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Playing the long game: sports marketing and the metaverse

The biggest opportunities for sports marketing may lie in the metaverse

There’s more to sport than what happens on the pitch. How audiences choose to watch and interact – with their chosen team and other fans – is fragmenting. But as Gravity Road’s Dom Curran explains as part of our Sports Marketing Deep Dive, that just means there’s a bigger opportunity for brands to reach those audiences where they choose to spend their time online.

After months of uncertainty, the Olympic flame has finally reached Tokyo. But there will be no stadium crowds gathering beneath its benevolent glow. Due to growing pandemic levels in Japan any feats of faster, higher, stronger will sadly be witnessed only on our screens.

This is a stark reminder to the sports marketing industry that blind faith in any ’return to normal’ is a myth. Sports properties – their sponsoring brands and media – have been optimistic about a swift, doubled-jabbed return to the status quo, believing they can soon head back to the traditional sports marketing tropes that have served them well for the last few decades.

Except it’s not going to be that easy.

Not just because the road to post-Covid, mass-attended events across the globe has some way yet to go. There is something more fundamental happening too: the road itself is taking an interesting diversion.

Into virtual worlds

The pandemic accelerated the diversification of sports fans’ media habits at warp speed, producing new behaviors that simply won’t get unlearnt. The power of live sport is indisputable. But what ‘live’ means is becoming much more multi-layered.

Just as sports marketing was getting to grips with a digital-first, content-driven world, along comes the metaverse to shake things up again. I’m not here to define the metaverse – plenty have done it better than I will – but for the sake of this, it’s a place of intersectionality between the real, virtual and social worlds. This immersive, networked, three-dimensional world is always-on and limitless. And there’s something else that never gets switched off, that’s limitless and merges the real, virtual and social worlds – fandom.

Sports marketers need to move at the speed of fans. For the sports marketer with the right tech in their hands, imagination in their heads, and 5G rolling out, the metaverse presents an opportunity that will open a whole new level of immersive engagement between sports brands and sports fandoms.

So, what do sports marketers need to do to get ahead of it and where are we starting to see it already in play? Here are six metaverse trends that roadmap the future:

Experiences now happen in more than one world: Connecting a physical location to a virtual universe, in real time, is a huge opportunity that’s already happening. Verizon’s much vaunted Super Bowl tie-up with Fortnite is the stellar example to date, but also look to music pushing the boundaries of connecting physical people to a virtual event with Travis Scott’s concert in Fortnite racking up 45.8m views across five shows. The Lil Nas X concert in Roblox similarly had 33m views in total across the performances.

Know your value in the metaverse: The rise of NFTs and cryptocurrencies has introduced the concept of value regardless of physical existence. The global virtual goods market is predicted to be almost $200bn by 2025 and stand-out examples are already flying such as Dapper Labs’ NBA Top Shot with more than a million users or RTFKT Studios, which partners with digital artists, selling $3.1m worth of sneaker NFTs in about seven minutes.

Blend traditional and new tech: Next-gen entertainment experiences must blend content with immersive tech and invite co-creation with fans. The NFL tie-up with Nickelodeon saw broadcasting and tech converge to create a (very unexpected) mass family moment whereby you could ‘slime’ the end zone after touchdowns and even saw SpongeBob make an appearance.

Gaming culture is culture: Gaming is a social space and now the dominant force in mainstream culture and at the heart of entertainment experiences. From to Gucci and Balenciaga launching fashion specific items, to purpose-driven gaming such as the exceptionally powerful EA Sports/Kiyan Prince addition on Fifa 21. This isn’t about esports v gaming, it’s about culture and purpose.

Net Zero matters to everyone: Sports experiences must have a clear positive climate impact and brands will be held responsible for their partners as much as the rights holders themselves. The Extreme E motorsport series literally drives a credible net zero message, as do new stadiums being built carbon negative.

People-powered marketing can make or break you: We know the power rests in the phones in fans’ hands and it will soon be on their faces with next-gen smart glasses bringing the metaverse to life all around them. Rather than catch them, smart brands must join them. Think communities rather than audiences. Tech-enabled fan communities are vital in building (or breaking) a global sports brand. You’ll want to be on the right side of this power – see the use of hyper-individual 1-2-1 avatar experiences using AI tech (like ‘Digital Deepak’ for athletes) v fan power bringing down the European Super League in 48 hours.

If you’re still worrying about a ‘digital-first/content-first/data-first’ sports strategy, you’re already behind. The metaverse is here and it’s here to stay. It could be the perfect playground for brands among fandoms that never sleep. It may be a long game strategy, but the sooner you cross the line and get on the field, the better placed you’ll be to engage the future of fandom.

Dom Curran is head of sports at Gravity Road.

Check out The Drum’s Sports Marketing hub for more on how the marketing industry can score long-term success through association with sport.

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