How to win in today’s sports marketing environment.


In our 24/7 world, where we’re always plugged in, constantly moving from platform to platform and accessing content on demand, sport retains the power to cohere marketing messages on a global level, uniting audiences through their universal passions.

It’s because of this that the sports market is estimated to be worth $700bn and is growing more rapidly than global GDP.

Despite a fragmenting media landscape, around half of the world’s population, for example, tuned into the 2016 Rio Olympics via “traditional” TV, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

But with so much change in consumer behaviour, largely driven by rapid technological advances, the way marketers must play this crucial sports marketing game has also changed significantly. As James Kirkham, head of fan media channel Copa90, says, “Sports marketing in 2017-2018 is an exciting mess. An elegant chaos.

“Traditional sponsorship is not dead, but great use of assets that genuinely engage are few and far between.”

This guide will start by outlining the key trends that marketers and agencies need to tap to win in today’s sports marketing environment. Then it will identify the core challenges that must be addressed to fully exploit these opportunities. It will sum-up with inspiration from two experienced sports marketers, one on the client brand marketer side (Ford) and one giving a rights holder perspective (EFL).

  1. Sports marketing is shifting to new, different platforms
  2. Sports fans are demanding a much more engaging, immersive experience than ever before
  3. Sports marketing is shifting to be more lifestyle and entertainment orientated
  4. Sports marketing culture is becoming more inclusive

Trend 1: Sports marketing is shifting to new, different platforms

A major driver of change is how consumers, particularly younger viewers, watch sport today. The stereotype of sport spectators has long been groups of friends gathering around the TV set, making an event of watching a fixture at home. But traditional TV viewership is declining, as people increasingly consume TV in new ways, such as streaming on their mobile and other digital devices.

However, the game-changer is the meteoric rise of social broadcasting. Both Twitter and Facebook are pushing their “live” functionality, which is increasingly becoming the first place many fans, especially younger ones, go to witness the action.

Twitter has announced that sport is one of the main sectors it plans to develop on this front, already signing a deal to live stream the NFL. Meanwhile, YouTube Live has struck a deal to live stream the Uefa Champions League finals in partnership with BT Sport.


Twitter: live streamed NFL games on the platform

Twitter: live streamed NFL games on the platform

“This illustrates a trend for the future,” says Liam Hopkins, sponsorship account director, Leo Burnett. “Broadcasters will look to modernise their offering, both to remain commercial and adapt to the growing number of typically younger sports fans who watch their sports online.”

So what is so compelling about the social media environment for sports fans? According to Kirkham it’s the unpolished authenticity,

“Snapchat, for example, brings with it an authenticity previously unseen”, he says. “It is raw and real and absolutely of the moment, so the perfect contrast to overly stage managed or manicured content as previously existed.

“Broadcasters will look to modernise their offering, both to remain commercial and adapt to the growing number of typically younger sports fans who watch their sports online.”Liam Hopkins, sponsorship account director, Leo Burnett

“For Generation Z, authenticity is the number one demand. Overly elaborate platforms or experiences are unable to match the immediacy of their favourite environments.”

To make their environments even more sticky for sports enthusiasts, experts predict that the next obvious areas for social broadcasters to move into are micropayments to buy tickets and travel discounts to get to games.

As well as social broadcasting, another area that is likely to experience growth in the near future is sports creating their own platforms. This is a particularly attractive option for smaller, more niche sports that don’t get prioritised by the traditional broadcasters.

“This is exactly what British Table Tennis did,” says Steve Martin, global CEO of M&C Saatchi Sports and Entertainment. “Rather than thinking ‘we must get this on Sky or the BBC’, they took it into their own hands and 2.1 million watched their own live stream on Facebook.

“This is where we’ll see exponential change; brands, right holders and federations building their own audiences.”

That said, some experts stress that traditional TV will remain vital. Like Kantar Media’s Nathalie Nénon-Zimmermann, managing director of sports intelligence, who argues that TV is “still King” in terms of exposure and reach.

