Intelligence Report
Future Fit 2018

How brands can capitalise on the new sports marketing opportunity

"Sports marketing executed correctly is still one of the most powerful tools in a marketer’s armoury. Nothing has the power to excite, engage and inspire like sport. It can play a role in the vast majority of marketing strategies, with the unique ability to be its own channel to reach a consumer, but also provide the content to engage via other channels."

Lee Gibbons, senior director of sports marketing, Adidas UK

As a new era of sports marketing emerges, marketers have to throw out the old rule book and bring a new creativity to campaigns. With both the role of sports within consumers’ lives and the traditional sports-sponsorship model in the throes of seismic transformation, the opportunities for brands are growing in both scale and complexity. This report will help you navigate the changes and opportunities in the market as well as identify the key trends and new consumer groups challenging the status quo.

It will cover:

  • The future of the fan and what it means for brands when fans are in the driving seat
  • The implications of new technology from connected stadiums to virtual reality
  • The evolution of content #squads and the stories and platforms forging meaningful connections with consumers
  • The true influencers in sports marketing
  • Grass-roots growth and its impact
  • Micro-opportunities most ripe for growth, such as women’s sport and esports


"Gaming is going to overtake mainstream sports in a few years and brands need to be ready to become a part of that."

Luke D’Arcy, president, Momentum Worldwide UK

Augmented Action

While they might have got away with it in the past, sports marketers can no longer afford to ignore esports – and certainly not on the basis of outdated misconceptions.

Louise Johnson, managing director of Fuse EMEA, who has been commissioned by HP to conduct a strategic review of the market, says commercial involvement is embryonic because brands are taking a "wait and see" approach. She compares the esports market to getting involved in women’s sport, arguing that now is the prime time to act and benefit from first-mover advantage.

Momentum has recently published research on the market, which confirms Johnson’s hunch that esports is an underused and misunderstood way to reach a large number of ad-receptive consumers. Most gamers polled (60%+) say they are in favour of branded content while playing a game, with 68% believing that sponsorships are beneficial. Nonetheless, while the gaming audience may be receptive, they are also demanding and expect brands to bring something meaningful to proceedings.

The research lifts the lid on the "nerdy loner" stereotype of members of this group, instead showing that gamers increasingly view gaming as an important way to connect with others and spend quality time with friends and family. Not only that, but gaming is widely acknowledged as an effective way to relieve stress, boost wellbeing and build confidence; trends that should not be underestimated, given the increased rate of reported mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. For example, more than half of gamers (59%) say that gaming improves their quality of life.

The majority (53%) predict that they will continue to spend more time watching and playing games than watching and playing traditional sports in the next five years, with three quarters saying that gaming will "always" be a part of their life. We’re not just talking teens here: 35% say they are playing more as they get older.

"Gaming is a massive, untapped beast of an industry for brands. It should be treated with the same respect as you would a top-league football game," says D’Arcy, whose agency works with Xbox.

Xbox campaign: Survival of the grittiest
Xbox campaign: Survival of the grittiest

"Brands now have very real opportunities to gain first-mover advantage in a dynamic and incredibly exciting new landscape. We’re only just scratching the surface."

With this shift to gaming becoming a spectator sport, gamers are now flocking to the increasing number of live events. Here sport, entertainment and gaming collide in spectacular fashion, throwing up new opportunities for brands to respond to the modern gamer’s insatiable appetite for experiences that provide a bridge between their real and virtual lives.

In fact, this theme of blurred lines between worlds pervades sports marketing, not just events. Again, football is leading the charge on this front with stunts such as footballer Cristiano Ronaldo attempting the virtual gameplay trick "El Tornado" in real life for the launch of esports game FIFA 18.

Similarly, Adidas used fictional gaming character Alex Hunter to promote its Predator boots, thus having a computer-generated human holding a real pair of boots in its creative execution.

"Adidas is constantly flipping and merging the real and digital worlds, and those lines will keep blurring," James Kirkham, head of online football channel COPA90, says. He believes the next natural focus for brands is powering up the link between the creative and the commercial, so consumers can easily buy products in a game. Once they have finished a game or level, for example, a player could be offered a discount code for boots, which they can buy on the spot.

"Brands need to be bold and tuck into this brilliant world of new commercial opportunities," Kirkham says. "They need to demand that their agencies deliver proper ROI for campaigns. Having worked in the ad industry for years, I know that agencies are going to struggle massively with that, but it’s the future."

Predicted growth of esports (competitive gaming at pro-level) by 2020

$1.5bn, with brands spending $155m on advertising, $266m on sponsorship and $95m on media rights.

*2017 Global Esports Market Report

Connected Stadiums

The stadium experience is set to undergo unprecedented change over the next few years as the venues increasingly come online and offer connected experiences to fans. This is just as well, says Canvas8 deputy editor Matt McEvoy, because many young sports fans are deterred from travelling to the stadium, and prefer to watch at home, because of the "dreaded connectivity ‘black hole’". "Stadium brands therefore need to get inventive – and, crucially, embrace digital technology – if they are to tackle this trend and maintain footfall at live sporting events", he says.

McEvoy suggests that the UK should look to the US for inspiration – in particular, the Levi’s Stadium in California, which opened in 2014 and has been dubbed a ‘new model for sport’. This $1.2bn venue is the most technologically advanced in the world, complete with high-speed 4G and Wi-Fi connectivity. Its dedicated mobile app directs fans to available parking spaces and enables them to order food and merchandise directly to their seats. This not only enhances the fan experience but also increases stadium (and, potentially, brand) revenues. For example, during Super Bowl 50, held there in 2016, each fan spent an average of $88 on food and drink.

