Three Observations on How Sports Marketing is Pivoting in 2020

PH Sports Marketing
Brian Tsao

Like many fans, sports moments are etched in my memories. Larry Johnson’s four-point play. David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII. And of course, other more disappointing moments associated with being a New York sports fan (there are many).

Despite the inevitable ups and downs, there is no doubt that I’m part of the 84% of avid fans who now have a greater appreciation for live sporting events after the pandemic put a pause on the industry.

Like everything else in our lives, the sports industry has been forced to adapt in this new environment and with it, the notion of how we are connecting to our favorite teams, leagues and athletes. While there has been debate about recent viewership numbers, 87% of Americans still identify as being a sports fan, meaning there’s still a large consumer base to reach.

As someone who has been fortunate to work in sports in addition to being a fan, I think the challenge of reaching existing and new consumers has never been more unique. Here are three observations:

Amping Up the At-Home Experience

Brands have focused on enhancing the at-home fan experience even further given social distance guidelines. Pepsi launched a tailgate in a box sweepstakes to get fans excited for the NFL season. T-Mobile is mounting 5G-powered cameras on players’ and coaches’ caps during World Series batting practice while Budweiser launched clever “Rally Cans” to mark the Fall Classic.

Enhancing the at-home experience was already a focus for the industry (see: NFL Red Zone) but the pandemic only has accelerated this process, forcing brands to consider how they can engage with consumers on their couches and connect like minded fans (think: F&B, delivery services, connected home entertainment, social media apps, etc...).

Athlete Partnerships Continue to Reach Audiences

The absence of congregating at stadiums, bars or in large gatherings has also forced the industry to focus its efforts further on digital engagement. One way brands are navigating this? Athlete partnerships.

Despite the newscycle, brands have continued to partner with athletes around a variety of social issues, whether it’s our #client American Express working with Shaquille O’Neal to highlight the need to support small businesses to NBA2K working with More Than a Vote (co-founded by LeBron James) to create a two-part series educating gamers about voting.

Brands not usually associated with sports also worked with athletes to launch new programs over the past few months. Glossier recently created a social-first campaign featuring WNBA stars while Stuart Weitzman tapped Serena Williams to be its global spokesperson.

As brands continue to look to engage new and avid fans, it’s clear that partnerships with athletes (or sons—see 16-year-old Bronny James and his 5.8 million IG followers—more than 97% of NBA players) will continue to be key ways for brands to connect with culture and key audiences.

The Modern Highlight Reel

With in-person gatherings restricted, there has never been a clearer opportunity for brands to digitally engage with fans—a study said that 78% of people on Twitter agree that brands should try to bring sports fans together while they cannot go to the stadium or watch together as a group in person.

But the question is how? One potential way is through the evolution of the modern highlight reel; over 90% of global sports executives agree that “the consumption of highlights and short form content will either grow or grow significantly in the coming years.”

The industry has already begun to anticipate this shift with NBA teams reporting over 20% more engagement on Instagram Reels, while traditional sports brands like the New York Yankees are partnering with TikTok. Meanwhile, new and startup media companies are looking to deliver sports content in a more digestible format to younger audiences.

While there have never been more digital channels, brands should constantly reevaluate how fans are consuming sports content prior to and during big events such as The Masters and Super Bowl and on an evergreen basis to make sure that they are in their scrolls.