Google’s decision to advertise on TV during the Uefa Euro 2016 as testament to this, she says. “This proves even digital native companies rely on the reach and power of TV to spread the word about their services.”

Indeed, agencies report those brands that diverted all their sports marketing budget to digital are, in many cases, reversing that decision and realising traditional media plays a crucial accompanying awareness role.

“Brands that have just focused on digital and social have seen brand scores drop, so there’s a big trend back to using traditional media. Those big broadcast moments are still very important,” says M&C’s Martin, citing Coca-Cola as an example.


Diet Coke: on-pack promotion for Euro 2016

Diet Coke: on-pack promotion for Euro 2016

VR and AR as platforms

The jury is still out on emerging platforms such as VR and AR, which are yet to perfect their functionality or attract a mainstream audience. Some believe VR will prove a hit because of its ability to offer a real, raw insight(more on this in the next trend around creating immersive experiences).

VR’s killer benefit, compared to standard video content, is that even when a situation has been staged, VR’s immersion helps mimic real life and offers a complete 360-degree view to create the illusion of an unfiltered experience,” says Erfan Saadati, content creator at tech firm Surround Vision.

Others, like Ed Kemp, the co-founder of sports specialist Westworth Kemp Events, regard it as the “next great frontier for sports marketing” pointing to the NBA’s embracing of VR in 2016, broadcasting one game a week via VR headset.

Kemp says, “Yes, we are just at the start, but it will transform how we engage with sport. The NBA has a history of embracing tech and has invested heavily. I can’t see the direction of change switching and the technology will only improve.”

However observers like Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell, executive vice president, EMEA, Wasserman, question VR’s validity, especially in a live sports context, seeing more potential in AR.

“VR is a solo activity,” she says. “Whereas the live event is a unifying occasion and our inherent sociability as humans hasn’t changed at all.” AR offers more potential, she says, especially if sports marketers can replicate the success of a phenomenon like Pokémon Go.

VR is a solo activity. Whereas the live event is a unifying occasion.Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell, executive vice president, EMEA, Wasserman

There are those, too, who are more cynical of the hype and believe these technologies will always play second fiddle to the experience of actually physically being at a sporting venue.

“These technologies are just trying to replicate the feeling of being there. Living vicariously through digital is not actually living,” says Drew Barrand, marketing director, EFL. How successfully marketers convince consumers of this truth – or not – will likely determine the eventual uptake of these new channels.

Trend 2: Sports fans are demanding a much more engaging, immersive experience than ever before

The fact that sport has gone from a lean-back, passive spectator activity to a lean-in, participative one has triggered a seismic shift in the kind of marketing that now resonates most strongly. Fans want to be closer to the action, to the athletes, to the stats and to the most revealing camera angles. They want the insider’s view. As a result, generating constant, captivating, exclusive content has become a modern marketer’s priority.

Sponsoring a sports property gives a brand a credible reason for entering and hosting the conversation, enabling it to create interesting content due to its access to players, managers and behind-the-scenes action. That, says Nissan’s Diernaz, is the main asset that a sponsorship deal today provides:

Diernaz says, “Sports sponsorship gives you the entry ticket to access engaging content in an agile way. As a way to deliver logo impressions, sponsorship doesn’t work. As a way to deliver content, it does.”

Planning and delivering content has become a military operation, across the whole of marketing not just in relation to sports, due to the complexity and explosion of platforms. Consequently, brands like Nissan and Ford have “content factories” internally. Both have found their sports alliances are a hugely valuable boost to the “factory” production line.

“I used to talk to my team about the importance of an integrated ‘360’ campaign,” says Diernaz. “Now I say ‘forget 360, think 365’ because every day we have to produce engaging content.

“Having a sports contract gives you souped-up content and a way to engage with people that are passionate and are going to react to what you say with a high level of engagement.”

