven landscape.