We need to up our game in sport by facing uncomfortable changes

We need to up our game in sport by facing uncomfortable changes

A booming and evolving global sports industry requires uncomfortable changes and a provocative approach to embrace the new way and thrive.


The insatiable desire for live sports continues to reign supreme as the convergence of media and sponsorship is increasingly pushing the sports landscape forward.

We are watching the rapid acceleration of new technology, the proliferation of sports media consumption, and an unwavering focus on the fan experience.

In 2022, live sports accounted for 94 of the top 100 telecasts. This trend is not only fuelling sports media investment but driving an increase in sports marketing activity as brands rightfully shift from “having a presence in sports” to becoming deeply ingrained in the space with more well-rounded and defined sports strategies.

As the marketplace accelerates and evolves simultaneously, it’s imperative that we start to re-define core aspects of the sports marketing vernacular.

There are no more endorsement deals

Athletes are now influencers of culture. Today, talent partnerships must have shared values and purpose at their core.

Athletes and brands are increasingly structuring deals with equity included for athletes to be incentivized to champion the trajectory of the brand and product.

Leaning into talent for unique collabs, merch drops, social initiatives, passion projects, sustainability & DE&I programs, and a relentless mutual focus to make a lasting impact will elevate the relationship and showcase an athlete as an “influencer of culture” on behalf of a brand.

Athletes are a dominant source of truth in a world where trust in news is difficult to come by.

Patrick Mahomes’ deals with Hyperice and BioSteel included ownership stakes, allowing him to help shape the brands and establish a more credible connection with the companies and products he stands behind.

Sponsorships are a thing of the past

Sponsorships are now dynamic two-way business partnerships.

We need to continue to push that perspective through sports investments and uncover/pursue how properties and brands can support and integrate each other, jointly leverage their audiences, create value for one another, and make an impact together within fan communities and society.

With that, traditional sponsorship measurement is being complemented with the need for tangible business performance and reporting.

As sports marketers, we can effectively pair and connect partnership access and rights with key brand priorities and challenges (supported by media) to create exclusive initiatives that drive trackable results through sales, volume, lead gen, and acquisition.

All of which contribute to the quantifiable success of a partnership in addition to brand health, media exposure, and brand awareness metrics.

To extract maximum value out of sports deals today, the focus should be on product integration and meaningful fan-first experiences. A great example of this is the recent partnership between the NBA and Meta to create innovative ways for fans to experience the NBA product.

Understanding sports fans, not reaching sports fans

The depth and complexities of sports fans is often underappreciated.

We categorize them too broadly instead of understanding the differences amongst fan profiles and then building curated experiences for certain fans because of their expectations, behaviours, and fandom.

We utilize audience data to identify the right property for brands to invest in, but we need to go deeper and exhibit more insight-rich and data-driven partnership strategy and planning.

When shifting our approach from reaching to understanding fans, we can properly leverage the plethora of sports media platforms and distribution channels before, during, after, and around the culture of the game with more personalized messaging. Embracing the content consumption journey of fans with a strategic and consistent media presence is paramount to establishing brand authenticity. Sports media is much more diversified and interactive, and we need to lean into that by going beyond “where to reach a fan” and prioritize our creative thinking on the experience, messaging, and creative execution to spark action and impact around the right tentpoles and relevant moments.

The playbook for sports marketing is much thicker than it used to be as the industry experiences seismic shifts and progression. As sports industry leaders, it’s on us to accept and embrace these changes to thrive.

Dan Conti is global head of sports, live & gaming at Wavemaker.

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