Content that makes fans feel closer to their sporting idols has particular power. Especially for the younger generations, the staid, old-fashioned formats of traditional press conferences and formal Q&A sessions don’t cut it anymore. Having grown up on social media, they want real, unadulterated interaction with athletes without the spindoctors on the sidelines. Hence, the emergent and growing cut-the-middle-man media such as The Players’ Tribune and NBA star Lebron James’ multimedia site Uninterrupted.

As a result, brands must take a more creative approach to content creation facilitating this direct interaction, as Snickers did during the 2016 Superbowl (pictured below). Mid press conference, the brand showed American football star Richard Sherman videos of fans making score predictions – the athlete then talked to these fans via social media, instantly upping the interest of the conference.

Similarly, Nike has responded smartly to this trend with Nike On Demand, a one-to-one messenger service via WhatsApp, which links fans directly with its vast network of athletes and coaches to inspire them to achieve their own personal sporting goals. Content includes playlist suggestions, motivational tips, challenges, reminders and informal conversation.

Olympics sponsor and furniture brand DFS, too, got up close and personal with gold medal winners Adam Peaty, Laura Trott and Max Whitlock when it gave their homes a makeover, giving a fans a sneak peak into their real lives in the process.

This trend offers huge opportunities for marketing to be genuinely engaging and creative, deepening customer relationships far more than a logo badging exercise ever did in the past.

“The digital explosion allows marketers to launch increasingly targeted campaigns and engage in meaningful conversations with fans,” says Kantar’s Nénon-Zimmermann, adding that digital is also transforming measurement, meaning that marketers can track the direct impact of marketing on a specific call-to-action.

Trend 3: Sports marketing is shifting to be more lifestyle and entertainment orientated

Driven by this fan desire to know more about their sporting heroes, athletes are becoming more like celebrities, with an increasing number becoming rights holders themselves. With this comes the expectation that they behave more like celebrities and that sporting occasions mimic entertainment events.

Indeed, it appears that athletes are prepared to play this new sponsorship game, with many happy to tweet about their training regime or pre-game preparation, using social media to share their feelings, photos and other private details of their lives.

Similarly, we saw the expectation that sporting events should take on a more entertainment feel fulfilled at the revamped Uefa Champions League opening ceremony in 2016. Tournament sponsorPepsiCo fused the worlds of sport and entertainment by negotiating the performance of its brand ambassador and pop star Alicia Keys.

Savvy sports brands have cottoned on to this merging of the sporting, lifestyle, fashion and music worlds already. It’s this trend that led Manchester United kit sponsor Adidas to team football star Paul Pogba up with grime singer Stormzy in a music video, which quickly went viral. Reflecting on the campaign, the brand explained that sports marketing activations which combine influential social media personalities like Stomzy with its signed players will be its focus going forward.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be this combination of lifestyle and sporting stars, either, to make a winning formula. What’s more important is the entertainment “X-factor”.

The Poker Stars online campaign “#RaiseIt”, featuring NBA champion Dwyane Wade and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, in which the duo attempt to outdo each other with increasingly difficult tricks is a standout campaign, says Kemp.

“There is an engaging narrative” he says. “The content is very sharable and they have chosen their stars well as both are low risk, in terms of their personalities, and have their own extensive social media reach. Also, by choosing stars from two different sports Poker Stars has expanded its reach.”

However, while these “big name” celebrities undoubtedly work in some campaigns, the use of celebrities has to be weighed up carefully as, in some instances the individual or using a famous person at all, could be inappropriate. Like Sport England’s hugely successful “This girl can” campaign encouraging females to take up sport.

“It was about making sport relevant to women who didn’t previously think it was for them,” says Kate Dale, strategic lead, brand and digital, at Sport England. “Therefore, our starting point couldn’t be with established sports stars.

“We needed to go where the women were and find the people who would influence them. They were less likely to be the people who feature on the back pages of a newspaper.”