"[The Levi’s Stadium] aims to deliver the high-tech experience that younger fans, in particular, have come to expect, coupled with the comforts that come with viewing sport from the sofa," McEvoy says. "That said, this digitised set-up is still far from the norm. It remains to be seen how many other brands will follow suit." One brand that definitely intends to do so is Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium, which has struck a 10-year partnership deal with the NFL for its American football teams to play at least two games a year at the venue. Set to open this year (2018), the stadium will be London’s largest-capacity football venue. It will add a retractable grass field created especially for the NFL, and expand its music and entertainment programme around games – in order, the club says, to "redefine" the fan experience.

According to Lindsey Eckhouse, director of sponsorship at the NFL in London, it’s "certainly our aspiration" to create a stadium "on a par with some of the stadiums in the States": "That’s the vision. With everything we’re looking at, we’re asking: ‘How does the stadium work to enhance our fan experience and serve our teams and players in the way it needs to?’ We’re still exploring the direct-to-seat catering service but that’s certainly the aspiration."

For her, connectivity is about making everything "much more seamless" and "all about added-value experiences and increased dwell time". The role brands can play here, in creating engaging experiences for fans to interact with as they dwell longer, is significant. Historically, who is in the stadium has been largely unknown, but connectivity changes this too – meaning that stadiums and sponsors are gaining the ability to offer much more tailored experiences.

Augmented viewing

The next level of getting fans closer to the game is augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). This immersive technology transforms the fan’s experience of the sport from that of a spectator to a participant. The tech, in turn, gives brands a genuine chance to enhance the fan experience by becoming the facilitator, or narrator, of these stories.

"Sport provides the ideal backdrop for the medium to grow," McEvoy says. "Passion and devout commitment among fans will only continue to drive an ambition to get as close to the action as possible. As long as brands use VR as a means to enhance, rather than distract from, the experience for fans, the opportunities could be endless." Indeed, Greenlight Insights estimates that VR could be worth $75bn by 2021.

VR expert Naji El-Arifi, head of innovation at ecommerce consultancy Salmon, has this advice for brands: "Don’t underestimate the power of a computer-generated experience. Focus on the story. Bear in mind that VR is going to be in every household and, over the next couple of years, there will be a massive upsurge in use. The company that will get sports marketing right will be the one that allows for multiple people to get together and share an experience."

Standout campaigns

  • Red Bull and Mercedes giving fans a taste of what it’s like inside the cockpit of a Formula 1 car and driving at 200mph

  • Manchester City FC’s 360° camera in the Etihad Stadium, which allows fans behind-the-scenes access on match day, and its CityVR app, which uses a headset to give fans a unique perspective of the players in training
  • The NBA broadcasting its opening game of the 2015 basketball season live to those using Samsung Gear VR headsets, allowing fans who couldn’t get to the match a courtside experience. Similarly, at the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang this year, some matches are due to be made available on demand in VR
  • 02, as part of its England Rugby team sponsorship, enabling fans to go head-to-head against the players in a VR game, aimed to give an insight into training and discipline


"We are unashamedly American, in that we’re commercial. We put cameras on everyone."

Lindsey Eckhouse, director of sponsorship, NFL

Future fan zones

The NFL is universally acknowledged, and admired, for the way it makes sport entertaining, adding theatre and excitement to every facet of the game, commercialising both the brand and sponsors in the process. Its legendary fan zones and tailgate parties are key examples of how it does this. Buoyed by brands like the NFL, fan zones are set to become a core trend for any brand hoping to capitalise on sport for marketing in future. For the past three years, the NFL (one of the few brands to ever attempt this) has taken over London’s Regent Street, shut it down and transformed it, for six hours, into a carnival-style fan zone intended to inspire British interest in the stateside sport. The most recent event, in September 2017, attracted more than 600,000 people. According to Eckhouse, the phenomenal response these zones have received in the UK is evidence that there is a "real appetite for new [and] emerging sports", as well as a desire in the fans to "learn and experience something new".

She adds: "We play at the intersection of sport and entertainment. We really benefit from the Super Bowl being a larger brand than even the NFL, and a brand in itself. It’s not necessarily about the sport and more about the half-time act and music performance, and we take that lens and apply it to all our activities. We are not under any illusion that we will overtake traditional sports here like football, rugby or cricket. What we’re doing is trying to compete with people’s leisure time and offer them something a little different." As Eckhouse points out, the NFL benefits from being perceived as a "new" sport (even though it has been in the UK for more than 10 years) and, as such, it can more easily challenge the existing sports-marketing model. It’s hard for more established properties to do this, she argues: "If you tried to just shove in the equivalent of a half-time show into a Champion’s League game it could be a bit clunky and might jar. Marketers have to work out the ‘sweet spot’."

That said, NFL’s success certainly highlights the opportunities for brands to expand the fan experience. The advent of truly connected, Wi-Fi-enabled stadiums and venues in general will accelerate these opportunities, too.

Misha Sher, worldwide vice-president, sport and entertainment, at MediaCom, which works with NFL sponsor Subway, says going to an NFL match is a far cry from, for example, a typical British football fan experience. "For that you usually arrive five minutes before and you leave five minutes after. At the NFL, you rock up a couple of hours before and you interact with the sponsors and you enjoy the bells and whistles – the face-painting, the prizes, the food, the photo opps. People go as much for the circus as for the game, which is why you don’t have to be an NFL fan to love going to the NFL."

