While many live sports are still paused, your sports strategy shouldn't be

"Historically in times of crisis, sports have played a vital role in healing and unifying our country."

While we’ve only been devoid of live sports for a few months, the absence has felt like an eternity for many sports fans. Now, sports leagues and governing bodies are currently working quickly through their plans to return over the summer and into the fall. 

While there are clearly many unknowns for the road ahead (including how different some advertisers will look as businesses overall), I would contend that it’s a critical time for brands to cultivate their sports strategy and scenario plan while most live competition is still on hiatus. Here’s why, and what to consider in doing so. 

Sports will enable you to be a part of the healing process

Historically in times of crisis, sports have played a vital role in healing and unifying our country. Who can forget the outpouring of emotion during the first game at Yankee Stadium following 9/11? Or when the entire nation became New Orleans Saints fans following Hurricane Katrina, as the Superdome transformed into a sanctuary on Sundays for fans overcoming the tragedy?

As the late Nelson Mandela said about sports, "It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where there was only despair." As organizations begin to return (a couple have already either come back or will shortly), there will be incredibly special cultural moments that brands should be a part of. But it’ll require thoughtful advanced planning to ensure that they’re organically weaving themselves into the moment and appealing to heightened fan emotion.

Assuming most sports are played without fans to start, brands could leverage different technologies to bring fans closer to each other, with virtual watch parties – a new form of tribalism. For example, food brands could host virtual NFL tailgate parties with former players and coaches while providing fun recipes and cooking demos. Or, alcohol brands could throw watch parties whereby fans are encouraged to virtually toast with each other after big plays.

Expect to see networks innovate the at-home viewing experience with new courtside camera views and technologies providing unprecedented access to players and coaches. Consider how you can leverage these new formats to connect with fans. For example, an auto brand or energy drink rooted in exhilaration could deliver an unprecedented second screen viewing experience with sights and sounds from a courtside perspective.

Be prepared for a potential ratings boon

When live sports come back it will likely result in a ratings boon for the networks that carry them. There will be pent-up demand from fans starving to watch and celebrate their favorite athletes and teams again. Fandom will be on overdrive—as evidenced by the first round of the NFL draft in April, which experienced a 37 percent increase in ratings vs. 2019. Or NASCAR, whose first broadcast back saw a 38 percent ratings lift compared to the last race on March 8. And given how Hollywood studios have been shuttered the past few months, sports will possibly be some of the only fresh content available.

Marketers should begin thinking about how they can capitalize on the increased viewership across various platforms. For instance, we’re already witnessing a huge influx of livestreams from athletes who want to connect with their fans and stay relevant. Brands should consider how they can partner with them to borrow equity and leverage their social reach. Athletic apparel brands could collaborate with players to conduct livestream workouts and show fans how to train like a pro. Or fashion and retail brands could work with players and their personal stylists to conduct Instagram Live sessions on creative inspiration.

Given the fluid timetable, brands also need to build flexibility – more than usual—into their marketing plans to capitalize on live sports opportunities when they arise. For example, in the event the NBA announces a truncated regular season and playoff structure during the summer, marketers will need to act extremely quickly to secure inventory before it sells out.

Get ready for a shake-up

Even if there were no pandemic, the sports media marketplace would still be poised for a potential major shake-up in upcoming years, as rights fees for virtually every major league will be renegotiated between 2021-2025. It’s likely that many digital-first players the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Google will enter the sports rights marketplace in a prominent way – in fact, Amazon recently inked a new NFL deal to have an exclusive game a year through 2022, starting with a Saturday game this year.

Esports, a passion point that was born on digital, is arguably experiencing a watershed moment for the industry. Sports leagues such as the NBA and MLB have turned to their digital versions for fresh competition while the real world is sidelined.  People are consuming an extraordinary amount of gaming content while in quarantine. Consumption on Twitch increased 98% in April versus 2019 with over one billion total hours watched, while other gaming properties such as YouTube Gaming and Facebook Gaming have also seen a huge uptick.

Marketers need to consider the implications for these types of shifts. It could impact how brands approach the contractual negotiations for marketing partnerships and sponsorships with the major leagues; brands will need to consider how they future proof their deals. In addition, these potential shake-ups mean that the fan consumption experience could look quite different in the future. Brands should consider how they can connect with fans in the context of an increasingly digital viewing experience, with personalized and dynamic messaging opportunities.

With live events cancelled, there is an unmistakable void in our culture right now. Sports provide an outlet that consumers cherish and need. Rest assured, they will come back. And while many sports may still be on pause for the time being, your sports strategy should not be.

Josh Spiegelman is managing director, sponsorships & partnerships, content+ at Mindshare.

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