The real, unfiltered, compelling way that women were portrayed in the ad only served to make it more powerful, its 90-second “This girl can” spot has now been watched more than 37 million times on Facebook and YouTube.


Sport England: 'This girl can' campaign

Sport England: ‘This girl can’ campaign

This clash of entertainment and sporting cultures, say some, is the reason that sports marketing has evolved so dramatically to become such a powerful part of the mix. “The clash is really, really healthy,” says M&C’s Martin.

Widening out the market in this way to appeal to the more casual fan via entertainment makes sport a more effective marketing channel. So does the fact that in times of economic crisis, as we’ve experienced in the last few years, people seek escapism and solace in their passions.

Trend 4: Sports marketing culture is becoming more inclusive

The idea that sport is a man’s world today is as outdated as the stereotype that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Sport is at the vanguard when it comes to challenging gender roles.

This questioning is being fuelled by sports organisations realising the economic opportunity that female fans – a previously largely overlooked fan base – represent, according to a report on The Future Sports Fan by behavioural insights agency, Canvas8.

This report predicts that female fans will become equal to male fans, which seems a credible forecast, given that more Americans watched the Women’s World Cup final in 2015 than the NBA Finals or the Stanley Cup.

Consequently, women’s sport is a huge opportunity for brands to play a positive, active role in redressing the imbalance of female representation both on the sports field and supporting pitch side. When it comes to women’s sport, experts advise putting community at the heart of campaigns.

This is exactly what SSE has done in its pioneering work sponsoring the Women’s FA Cup in line with its “Proud to make a difference” brand positioning. SSE has ring-fenced a budget to raise the profile of the game, inspire young women to take up sport and illustrate the benefit to parents, and society in general, when girls get into sports.

Tim Crow, CEO, Synergy, the agency behind the work, including the #GirlsTakeOver campaign, describes the sponsorship as “one of the best things we’ve done in 30 years”. Why? “It’s a brand being brave. Ambitious. And genuinely desiring to make a difference and walking the talk,” he says.

As a result of the brand’s involvement, the final was the biggest yet, with over 30,000 fans at Wembley to see Chelsea win and 1,989,000 viewing live on BBC.

Other brands are fighting similar campaigning causes in their sports marketing by promoting diversity. For example, Guinness ran emotionally-charged story vignettes during the Rugby World Cup 2015 featuring former player Gareth Thomas talking about the challenges of coming out as gay in the sport.

Nike, too, joining forces with US men’s duathlon team member Chris Mosier shone a light on the struggle that transgender athletes face when they compete.

“These two campaigns will pave the way for brands keen to promote the same values as we move into 2017,” says Leo Burnett’s Hopkins. “There will be more new, innovative partnerships through which we will see brands being bold and openly tackling taboo themes such as sexuality, gender discrimination and disability, whilst also broadening their reach by pushing themselves into all aspects of popular culture.”

As mentioned in Trend 3, the shift to an entertainment style approach is attracting more casual sports fans too, which is being actively encouraged by rights holders. During the Rugby World Cup, for example, novices could purchase a headset for £10 which provided basic commentary, including an outline of the rules.

Similarly, song sheets are now commonly given out to welcome those who don’t know the words off pat at football matches. Children are also being welcomed into venues more and more, with specific activity directed at them and an increasing number of designated family areas at events.

Do you have what it takes? Browse some of our sports marketing jobs at Campaign Jobs.

The main challenges brands need to overcome to fully exploit these trends in sports marketing

  1. Millennials are not watching traditional media
  2. Outmoded inflexible contracts
  3. Rights holders and brands aren’t where fans go for the insider gossip
  4. Incentivising people to actually attend sports events in person
  5. Sports stars aren’t actors. The risk of sport moving into celebrity/a>

Challenge 1: Millennials are not watching traditional media

The average age of viewers who watch the Olympic Games is 50 and over, and rising. And, as we’ve said in Trend 1, younger audiences are increasingly accessing sport on new platforms, particularly social networks. Many sports enthusiasts don’t believe that major events like the Olympics feel relevant to the way people participate in sports today.

