Netflix bingers don’t know how good they have it. Unlike their sports-watching peers, they can access a mind-numbing amount of drama, documentary or film – however they want, whenever they want. But thanks to the rapidly changing sports landscape – which is taking full advantage of streaming technology and a plethora of social platforms to broadcast content on – modern sports fans now have more choice than ever when it comes to getting their regular fix of sports entertainment. And it’s around the clock, too. For brands, this is a burgeoning chance to make a significant impact on target audiences.
“Fans have an insatiable appetite for content between live action,” says Charlie Raincock, director of sports PR agency Performance Communications, which, along with behavioural insights agency Canvas8, has recently published a study that maps out the future trends of sports marketing. “The opportunity for brands is to meet this 24/7 need by entertaining, educating and informing with engaging content.”
So rather than being slaves to a rights-holder’s broadcast of a game and merely getting a few hours of sporting content at a time, fans are now demanding match-related content before and after the live event – allowing them to immerse themselves further and fuel their passion.
“The pre- and post-game coverage at sports events is an increasingly important part of the overall experience,” says Sam Shaw, Canvas8’s head of insight. “The day before a live event, fan consumption of sport-related videos increases 75 per cent. We expect content that builds pre-game anticipation to be a big focus for brands wishing to get a piece of the action.”
For James Kirkham, chief strategy officer of Bigballs Media and head of football fan culture platform Copa90, reaching your audience in a credible way during this downtime between live games is harder than it might seem. It’s not just a case of blindly throwing out videos on Facebook. The brands that succeed, are those that recognise the need for premium production values, and get to the core of the conversations going on between fans. Not only that, they have a fundamental understanding of how and where that content should be delivered.
Satisfying the appetite
“These brands are able to sustain conversations over much longer periods of time than the traditional sports broadcasters, often because of the mix of media and platform which they’re able to leverage,” says Kirkham. At Copa90, each type of content lives exclusively on its own platform: visceral, raw and authentic live footage on Snapchat; more considered, well-designed imagery on Instagram; and reactive, comedic interactions on Twitter. “In short,” he continues, “it’s the mix which fully enables you to satisfy the appetite and provide a proper diet for a fan needing their sport throughout the days and week.”
One brand in particular that’s excelling at this perfect media mix, is Adidas. Recently announcing the much-hyped return of Paul Pogba (an Adidas-sponsored athlete) from Juventus to Manchester United (a team for which Adidas provides the kit), the German sports giant carefully orchestrated the reveal on its Adidas UK and Adidas Football social platforms. Producing a slick, hyper-kinetic music collaboration video between London-grime-rapper-of-the-moment Stormzy and Pogba himself, Adidas had young football fans lighting Twitter up on release – something that was amplified nicely thanks to United’s own following of 8.6 million followers. A slew of accompanying videos released on Instagram, Snapchat and Vine helped to keep momentum, prolong the spotlight on the event and keep fan engagement strong.
“What was immediately fascinating to me was the global co-ordination and timing of the announcement that everyone had been waiting for,” said Michael Litman, chief executive of Burst Insights. “The timing certainly didn’t happen by coincidence considering it was the evening in LA, New York and Chicago while also being the early morning before the work day began in Tokyo and Beijing. This has been a long time in the making: a masterstroke in joined up thinking across geographies, channels and brand sponsors.”
Including Stormzy in this incendiary media mix was shrewd thinking from Adidas; the brand is clearly not afraid of crossing cultural boundaries. It’s also indicative of the increasing power and influence of the modern sports fan – Adidas knows that young football fans don’t care just about football; they’re real individuals with other passions. And thanks to its recent and heavy investment in cultural talent across music – and the creative industries as a whole – the brand can effortlessly leverage this talent in a completely authentic, and credible, way.
Influencing a brand’s marketing strategy is one thing, but the modern sports fan has the potential to wield yet more power. The global sports industry is estimated to be worth $700bn, and the market for sporting events in countries such as France, the US and the UK is growing faster than GDP. “This upward trend, paralleled by increasingly costly sponsorship and rights deals – most notably the record-breaking £120m per season deal between Barcelona and Nike – is causing conflict between fans, organisations and sponsors,” says Shaw.
Ticket prices have rocketed at twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011, and disgruntled fans are feeling priced out of the action. For Shaw, sponsors and brands could be the answer. “One emerging idea is to gamify the fan experience, rewarding engagement with anything from free tickets to special experiences. It could be a valuable opportunity for brands,” he explains.
Another way in which sports fans have made an impact, is live streaming on mobile. In an age of digital technology where content can be both plentiful and instant, the NFL has made a deal with Twitter to live stream games. An organic move, considering Twitter’s already immense user-base and the way the platform naturally lends itself to live commentary. “Their ability to stimulate and push with actual streaming or gaming events will only enhance their position and role,” says Kirkham. Elsewhere, NBC struck a deal with Snapchat to run stories at the Rio Olympics to engage younger viewers and complement its more traditional TV offering.
“With these micro video platforms, one of the most important things is to show something exclusive,” says Shaw. “Instagram is a platform that was set up to provide intimacy at scale: that feeling of peering behind the curtain. It’s something that sponsors can certainly help facilitate.” It’s these behind-the-scenes moments that will help brands create a longer-term connection with their audiences, in turn keeping not only the event, but also themselves, relevant.
As for the future, the sports fan remains king. No longer passive spectators, fans are sharing and generating social content in staggering numbers; the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was Twitter’s biggest ever event, with 672m tweets sent. It’s driving channels like Twitter and Snapchat to incorporate this user content, making fans an intrinsic part of sporting events. It’s something that brands can do, too.
Sports fans will also have greater control of the content they want, and the brands they allow into their lives. “The next steps will be content driven on demand through micropayment, most likely by messaging environments,” says Kirkham. “From here, virtual reality (VR) feels incredibly natural, too. Audiences desire to get closer to players, and to every aspect of matches. Switching on VR feels like a likely opportunity, not a crowbarred gimmick. Audiences want proximity and closeness.”
Shaw agrees: “Virtual reality will allow people to switch between athlete, referee and fan. With Facebook, Sony, HTC, Samsung, Google and Microsoft all investing heavily in the technology, VR is promising to revolutionise viewing at home; Goldman Sachs expects the VR market to be worth $80bn by 2025.”
This article was first published in the 31 August issue of The Drum.