They say sports without fans is nothing, and as players, clubs and organisations take tentative steps back into playing and broadcasting events, sports starved fans are turning to their screens instead of stadiums.
So as streaming sites and social media become the new playground, what does this mean for sponsorship? The ball is in the sponsors court and for those who want to play the long game, it’s a time to re-evaluate and reshape activities with an increased focus on online and virtual elements that deliver on what all good sponsorships should do, which is to create a meaningful connection with fans.
The Road is No Longer Linear.
While this might seem like a reaction to the current climate, there were always reasons to make the move to a more digitally focused approach.
"There is an exciting time ahead for sports sponsorship for those brave enough to push the boundaries."
Viewing projections show that more time will be spent on digital platforms than on linear TV for the first time this year. Performance metrics can be measured and tracked showing clearer ROI. Creative optimisations can be delivered in real time, allowing for more personalised and impactful brand activations. New channels offer ways to reach and engage with new audiences, and maybe most importantly sponsors and fans can come together in support of their teams.
This level of insight, interactivity, and creativity means that despite the lack of action there is on the field, there is an exciting time ahead for sports sponsorship for those brave enough to push the boundaries.
How Social Media Can Help Fans Have a Say in The Game.
The new pre-match build up seems to focus more on tests than teams, but for fans they are solely focused on the game as it happens. More than 80% of people dual screen while watching a match, turning to social media to express their opinion or get the live clips, goals or updates from other matches. This is clear because you see sporting events trending each week and topping annual trends, beating the likes of The Oscars or The Grammys.
It’s a testament to the power that sport has in capturing the attention of both fair weather and ultra-fans alike. But despite these hundreds of thousands of messages of support, they are falling on deaf ears at the ground, as the roar of the crowd has been replaced with the sound of silence.
There is an opportunity here to use social media to break the disconnect between fan and player, the extra man that so often drags teams to victory is missing, and needs to be shared. For example, interactive pitch side-boards allow brands to plug-in and share messages from social media in real-time, providing a place for fans to share their message of support in reaction to the actions on the pitch.
This innovation not only gives back to fans, it gives them a reason to engage with you pre, during, and post-game, turning passive consumption into active participation in the game.
Although, real-time updates are nothing new, with XBox showing how they decoded the beautiful game. It’s the combination of sponsors providing a platform for fans at the stadium wherever they are in the world that makes this a unique opportunity.
In addition to this, with the advancement in virtual advertising overlays there is the possibility to deliver regional, multi-lingual, dynamic advertising. This will enable sponsors to share multiple variations of personalised creative, helping fans feel like what goes on around the action is as much of a talking point as what is happening on the pitch.
Without Coverage Content is King.
Whether a ball being kicked or a race being run, sponsors should look to what resources are available to them to continue to be associated with the athletes and teams they are sponsoring. Players, athletes and personalities have never had this amount of time on their hands. The knock on effect being that fans have been so long without getting updates from who they follow.
At the beginning of lockdown we looked to the past, but now fans want something new. A glimpse behind the scenes, interviews with key players, an insight into new fitness regimes and a welcome into their homes have begun but fans want more. There’s a curiosity to seeing stars you usually see competing on tracks, in pools or on pitches in a more human way, and with the expectations in production values lowered, there’s permission to share what might not be as polished as usual, but is authentic and real to the times we’re in. Sometimes more is more, and while we’re waiting for coverage to start again, content is king and should fill your newsfeed.
"Sponsors need to look ahead and see how content can be delivered through other aspects of the physical world"
That said, as we move out of restrictions and look ahead, how content is shared can become a whole new experience. Nike have shown the future of kit apparel with 'Nike Connect.' This technology enables fans to access early team news, exclusive content and unique events all through NFC built into jerseys. Sponsors need to look ahead and see how content can be delivered through other aspects of the physical world, creating memorable moments for fans through social and digital activations that provide exclusivity that will build a connection between your audience and your brand.
Esports is No Longer a Niche Sport.
The rise of esports has been often mentioned as an opportunity to reach a new audience of fans who have the same passion as ‘traditional’ sports fans, and with gaming events now selling out stadiums, player profiles getting bigger, and rumours of esports being added as an Olympic event, there has been no better time to consider a sponsorship strategy for the sport of the future.
In fact with COVID-19 stopping live sports in its tracks, esports has escalated the scale of growth even further, with brands adjusting to continue in some kind of normality. MLB, NFL and the Premier League tapped into the popularity of esports by hosting gaming events, combining a mix of gamers and professional athletes and streaming them across multiple sites. With chat rooms and social media abuzz, the same excitement was brought on as if you were experiencing the real thing.
"In adversity, new tactics have led to growth in sports, drawing in new fans to both the real and virtual worlds."
Others were lucky to have virtual aspects already built into their training regime and could show their schedule seamlessly. Formula One drivers for example took advantage of driving training simulators to bring races online and fans closer to the drivers. The popularity of which has led to the decision to stream live Grand Prix’s on gaming sites like Twitch, once the season resumes.
In adversity, new tactics have led to growth in sports, drawing in new fans to both the real and virtual worlds. Gamers are reaching the same level of following and admiration as the Messi’s and Ronaldo’s of the world, and as this continues sponsors should look to take advantage of the influence of their social status, the potential for in-game activations, new digital placements and the opportunity to get onside a tight-knit, loyal community who live their lives online but have a massive global reach.
Sport brings out the kind of raw emotion that is second to none, without this, there is a massive gap to be filled. And while it might be some time before we feel the kind of anticipation, euphoria or heartbreak that comes with any sport, there are ways in which sponsorship can continue to provide a connection between athlete, club and fan. The rules might have changed but it’s a level playing field and with a focus on leveraging social and digital communities, profiles and innovations, sponsorships can continue to strengthen and grow as a critical brand tool.