From the rise of esports to the untapped commercial opportunity of women's sport to a new era of hyper-connected grassroots marketing, sports marketing is in the midst of significant transformation.
This transformation and the opportunities it affords for brands was at the top of the agenda at Campaign’s sports marketing conference Future Fit, held in London. Here are the top nine takeaways from the event.
1 Grassroots support pays dividends
TSB’s sponsorship of Pride of Britain and Pride of Sport helped combat the negative sentiment around the brand caused by its IT meltdown last year.
The company's chief marketing officer, Peter Markey, said there were "no negatives or downsides" to sponsoring the two schemes, which celebrate unsung community and grassroots sporting heroes.
Markey revealed that during the "challenging times" of last year, when the brand was hit by major IT problems and sentiment dipped, its involvement in the two events was "the only thing that swung it back" to positive sentiment. "It showed the power of what we did," he added.
While Pride of Britain has an annual high-profile celebrity awards ceremony, its stories of "local pride" run in the Mirror, ITV and Heart and on social media throughout the year. "This is an all-year-round thing for us," Markey said.
Markey explained that over the Pride of Britain and Pride of Sport campaign activity period around the events, positive brand sentiment rose by 14%, while social media sentiment increased by 65%. There was also a 100% increase in perceptions that TSB supports local communities and a 30% rise in the belief that the brand is trustworthy.
2 Look for tailor-made sponsorship packages to boost engagement and relevance
Unilever brand Sure Men has revitalised its football sponsorship activities by focusing on building an "always-on conversation", global brand manager Alejandro Fiecconi said.
The brand had been "attached too long to the awareness-driving side of sponsorship", he said. "This meant we associated with very short-term timeframe activities like So You Think You Can Dance in the US and not building that always-on conversation. That’s where we see the future now."
In the past year, Sure Men has switched its focus to football, signing partnerships with Manchester City, Chelsea, Spain’s La Liga, New York City FC and the South American Conmebol Libertadores tournament.
3 To reach new audiences, you have to be inclusive
Inclusivity was another key theme of the day. with Raj Mannick, head of sport at Yahoo UK, sharing how Yahoo had harnessed the power of inclusivity to tell new stories to new audiences. "If you want to reach new audiences, you have to be inclusive. You can embrace a whole new audience if you tell a new story," he explained.
"When I took over at Yahoo, our audience was male-dominated and very football-heavy, but we are shifting that; on the football show our guests are 50/50 ratio of men and women."
Pointing to the example of former England football superstar Rachel Yankey, who appeared on the brand’s football show, Mannick said new stories reach new audiences.
"As a kid, she carried on playing by pretending to be a boy. On her England debut, she had to wear a mens shirt. The development of women’s football is really going places, but it is a recent development, a new story," he said.
Mannick urged brands to tap into fan culture to tell authentic stories. "If you want to engage with fans now and in the future, you need to understand the way in which content is consumed is changing. You need to put the story at the heart of everything you do, but always be prepared to push the boundaries of how those stories are being told," he added.
4. Explore a glocal landscape
For La Liga, the success to growing its audiences has been to take a "glocal" strategy, emulating something that consumer brands have successfully implemented, to let the league grow its fanbase beyond Spain.
Keegan J Pierce, UK and Ireland delegate of La Liga global network, explained: "We’ve seen multinational consumer brands using glocal strategies for some time. Now the world’s top sporting brands, including La Liga, are adapting their tactics and messaging to connect with different audiences across the world."
5 Authenticity is everything
Authenticity was identified as key to engaging audiences through sport. Sam Shave, sports partnerships lead at Comic Relief, shared how the brand has shifted away from the "white saviour" stereotype to embrace more authentic ambassadors and partners, such as Zoe Ball.
"The days of box-ticking around corporate responsibility are long gone," Shave explained. "Brands realise that young consumers are crying out to have brands with a social purpose at the heart of what they do."
He highlighted the way in which charity brands such as Comic Relief are seeking to address the crisis of trust among consumers: "For 20 years, we had said here is a really big problem, donate £10 to help solve it. But, over time, this erodes trust."
"We need to show positive progress – which doesn’t necessarily translate into donations, but over time it does help to refill that well of trust."
6 Embrace the power of esports
EE is leveraging the power of esports and live events to reach new audiences and boost its brand metrics of consideration, perception and warmth.
Its head of sport sponsorship, Matt Stevenson, said: "Delivering live events and bringing sponsorship to life is so important, as it helps to drive perception of the brand and what we stand for, plus bring our network to life in a way that traditional media can’t."
EE's Wembley Cup work began as a series on YouTube in 2015, masterminded by Poke and YouTube influencer Spencer Owen of Spencer FC to tap a hard-to-reach younger audience for EE. Plans for the 2019 event are already under way, with Stevenson adding that the boost in brand metrics helped to sell the event internally and justify it year on year.
7 Pick projects that reflect your status in different markets
In its home country, the Royal Bank of Canada is the longest-standing corporate sponsor of the national Olympic team; but in the UK, where it’s a small player, a more humble approach is needed, according to Desiree Clarke-Noble, managing director and head of brand and marketing for Europe and Asia-Pacific at RBC Capital Markets.
"Coming into this market, we were constantly confused with RBS, so now we always spell out our name," she said. Because of her lack of Olympic-sized budget, RBC focuses on grassroots sport by supporting 50 up-and-coming athletes through a partnership with SportsAid.
"We use it to create really authentic brand ambassadors," Clarke-Noble said. "We also buddy the athletes with a member of staff, which gives them a sounding board. That then turns into work experience opportunities for the athletes, and we put on workshops for their presenting skills, but we also help the alumni of the scheme – they’re professional athletes who are now getting into the corporate space."
RBC also sponsors the Running Weekend in London, which consists of Race for the Kids, part of a 17-event global series aimed at families, on one Saturday and partnership with the Royal Parks Half Marathon on the Sunday. This gives the bank an opportunity to offer highly sought-after places on the run to clients.
8 Women’s sport is a huge growth opportunity
The growth opportunity afforded by women’s sport was a key theme of many speakers across the conference. Kate Nicholson, head of insight and innovation at Women in Sport, said the industry has a "responsibility to reimagine and reframe sport and physical activity as something that girls perceive differently".
She explained: "This is about a system change. There are real opportunities at a time when women’s sport has such momentum. Let’s reframe sport in the minds of these girls."
And 2019 is set to be the year that redefines thinking around women's football, James Kirkham, chief business officer at Copa90, said: "It can't be the world's game if we ignore 50%. It can't be the beautiful game until we have parity. Women's football is football."
9 Tech brands won't replace pay-TV any time soon
Despite the financial heft of the US tech giants, they are unlikely to challenge traditional broadcasters for the primary rights to show sports competitions in the near future, Twitter’s director of content partnerships, EMEA, has said.
"Just because it wags its tail and barks like a dog doesn’t mean tech companies think the same way as a traditional broadcaster," Theo Luke said.
"The Premier League is not a cheap date. Despite broadcast fees declining, Premier League rights cost just under £4.5bn. TV customers are simply worth more."