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The way fans enjoy sport is changing—here's how brands can keep pace

by Stephanie Boland

December 17, 2020

It’s time to kick off a new evolution of sports sponsorship. We speak to industry leaders about the future of online content—and what brands can do now to get ahead.

“Traditionally, sponsorship has always been a great friend of sport,” says Jerry Newman, director of EMEA sports partnerships at Facebook.

From the logos emblazoned on football shirts to pro cycling’s trade team names, brands have long sought to tap into fans’ passion.

Now, with fan communities moving online and COVID-19 accelerating the shift towards digital, sponsorship opportunities are evolving rapidly—into a new age of bespoke content and agile, trackable campaigns.

In a year of disruption, sport has been an important contributor to many people's wellbeing.

Cheering from home

Laura Williamson is a senior editor at the subscription sports website The Athletic—a role which has given her deep insight into the way fans’ habits have changed in recent years.

“There’s been a shift towards ‘second screening’,” Williamson says, with fans watching a game on TV while simultaneously following coverage on their phones or engaging with fan communities on social media.

“Ten years ago, people might have gone down the pub to watch the football. Now the enjoyment of engaging in a community has gone online—and COVID-19 has only accelerated that.”

Mollie Pearse is a marketing lead at Facebook EMEA and a competitive triathlete, and has also seen the power of online platforms during the recent period of disruption.

“In a year of uncertainty, digital platforms and the technology industry have helped bring sport to us.”

Engaging with sports communities and content online has become a big part of the fan experience.

Newman has noticed brands becoming correspondingly more inventive in how they tap into fans’ passion via their devices.

“We’ve started seeing co-created content with a narrative that’s not only relevant to the brand, but relevant to the club,” he says.

That means campaigns which do things like give fans a behind-the-scenes look at their favourite players.

Products like Instagram Reels, which allows sponsors to create short, playful videos of athletes, are perfect for this type of content.

For Williamson—who believes sports fans are more sophisticated in their thirst for knowledge than they’re often given credit for—the key question is, “is this media going to tell them something they don’t know?”

Exciting and authentic

Newman gives an example of a recent partnership between Chelsea Football Club and Beats by Dre headphones.

“They did a campaign with one of their youngest players, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and their first black player, Paul Canoville, interviewing about what it was like to be a black professional footballer at two different times.”

For Newman, the partnership showed the power of an authentic connection.

“Beats were willing to sacrifice the classic ‘this is the product and why you should buy it’ style of endorsement to instead cover an important topic in the sport. It felt more like the sponsor was contributing in a real partnership.”

“Branded content has to have an affinity. If it doesn’t, fans on the platform are not going to respond.”

Tracking performance

It’s not just the tone of partnerships that is changing.

Traditionally, sports sponsorship has followed a media rights cycle. In the English Premier League, for instance, many title sponsors would work with a three-year contract.

Now, Newman says, the dynamic nature of platforms like Facebook is shaking things up.

With brands able to assess performance quickly, sponsors are increasingly interested in shorter campaigns.

“Publishers today realise there are different types of sponsorship, and thanks to the tools on platforms like Facebook, they are able to track incremental revenue from new ‘boutique’ sponsorship deals—which they can see aren’t cannibalising their main partnerships.”

Fans are increasingly able to engage with their favourite athletes on mobile.

“We’re seeing a journey from brand activation to conversion using the tracking pixels available through Facebook’s insight tools,” he adds.

This type of insight allows brands to not only see how their sponsorship affects things like brand sentiment, but also track what it means for sales.

Preparing for 2021—and beyond

This type of sponsorship could be particularly valuable around events like the European Championships—in which footballers play for their national teams, rather than the clubs with which many brands have sponsorship deals—and the rescheduled 2021 Olympic Games.

For these events, tools which allow brands to track sales down to the level of a specific post from a specific athlete will be a game changer.

“To get an athlete’s endorsement and then say: how many boots have I sold? How many leads are generated by this campaign?”

“I think that will change the structure of sponsorship,” says Newman.

While the future of in-person sports events is uncertain, online spaces will continue to provide a venue for fans' enthusiasm.

“The sports calendar for next year (and beyond) is filling up again, with or without fans in the physical sense,” Pearse says. “We at Facebook are passionate to work with brands to ensure that they can continue to capture the hearts and minds of their customers and fans.”

Whatever happens, then, online platforms will continue to be a place of opportunity for sponsors.

“We do not know when stadiums will be completely reopened to fans,” says Pearse. “In the meantime, our digital stadium is very much open.”

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