Having worked closely with the ‘party powerhouse’ brand, his advice to sponsors of other properties looking to replicate the success of the NFL is to "push rights-holders, whoever you work with, to explore ways brands can extend their presence at and around events, particularly beyond the stadium". Ask them, for instance: What other touchpoints could be created? How else could the venue be opened up before and after a match? What could sponsors create that people would want to come to?


What brands need to know about #Squads

"As the brand voice in that environment [dark social/closed communities], you need to respect why people have opted in to be part of the group, not abuse that trust, for example by trying to overly-engineer the conversation to being commercial. Any time we lose sight of that, we can see a marked decrease in engagement and sign up to the communities"

Lee Gibbons, senior director of sports marketing, Adidas UK (responsible for London Tango Squad and Adidas runners groups)

Sports fans, particularly younger ones, are setting more privacy online, making ‘dark’ social channels of greater importance. It was noticing this trend that initially caused Adidas to create its Whatsapp Tango Squads, which target predominantly 14- to 19-year-olds in inner-city locations. What the brand learned very quickly, according to Joe Weston, director at We Are Social Sport, which handles the account, was that "it’s never been more important to really understand the human interaction".

He says: "When moving into the ‘dark social’ world, your content must be more personal. It needs to feel exclusive and one-to-one. If you just replicate whatever is in the public sphere, it doesn’t work. They’ve taken a big step to accept you, as a brand, talking to them via this channel. This comes with higher expectations of what they receive."

Tango Squads
Tango Squad FC

Weston warns any marketer considering this route that there must be "no more hiding behind your brand" because you are "lifting the curtain behind your logo". The next evolution is creating an 11-strong squad and filming a 12-episode documentary about their journey, which is then posted on YouTube. This is because the brand believes, while digital is obviously an important channel, nothing beats actually experiencing the product.

Authenticity and real-world interaction are also hallmarks of EE’s successful foray into the new fanzine culture. In 2015, on the back of its Wembley Stadium sponsorship, it forged a partnership with football YouTuber Spencer Owen. It then funded the creation of a series of YouTube shows about football matches involving YouTubers, which had nothing to do with any major league but culminated in a final at Wembley Stadium. It was a risk, certainly, as well as a hard sell internally. However, the brand was keen to do something radical to reach the key audience of young male millennials who were high data-users but hard to reach via traditional media.

Making this kind of partnership work takes a new mindset, says EE brand director Pete Jeavons. In the traditional media world, clients are used to having a clear plan and strategy for execution; but the quicker you drop this fixed mindset and adopt a growth one, the better.

As Jeavons confirms, these new channels are "much less accommodating" of what you want as a brand and "much more protective" of their platform and serving their audience. Marketing to them is personal, because their relationship with their own fans is personal. It’s not just business as usual.

"You have to give things up that you hold dear because you can’t approach this like an ad," he says. "Normally we are entirely in control of what we’re saying and the media we put it out into, but to really appeal to this audience, and stay true to what they want, you have to work in their world and that means relying on and trusting your partner – in our case, Spencer."

Trusting the partner paid off: Charlotte Morton, UK head of YouTube B2B marketing, describes this partnership as one of the "most creative, innovative and strategically delivered" YouTube influencer campaigns she’s ever seen.

She adds: "When working with influencers or communities or ‘passion tribes’, you’ve got to channel David Attenborough and understand how they operate – analyse their habits. That’s so important. Otherwise you’ll end up being the dad at the school disco. The least successful influencer campaigns are when brands just put products in people’s hands and don’t bother to get how they tick."


EE campaign in numbers

  • 24,127 YouTube fans present at Wembley Stadium in 2017
  • Overall views of all content topped 40 million in 2017, with views of the core content (episodes, final and media-supported content) at 23.5 million
  • 300,000 live viewers of the Wembley Cup final broadcast on YouTube
  • £60,000 was raised for Sport Relief


The new era of storytelling

"Sports marketing is in a very privileged position in the new era of storytelling. There is a hunger for content. We often get feedback from brands and platforms that we need to go shorter with content – Facebook even saying that three seconds is the optimal video length. But what we’ve seen with Adidas is huge success with longform. Sports is the last bastion of longer-form content and, I believe, that will continue"

Joe Weston, director, We Are Social Sport

Some of Adidas’ videos run to 19 minutes. Its Game Day Plus project, which exploited the brand’s sponsorship of the Champion’s League and UEFA, comprised 15 episodes of 15 minutes each season. Similarly, its Tango Squad concept was created to provide an opportunity for the brand "to go deeper and more story-led," says Weston. With such sophisticated analytics today, brands can track exactly where viewers lose interest in a story, learning all the time about what type of story arcs resonate most and over what time span.

The major skills necessary to thrive in this new era are a nose for a good story, the ability to pick the right protagonist and patience. Brands must get out of the narrow, rigid mindset that "success" in sports marketing simply means choosing to back a team that wins all the time and performs perfectly on – and off – the pitch.

According to Ben Uttley, managing director of sport content production company Stamp Productions, to tell a rip-roaring story that is going to capture imaginations, you want things to go wrong occasionally. As the maker of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour rugby documentary, which runs for two hours 40 minutes and was made in just eight weeks, he knows all about sustaining attention. "It’s boring if no one can challenge you," Uttley says. "The best are where the characters overcome obstacles. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story."

