Here are some broad strokes of the evolution sports fans are moving towards. Image: ShutterstockE
very sport-sponsoring brand works hard with the intent to expand the passion and excited enthusiasm fans have for their favourite sport to also include the sponsoring brand. The fact that a typical sponsorship comes with a spectrum of activation opportunities, the magnetic pull of live events, B2B hospitality opportunities and global reach, makes for a sweet deal.
With the convergence of physical and digital in the world of sports, and the growing popularity of hyper-reality experiences, it’s even more of a blast to be a sports fan, and, of course, a sports sponsor. As marketers are inextricably focused on consumers and their evolving needs, sports-sponsoring brands have their sights set on fans—whether in the real world or virtual.
If sports fans are more spontaneous, conscientious or adventurous, then brands seeking to win their mind space must create avenues for their passion and purpose—and technology is but a means to this end.
Here are some broad strokes of the evolution I believe sports fans are moving towards. And some ideas for how sport-sponsoring brands can keep up:
Some things won’t change, but how we respond to them will
For example, beyond star athletes and state-of-the-art stadiums, spectators have and will always immensely value something far more basic: A cliff-hanger game and the suspense of not knowing who will walk away with the prize.
Research corroborates this timeless truth. But today, what we can do with breakthroughs in data analytics, AI, and digital is put stats and insights in the hands of fans—in deeply immersive ways—that can make the nail-biting journey to the finish an experience to cherish.
I’ll never forget how fans were thrilled when Rafael Nadal defied the AI win predictor’s four percent odds to win the Australian Open 2022 and beat AI, Medvedev and his demons to win the coveted 21st Slam. Or more recently, in the Champions League semi-finals, when Real Madrid overturned a one goal deficit to Manchester City—defying the 99 percent win predictor in the 89th minute.
More space to play to the fan gallery
Digital real estate for sports—like all digital real estate—means more space for sponsorships and endorsements, but also crypto-driven economies and trading platforms for NFTs.
A much talked about move last spring was NBA favourites Miami Heat named cryptocurrency marketplace FTX as the exclusive cryptocurrency exchange partner.
With the metaverse touted as an annual trillion-dollar industry to be, a market consolidation where NFT collectibles, crypto, ticketing, betting, OTT, and fantasy players come together seems somewhat inevitable. Bundling fan packages
, offers, and experiences will become the order of the day.
In India, for example, while the IPL is on, almost everyone enjoys creating a tactical team on Dream11
to try their fortune, and at the same time, view the match on Hotstar. There may be an opportunity here to consolidate OTT viewing with fantasy league, link it with special ticketing offers, develop NFTs, and craft a custom experience for a loyal fanbase. I believe that might play out rather interestingly!
Engage with fans on their own turf
Competitive esports watched by spectators is growing in popularity—publicly announced esports sponsorship deals have grown from just over 450 in 2016 to 2000+ in 2021. With a fan demography ranging from 18 to 34 years old—encompassing nearly 30 percent women and 70 percent men—it’s a great way to reach an otherwise somewhat elusive audience. Digital natives with high-income, passionate young people are more likely to reward brands that show support for their preferred esports league or player. F1, tennis, football, and basketball—the opportunity is ubiquitous.
Growing demand for deeper content-driven human connect
Fans are lapping up the story behind the sport and its teams and athletes. This could lead to unbundling live and non-live content sponsorships to drive visibility on platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, and the like. For example, ESPN is enjoying increasing ratings since it took over broadcasting F1 in 2018—moving from an average viewership of 554,000 that year to 927,000 in 2021, yearly rises tallying with the growth in popularity of each subsequent series of Drive to Survive.
Learning from their success, the entire tennis community, including the 4 Grand Slams, ITF, WTA and ATP have come together and are launching a new Netflix series on tennis in 2023. This is emerging as one of those new-age growth drivers for sports organisations. It is only a matter of time before it becomes a norm to bundle sponsorship play with story-telling.
Social impact will make a difference
Humanity has seen some testing times these past many months. And now more than ever, fans look up to the sports ecosystem to come together purposefully—impact the well-being of athletes, the community, the planet and simply do good.
A telling example is how early last year, the Premier League launched its No Room For Racism Action Plan. It outlines a series of commitments aimed at creating greater access to opportunities and career progression for Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic groups in football and actions to eradicate racial prejudice. Fans appreciate more of that, and smart brands won’t miss the opportunity to respond.
Quite clearly, the world of competitive sports is evolving. Dimensions such as the rising viewership in women’s sports, increased interest in college-level sports leagues—especially in the US—and growing demand in the sports betting market as it bats for legalisation, will continue to be trends to keep an eye on. And yet, traditional ways of sponsorship marketing will continue to hold sway—whether through digital signboards on broadcast TV, advertisements, player endorsements, or live match viewing experiences and sponsorships. For fans and sponsoring brands, it’ll continue to be a team sport.Sumit Virmani is the global chief marketing officer of Infosys.