Crow goes as far as to say that “a lot of the big traditional sports have an existential crisis coming, particularly in relation to millennials”. According to him, the sports industry generally has not been good at reaching these younger audiences and is only just starting to realise that it’s “behind the curve”.

“Sport is starting to wrestle with this challenge,” he says. “Starting to realise that the core fans of traditional sports who are under the age of 25 make up less than 20% of the market, but a lot of sport relies on traditional TV for distribution, which millennials aren’t watching. Their chief tactic is creating over the top (OTT) channels. That’s just a start. They need to do more.”

If sports organisations don’t do more the threat is not just that they will lose millennials for good, but that they will lose them to a rapidly growing maverick new entrant to the sector: e-sports.

While there is still dispute over whether this gaming-based spectator activity is actually a sport, there is no dispute over the fact that millennials are embracing it. 65% of fans are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to research by Mindshare North America. Around 36,000,000 unique viewers tuned into watch online battle video game League of Legends in 2015.

In addressing this challenge to engage millennials in traditional sports, brands and sports organisations would do well to look to esports for inspiration. The fan experience has successfully managed to appeal to younger audience due to its deeply social, participative nature, as well as its highly influential and inspiring ‘celebrity’ player culture.

The big question, says Crow, which marketers need to be asking themselves is, how do we make ourselves more relevant to the younger audiences without alienating the existing ones?

Challenge 2: Outmoded inflexible contracts

One of the most frustrating challenges that brand marketers and their agencies face is rights holder contracts that are old-fashioned, inflexible, too predictable and restrictive. According to many marketers, rights holders are struggling to reinvent themselves from sales-led organisations to innovative, collaborative partners

They say many standard right holder contracts, particularly for the “big” high profile rights, inhibit a brand’s ability to be agile and responsive. As well as this, they report that the huge fees now involved in securing rights often leaves little leftover budget for all-important activation. Or, as M&C’s Martin puts it: “a lot of the big properties are living in the dark ages.”

To overcome these challenges, marketers need to enter contract negotiations with their eyes wide open; they must be clear about what they need and why. Contract retro-fitting is not easy, advisable or effective. Experienced marketers like Martin, who worked client side at Adidas for many years, believes that there will be a power shift away from rights holders to brands in 2017.


Kantar’s Nénon-Zimmermann agrees. She predicts that in future we are going to “see sports marketers carving out specific rights from the rights holders in order to broaden sports engagement by providing fans with a bespoke ‘money can’t buy’ experience.”

This higher level of collaboration will naturally lead to the “co-creation of marketing rights between sports marketers and rights holders, as they look to craft individual rights suited to their specific campaign needs and objectives in a drive for more exclusive content”.

The pressure is on rights holders to reinvent themselves by virtue of the fact that brands are increasingly choosing rights holders who have, even if their properties are less high profile. This is what happened when Simon Rines, owner of specialist sports marketing publisher IMR, approached several Premier League football clubs on behalf of a potential sponsor. He was keen to know what tailored offer each might propose to meet the specific brand objective but most responded with the “standard, dull ‘rate card’ of rights”.

“West Bromwich Albion, on the other hand, outlined the basic package but also produced some really innovative ideas that went well beyond the rights and really focused on the sponsor’s needs,” he says. “I would point clients towards a rights holder that took this approach over another club with a higher profile.”

The other way to overcome outmoded, inflexible contracts is not to enter into them in the first place. This is an option that is becoming more and more attractive to brands realising that they might not need to spend such hefty fees to reach a sport’s audience.

“Sports media disruption has made it easier than ever before to reach and engage new and existing audiences,” says Copa90’s Kirkham. “Yet rights holders are still yet to fully embrace the modern media landscape.”