That’s why, if you’re a brand that is sponsoring a phenomenal athlete who tends to consistently beat the competition, then you have to get more creative with how you tell their tale. Uttley points to Under Armour’s sponsorship of swimmer Michael Phelps as a good example: "The brand showed the struggle of his training – what it takes to win all the time. They didn’t just show us him winning."

This is good news for brave, creative brands, because it invites them to be much more imaginative and take more unusual, original perspectives. For instance, one of Stamp’s films for Honda, about its Civic Type R model, "heroes" the engineers, who are responsible for keeping the car going, as it attempts to break the lap record for the fastest front-wheel drive car at the Nürburgring track in Germany in 2017. "Drive forever" followed the engineers for 24 hours on the run-up to achieving this feat.

"These are guys you don’t usually see," Uttley says. "We tried not to stage it too much. We pulled out the story and the passion and the fact that people’s jobs were on the line. The result was massively successful, with the film being picked up by outlets like LADbible."

Of course, strategies like this are a risk; they can fall flat. It’s much more comfortable for a brand to focus the story on the traditional star – the driver or the car. "Yes, it won’t always work being brave," he says, "but nine times out of 10 it will. Alternatively, you could always play in the middle ground and never do anything spectacular. But what’s the point in that?"


"The idea of the ‘sports hero’ is shifting: Spencer Owen from Hashtag United is much more accessible and a more relatable spokesperson for the sport as opposed to the traditional famous celebrity footballer such as Ronaldo".

Michael Clarkson, brand manager, Catapult Sports

Trends Data: UK’s 2017 in sport

  • Running has seen a boost in popularity in the past year, illustrated by the fact that for the first time in activity-tracking app and website Strava’s history, there are now more runners than cyclists
  • The overall number of run commutes in 2017 grew by 51%
  • London is the top city in the world for run commuting
  • Nine out of 10 people who set a goal in January are still exercising almost a year later
  • For the first time, a velodrome has made it into the most-popular segment list
  • Athletics are more popular than ever with runners – the top three Strava running segments were at running tracks
  • Cycling activity on Strava continues to grow apace as Britain’s riders logged 31 million rides throughout the year, totting up 904 million kilometres

Source: Strava

Data from PricewaterhouseCoopers' report on growth sports shows:


Key growth trends

At professional level, as PwC’s research into growth sports reveals, football continues to dominate, with notable mentions of rapidly growing subsets within the sport, such as women’s football.

However, as Sport England data shows for 2015/6, the story at grass-roots level is somewhat different – football does not monopolise the market. The most popular sport in which adults over 16 are actually participating, at least once a week, is most likely to be swimming, followed by athletics, cycling, football, then fitness/conditioning. This research is backed up by Strava’s 2017 data, which found runners outnumbering cyclists for the first time on the platform, with the running contingent growing by 51%.

More niche sports, such as triathlon, may not have comparable numbers to mainstream sports (yet), but are also growing rapidly.

Why brands benefit from grass-roots connections

A major reason that beauty brand Avon took the pioneering move of being the first female-focused brand to sponsor a FA Women’s Super League club – Liverpool Ladies FC (LLFC) – was because of the potential at grass roots.

As Hannah Lally, Avon UK advertising and media lead, explains: "A lot of big, headline sports events are a big opportunity in terms of raising brand awareness, but how do you make [spectators] convert? That’s where grass-roots [activity] is key. It’s about engaging people in a very relevant and personal way and giving people the access and the confidence to get involved themselves."

Grass-roots activities, such as Avon’s "Chick shots" and "Hairdo Header Challenges", enable the brand to communicate a more light-hearted, unintimidating take on football, which bridges the gap between the worlds of sport and femininity, which girls sometimes worry are perceived as mutually exclusive (a finding arising from Avon’s research). At the grass roots you can assuage such fears in a way you can’t with a headline sponsorship.

Another advantage is the rich vein of compelling stories you can tap into. The fact that female footballer players have struggled, and still struggle, to gain proper recognition makes them more relatable. This is a characteristic modern audiences seem to particularly respond to, rather than the more distant, rich-beyond-imagination sports people who have dominated the media in years gone by; hence, too, the growth in ‘celebrity’ grass-roots stars. Football is leading the charge but other sports have the potential to replicate the trend.

"Grass-roots players are becoming brands in their own right, as opposed to elite players and brands being aspirational," Michael Clarkson, brand manager, Catapult Sports says. "The idea of the 'sports hero' is shifting: Spencer Owen from Hashtag United is much more accessible and a more relatable spokesperson for the sport as opposed to the traditional famous celebrity footballer such as Ronaldo."

Exposure’s ranking of the most influential figures in UK sport is further evidence of this craving for more relatable stars. Only half of this top twenty ranking is made up of active sportspeople, a fifth is female and the growing popularity of social media influencers reflects the changing way the British public is engaging with sport today. For instance, YouTube channel Copa90 came in at no 11, YouTube sensation and fitness coach Joe Wicks at 12 and Spencer FC at 13.

The research also shows that top influencers come from a wide range of sports, such as rugby, swimming and golf, not just football.

The top 20 most influential figures in UK Sport

Source: Exposure. The agency identified the 250 biggest names in UK sport by examining each person’s online influence through social-media platforms like Twitter, offline influence such as their ability to affect laws, and personal brand value, based upon their current level of public interest, recent scandals and any charity initiatives in which they are involved.


Key Takeaways

  • Traditional parameters of influence are no longer relevant; brands need to pay attention to the new voices that fans really want to hear from
  • It’s not necessarily the big names that sponsors chase who wield the real influence on the ground today – for example, Sir Mo Farah and Lewis Hamilton didn’t even make the Top 20; they were ranked 68 and 23 respectively
  • Compelling stories, like Jamie Vardy’s rags-to-riches tale, resonate most strongly with audiences, hence his high ranking
  • Picture-heavy posters, such as Tom Daley and Adam Peaty, also resonate


"We hope we are really breaking some ground here. Being the first female-focused brand is a really big deal but we see it as the first step. A women's team being recognised in their own right is important, but just the beginning."

Hannah Lally, Media Lead, Avon

Key opportunities

Summer 2017 was a golden one for women’s sport in the UK, with cricket and football success. Yet – still – brands seem reluctant to take the plunge and sponsor women’s sport seriously, rather than as an add-on to a package focused on men’s sport. This lack of confidence in the sector hasn’t been helped by official bodies’ high-profile withdrawal of funding – for example, the RFU’s decision not to renew the contracts of the England 15-a-side women’s rugby team, and the British women’s bobsleigh team losing its funding five months before the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Nevertheless, Dave Claxton, a writer for SportTechie and account director at Clarity PR, says that, while women’s sport "is still hugely uptapped, the penny is finally dropping for brands that it is really worth their while getting involved". He predicts that, as marketing demands greater personalisation, women’s sports-marketing deals will inevitably continue to become more tailored and relevant to their audience. He cites the example of governing body Scottish Women’s Football decision to not enter commercial partnerships with alcohol or gambling firms to show that this is already starting to happen.

Fuse’s Johnson agrees that women’s sport will continue to forge its own way, particularly when it comes to how rights deals are carved up. Fuse works with Nissan, which sponsors Netball Australia, Manchester City WFC, the ICC Women’s World Cup and the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

"You’ve got much more flexibility with rights in women’s sport," she says. "Rights-holders want to get brands in, to build up awareness and popularity. They’re more likely to be flexible on rights and cost. This is exciting, particularly for challenger brands, because it allows us to storytell much better."

As mentioned earlier, one of the first brands to embrace women’s sport as a standalone entity was Avon. Its LLFC shirt sponsorship bucks the traditional catch-all approach common to deals in the sports marketplace. That practice of adding the women’s team as an adjunct to the men’s deal is, Claxton says, far "too prescriptive in this day and age and doesn’t take into account the differences between female and male audiences". Avon’s Lally believes that her brand’s success with LLFC will start to change attitudes and that more brands will come into women’s football and sport in general. In her opinion, brands that get involved now have the "biggest opportunity to really make an impact and do things differently".

She adds: "We hope we are really breaking some ground here. Being the first female-focused brand is a really big deal but we see it as the first step. A women’s team being recognised in their own right is important, but just the beginning."

Aligning with women’s sport gives brands credible, genuinely meaningful opportunities to contribute to the gender and diversity debates and create compelling content about these topical issues. This underpins Avon’s strategy, Lally says, because the brand is "always thinking about how we contribute to the advancement of women".

On signing the LLFC deal, Avon undertook research into what "empowerment" actually means to women in the UK, which threw up some interesting insights. As Lally explains: "In the UK, we’re at the forefront of the empowerment movement. The message we got strongly from the research was: ‘Don’t tell me to be empowered, I already am. Celebrate my empowerment with me; don’t dictate to me.’"

This informed the brand’s "fierce and feminine" strategy, which celebrated women’s sporting success and pulled out an additional insight: that women feel a tension between being sporty and being feminine, as if the two can’t co-exist comfortably.

Lally says: "There was a real feeling that women could be more than ‘one thing’ and shouldn’t be pigeonholed. We wanted to show women in all different walks of life, and that you can be badass and beautiful." MediaCom’s Sher, who brokered the deal between Chelsea and England women’s footballer Eni Aluko and beauty brand Sally Hansen, believes that all companies have a social responsibility to make positive female role models more visible – from internal actions like promoting women to the top, to external ones like brand partnerships.

Sports marketing is a highly effective way to do this, he says. "There’s a real appetite from young girls for women’s sport, coupled with a real lack of female role models for girls generally. There’s a gender gap, because young girls growing up don’t have people in the public spotlight that they can connect with. They can’t connect with the Kardashians, but the beauty of women’s sport is that these players are not superstars who are operating in a different stratosphere financially. They are a lot more relatable, so there’s a lot more interaction between players and fans at matches. The relationship is much closer and there’s a real sense of community around women’s sport, and it’s growing. That’s really powerful and positive."

The most influential emerging women’s sports stars

As Exposure’s research into the most influential figures in UK sport shows, audiences are engaging more with real, relatable personalities. According to endurance athlete and blogger Sophie Radcliffe (@ChallengeSophie), this is even more true when it comes to female audiences.

Sophie Radcliffe
Sophie Radcliffe

"With women it all comes down to how relatable it is," she says. "Sport needs to be accessible. Girls don’t grow up wanting to be a footballer like boys do, so that message doesn’t have that same power and magic attached to it. But girls today want to be fit and strong and fearless, and go and do cool stuff with their lives."

As Radcliffe says, while an Olympic athlete is admired, typically a woman will get more action-inspiring motivation from her neighbour taking up a new sport because it prompts her to think, for example, "If she can do that with a mortgage and kids, maybe I can." Social media is the same, she says, "because it breaks down barriers". She cites her motivational series of videos with food company Whole Earth as a good example of tapping into the power of social media to make brands more relatable to audiences.

Radcliffe’s advice to brands centres on authenticity, as well as clarity of brief, and she is worried by some of what she’s seeing in the still-emerging world of influencer marketing. For instance, she has been on shoots with other bloggers where the brand has asked her to pretend they are doing an outdoor adventure when they are not. She believes this leads to inauthentic, ineffective content and is bad for the industry.

By contrast, Radcliffe applauds Hyundai for its hands-off, collaborative, trusting attitude working with her on the Kona 10 challenge, where she reached the summit of 10 volcanic locations in the UK in 72 hours, driving between them in the Kona 10 car. "Never once did Hyundai ask me to write something about how great the car was. Basically, I was doing this adventure and showcasing the UK with them. We ticked all the boxes without shoving content in faces. It got huge engagement."

Kona 10 challenge campaign
'Kona 10 challenge' campaign


"It’s almost an alternative to a bottle of wine. I’m not saying people aren’t having wine, but we’re seeing a lot of people doing something physical to release stress."

Lucy I’Anson, communications director at Mongoose Sport & Entertainment

The new sports lifestyle market

Inspired by music festivals, one of the most interesting growth areas in sport, from a brand involvement perspective, are fitness festivals. These are popping up all over the UK and Europe and typically merge fitness with food, music and socialising. Examples include London’s Be:Fit, North Face’s Mountain Festival, Swim Serpentine, Summer Social and LoveFit. These events tap into a perfect storm of colliding trends, which brands can also tap into.

The merging of sport and fun

As the backlash against deprivation-driven ‘clean eating’ and punishing gym schedules continues, a new craving for a more moderate, more enjoyable version of healthy living is gaining traction. Festivals such as Summer Social and Be:Fit London embody this through their mix of fitness and fun, answering a yearning for training to be more social.

"There used to be this misconception that you are either sporty or you’re not," Rachel Chatham, brand manager at Be:Fit London, says. "Be:Fit is all about finding that balance between enjoying sport and having a great social life, but still looking after your health."

She describes a core Be:Fit-goer as the kind of person who will go to a spin class before work, then out for a few drinks in the evening, which is why there’s a Prosecco bar at the festival. This year, too, the festival is adding an Afterparty on the Friday night, with a gin bar as well as a "fitness rave". This is similar to Kent’s woodland festival LoveFit, where this year 90s TV fitness star Mr Motivator is hosting a disco-themed workout, followed by DJ sets.

"We appeal to a young female audience and we have a responsibility about the message we give out," Chatham says. "Social media can be really dangerous in terms of attitudes to food and we want to promote healthy attitudes to food and treating yourself, too."

Exercising in a community, not in isolation

Fitness has long been perceived as an isolated activity; while you may attend a class or the gym with other people around, there has not typically been much interaction between participants, or socialising before and after. That is changing and brands are facilitating that change, too.

As Canvas8’s McEvoy says, Virgin Sport sets out to emulate music festivals with its events, which are designed to make sport a sociable group activity. "And just as the endurance event Tough Mudder has proven popular through removing the competitive element, and instead positioning itself as a team challenge, the social side to Virgin Sport is key," he adds.

McEvoy also cites other examples of social fitness collectives, such as London’s Run Dem Crew, which aim to create communities of people who motivate each other while exploring the Capital. These events also mix genders and abilities and are about working together as a team.

One of Be:Fit’s main focuses is on cultivating a community atmosphere and sense of inclusion. "Our whole campaign is about getting women to support each other. We want to get away from competition or intimidation between girls. Whether you’re at the festival with friend or on your own, everyone is in it together and we’re working hard to build that," Chatham says, adding that Be:Fit does this mostly through Whatsapp groups and Instagram.

‘Next challenge’ mentality

According to Lucy I’Anson, communications director at Mongoose Sports & Entertainment, a growing number of sports enthusiasts, particularly ones that work hard, are adopting a ‘next challenge’ way of thinking. "People who work hard want to play hard and that is where extreme sports or endurance sport has come into fruition," she says. "You get CEOs of City banks, for example, saying ‘How can I make myself better? I know, I’m going to do five Ironman challenges."

I’Anson believes her experience of working on the North Face Festival, and the fact that each year the challenges get harder, is typical because of this trend. "Exercise is getting more extreme and the social element is growing too," she says. "So too is the focus on outdoor life, especially for families, which is a big area for growth."

Escapism from the stress of life

Linked to the previous trend, and the pressures of working life and always-on tech, people have a growing need to relieve their stress, and find that exercise is an effective way to get the endorphins pumping.

"It’s almost an alternative to a bottle of wine," says I’Anson. "I’m not saying people aren’t having wine, but we’re seeing a lot of people doing something physical to release stress and I believe that will only continue, with things like lunchtime spin classes."

What does all this mean for brands?

There is a genuine role for brands in this space to facilitate bringing people together in inclusive, supportive communities. I’Anson points to what Reebok has done with CrossFit, which has sociability and group motivation at its core, as a prime example.

"Reebok was really clever. It came in at the beginning of CrossFit and created products around it, owning that sphere," she says.

Chatham agrees that there is a consumer receptivity to brand facilitation, too. She says, for instance, that there is such a demand for the social element at Be:Fit that the brand has branched out into purely social supper clubs. In addition, Be:Fit is doing road trips and running pop-up events across the UK. These include not just fitness classes, but also workshops such as sessions on body confidence for women.

Meet the future fit consumer: Five trends for the future

1. New consumer purchase patterns: Moderate excess

According to research for Heineken by Canvas8, three in four twenty-somethings now actively limit their drinking on a night out, with the biggest motivator being the desire to stay in control. It also found that 36% of people have suffered from ‘social shaming’ as a result of being tagged in a photo on social media in which they appear drunk.

Canvas8’s McEvoy comments: "With two-thirds of 16- to 24-year-olds claiming that alcohol isn’t important to their social lives, the stereotype of young drinkers is changing. Getting drunk is no longer synonymous with a fun night out, and many Gen-Yers are choosing to moderate their drinking, motivated by a desire for a healthier lifestyle. It all reflects a shift toward sobriety, and away from the culture of excess and hedonism traditionally associated with the younger generation. And with the number of teetotal Brits rising by 40% in the last decade, it’s a trend that looks set only to continue."

The opportunity for brands is in developing healthier, non-alcoholic drinks. Ergo Heineken launched Heineken 0.0 in May, a premium non-alcoholic beer aimed at younger consumers who are choosing to abstain from alcohol. Scottish craft beer company Innis & Gunn has also launched a non-alcoholic pale ale, while AB InBev has released the alcohol-free Budweiser Prohibition, Jupiler 0.0% and Hoegaarden Radler 0.0%.

Heineken 0.0
Heineken 0.0

2. The new body positive

This trend is all about the journey, experience and camaraderie being as important as the result. This is particularly true for women, where there is a shift to embracing their bodies more positively, as a result of high-profile campaigns such as Always’ "Like a girl" and Sport England’s "This girl can".

According to Avon’s Lally: "We’re seeing this shift, which is good news, particularly when you look at a more millennial audience. But there’s more work to be done. I see the role of brands as to make [bodies] more about what women can achieve from their life, and take away the fear of judgement, or this idea that you have to conform or deliver against expectations."

Chatham agrees, saying the "whole focus" of Be:Fit’s 2018 campaign, and work with influencers, is on being body positive. One of the original reasons for launching the festival was the fact that women were not confident about their bodies, but confidence generally has shot up over the past couple of years.

"We’ve built this amazing platform," she says. "We need to use it to help women. Body confidence, self-esteem and being comfortable with yourself are so important. Brands have a responsibility to make sure we are all helping deliver that; that we are not making people feel intimidated or scared."

Chatham believes that getting the message out about "loving yourself and what you’ve been given" is very important in light of the prevalence of social media, where unrealistic images are still commonplace. "We are starting to see more realistic images," she says. "Two years ago curves were almost shunned in the media, now there’s a lot more different shapes and sizes. But there’s still a long way to go – to Photoshop any woman into something they are not is wrong and Instagramming meals needs to stop. Health looks different on everyone."

Sport England's 'This girl can' campaign
Sport England's 'This girl can' campaign

3. Lessons from ‘This girl can’

Kate Dale, strategic lead, brand and digital, at Sport England, on why brands should embrace the new body positivity.

Q: Are brands on the back foot when it comes to embracing the flawed reality of consumers’ lives?

A: Regardless of social responsibility, most brands have wised up to the fact that it’s just not an astute commercial move to show women as one-dimensional, passive spectators. If you want to sell a product, offending or patronising your target market is rarely the way to go. However, we do still see this happening from time to time.

One of the main issues we are facing in advertising is that although women are no longer depicted as "just" housewives, as they were 20 or 30 years ago, it is not surprising that we are still, by and large, showing women who – by Western standards – are Photoshopped to physical perfection: no cellulite, no wrinkles and, put simply, unrealistic. We need to stop and question what kind of mental effect this is having on us – and our daughters and granddaughters. If you only portray unrealistically flawless women in the media, all women are bound to be left feeling inadequate.

"This Girl Can", since 2015, has only ever featured real [exercise participants] in our campaigns – no actors, no characters. We know that if women see people like themselves being active, they feel more confident in being active themselves – regardless of size, shape, age, ability and so on. A huge part of what causes the gender gap in being physically active is the fear of judgement. By equipping women with a support network and confidence tools we hope to combat the gender gap.

Q: Why does a gap still remain between consumer expectations and brand communications?

A: It can be hard for a brand to break a habit and take a risk when it comes to public perception. To put it simply, when you have stakeholders and are responsible for the livelihood of thousands, going "left-field" in terms of how you represent yourself to the public can be very hard to justify. Ironically, the fear of judgement that we aim to address in our campaign can also hold back marketing departments from making a brave move.

That said, there are a few disruptive brands that we feel are helping change the way we advertise. You might remember ASOS this year decided to stop Photoshopping the models in their swimwear range. In this situation it would be really easy for a comms team to float the idea, only to have it shot down by the fear that sales may decrease [as a result]. However, ASOS had the chutzpah to recognise by listening to changing attitudes towards body image among their target customers, they could increase brand affinity. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. By acting as a case study, this kind of activity paves the way for other brands to follow suit and successfully sell their ideas for change to the "powers that be" internally.

Q: Are consumers increasingly demanding more substance than gloss?

A: Since our first ad launched, we’ve seen a real shift in culture. Women simply will not stand for being told that they should have the perfect body – and will take to social media to let the world know this. The [Football Association] faced an enormous social backlash after they tweeted [via the @england account] that once the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup was over the England team players could "go back to being mothers, partners and daughters", while Protein World’s infamous "Beach body ready" ad campaign went out of its way to make women feel that their own bodies aren’t good enough.

The public’s reaction was inspiring – female consumers banding together to stand up for what they believe in and leveraging the power of social to say no to unacceptable advertising, leading the way in helping one another to manage their own fear of judgement. In our campaign we also wanted to stick up two fingers to this kind of thinking. So in our out-of-home advertising, to let women reclaim their bodies, we featured a dancer called Lizon and the mantra "I am beat body ready", among a host of other inspiring women from all walks of life.

4. Health 2.0

Just as sports fans’ appetite for content about their favourite players shows no sign of abating, at the same time their hunger for minute detail on their own sporting efforts is growing, too. Partly, this is linked to their desire to be ever-closer to their sporting idols and replicate them as much as they can in terms of their routine and pre-match rituals and training.

The surge in popularity of health and fitness apps underlines this trend, with use growing by more than 330% in the past three years, according to research by Flurry Analytics. Its findings also show that engagement levels are high, with 75% of active users consulting their app at least twice a week and more than a quarter opening it more than 10 times a week.

This trend offers brands an opportunity to add meaningful value to consumers by helping them perform at their best, which is exactly how energy drink Gatorade, through its personalised hydration system Gx, designed by Smart Design, is tapping into the growth in health tracking.

Gx evolves Gatorade from a drinks product to a complete digital platform, encompassing a personalised bottle and formula pods, a smart bottle cap, a "fuel recommendation" engine, a "connected" sweat patch, a weigh-in station, digital tools and a cloud infrastructure that allows third-party connectivity.

According to Xavier Cortadellas, head of innovation and design at Gatorade in Miami: "This marriage between tech and sports will transform sports, as we understand them today, from a performance point of view." Gatorade’s Gx product initially came out of the brand’s support of top-level athletes, such NFL and NBA players, and the insight that, to really boost performance, their drinks had to be individually tailored to each person’s physiology.

The phased rollout started with top teams such as the Chicago Bulls, FC Barcelona and the Brazilian national football squad. However, with the advance in health-tracking tech and its availability to the mass market, the overarching plan, as Cortadellas says, is to "unlock this personalisation to a massive amount of everyday athletes".

Hot on the heels of this, the next evolution, he says, is integrating the technology directly into clothing that reads an individual’s sweat profile via a "smart patch", as they exercise, so the user knows how to hydrate themselves optimally. It could be seamlessly fitted in compression leggings for running, for example.

"Wearables have been a big trend in sport but they have been a bit all over the place," Cortadellas says. "In future they will be naturally integrated into equipment."

In order to exploit this opportunity of taking tech to the mass market that was previously available only at the professional level, Gatorade says educating consumers will be crucial for successful take-up.

5. How the triathlon replaced the fast car and affair as the new mid-life crisis

Source: Kantar

The rapid growth of triathlon participation among ‘middle-aged’ people has prompted some commentators to dub it the "new mid-life crisis". According to Kantar, there has been a 95% increase in the number of 35- to 55-year-olds participating in the sport from 2015 to 2017, up to 455,810. In the age category above – 45- to 54-year-olds – there has been strong growth, too, up 76% in the same period to 148,025.

Canvas8’s McEvoy puts this surge in popularity down to the fact that "a healthy lifestyle has become highly aspirational", with 47% of Brits saying they became more health-conscious between 2014 and 2015, according to NewsCred research. Rather than a ‘mid-life crisis’, he says the explosion of interest in triathlon stems from "a desire from Gen X to prove that their body is still fit and capable of competing".

Julian Hucker, founder and chief executive of ETE TriCamps, says the sport is particularly suited to athletes of this age, who may have a history of ongoing injuries and can benefit from "spreading the load" between three disciplines. "In the past triathlon was perhaps seen as the preserve of the super-humans, but it is the perfect sport to take up in later life," he says.

Hence, triathlons satisfy people’s craving for the "next challenge". As Hucker says: "Triathlon [particularly suits] goal-based people." In addition, as people get older they "have both the time and means to pursue" new challenges.

Alex Parren, marketing executive/triathlon organiser at activewear brand Sundried, agrees: "Running a marathon is no longer impressive because every man and his dog has run a marathon, so we need something new to test ourselves."

Despite this growth, there has been relatively little interest from brands, according to Hucker, and there are many opportunities to support the sport. As athletes seek out bigger challenges and longer experiences, for instance, and are prepared to travel and up their training to achieve these, brands can help by ensuring the sport remains accessible and relevant, so it continues to grow.

"Increasingly athletes are ‘going long’ – racing half or full Ironman events. Time spent training is creeping up and the inevitable price and complicated logistics of these events is in contrast to the grass-roots nature of many people’s first race," he says, adding that, while consumers are spending more than ever on the sport, brands are yet to embrace it.

Targeting women offers a particularly ripe opportunity, given that only one in four triathletes in the UK is female. "That needs to change," Hucker says. This, along with the trends already mentioned, means brands have many compelling reasons to get behind women’s sport.

Taken from Kantar Media Sportscope Survey, Dec 14–Sep 17



"Brands must be bold and tuck in to this brilliant world of new commercial opportunities, not slavishly devote themselves to what went on before."

James Kirkham, head of Copa90

Sport continues to provide a unique platform for brands to connect with consumers, but the rules of the game are changing. To excel with this new sporting agenda, brands must:

  • Find and trust the right new influencers for their brand
  • Be more original with storytelling
  • Consistently create theatre around sport online and offline, not just during match-time
  • Leverage the new connectedness of sports environments
  • Use sport to tap into consumer cravings, such as escapism and mental challenge




























This report was produced by

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free