While the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns with the economy continue to cast uncertainty in the marketplace, sports is the one industry that seems to have bounced back most quickly from the last two years.
Last year marked a successful return to stadiums and arenas across the country, as well as increased digital engagement across social platforms around sports properties. This year should see that momentum continue, so here are some important sports marketing trends to keep an eye on.
Thanks in large part to the massive success (and resulting boom in business in the US especially) of Formula 1’s “Drive to Survive” behind-the-scenes docuseries, there has been a run on teams, leagues and brands trying to figure out how they can let their audiences behind the curtain. Tennis’s “Break Point” dropped in January, while golf’s “Full Swing” debuts in February – both from the Vox Media Studios and Box to Box Films team that collaborated on “Drive to Survive.”
Painstaking control over every angle of your company’s image is not what your consumers want. They want transparency. They want to see the imperfections. They want to feel connected.
So whether that’s simply showing more behind-the-scenes content on your TikTok, turning the camera over to your staff to run your Instagram Stories, or producing a regular video series that shows how you do what you do, you can achieve serious engagement with your audience by letting down your guard.
This is a great time to mention that TikTok can be an incredibly valuable platform for brands operating in the sports space, though there is obviously some uncertainty around this app – which is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance – due to growing pressure on the federal government to ban TikTok in the U.S.
Athletes Own the Narrative
Whether through their social media channels, podcasts, video series, or content outlets like The Players’ Tribune, athletes are realizing they can capitalize on their influence to produce consistent content that they can monetize. Why give a juicy soundbite in a postgame press conference when you can save that valuable insight for your own show, and boost your ad impressions and sponsorship value?
More than ever, athletes have become their own brands, and they can have tremendous power speaking directly to audiences. They’re also much more outspoken on political and societal issues, which can be great for brands looking to wade into controversial topics. It can also be risky for those who want to remain on the sidelines of certain issues, so make sure to do your homework if you’re going to work with an athlete so you understand their personal brand and background, and comprehensively analyze their social media to make sure their content aligns with your brand.
Women’s Sports Continue to Rise
It has been great to see the momentum continue for women’s sports. Leagues like the Premier Hockey Federation (10X salary cap growth in two years) and NWSL (25% increase for next season) are dramatically increasing salaries for their players. ESPN is airing more women’s sports, and the Women’s Sports Network launched last November to provide 24-7 programming.
As my colleague Amy Moritz wrote recently, the time is now to invest in women’s sports. Their fans are typically more engaged, and because leagues like the WNBA and NWSL are still not as well established as their male counterparts, you can get in at much cheaper rates. Your impact will also be much bigger in terms of actually helping push the growth of women’s sports too.
Teams and leagues are becoming more and more sophisticated and creative with how they activate sponsors. It’s most notable with patches on jerseys, but walls are eroding in terms of what sponsors can access with teams, players, and games.
If you’re talking with a team or league about sponsorship, make sure to think big and brainstorm unconventional ideas that align with your goals and audiences. Make sure to consider how you can enhance matchday engagement (digitally, socially, on-site, etc.), which is top-of-mind for every team looking to grow their audiences in increasingly crowded marketplaces.
Name, Image, Likeness (NIL)
This continues to be a rapidly evolving, polarizing space. Olympic athletes and those in high-profile revenue sports like college football and basketball are raking in seven figures annually, and those numbers are only expected to increase in this largely unregulated endeavor. Those big dollars have slowly trickled down to smaller schools and non-revenue sports, but there is much more to come.
There is tremendous opportunity to work with high school (yes, top prep athletes are cashing in as well) and college student-athletes in your market, though it’s important to make sure their followers are within your target audience and that they’re in good academic standing with their coaches. In this early stage of NIL, don’t overcommit. It’s best to start small and test athletes, sports, markets, and tactics to see what works.
First-Party Data Has Never Been More Valuable
Social media has always been a volatile space. When you consider the current exodus from and potential demise of Twitter, threatened U.S. government shutdown of TikTok, and massive changes to Google Analytics and how the company handles app revenue, it’s hard to think of a more uncertain time in the world of social media. That means it’s never been more important to have a firm grasp on your own first-party data, and invest strategy into how best to build and leverage the invaluable information you have on your audiences.
Another best practice is to consistently grow your databases for emails and cell numbers – building audiences for digital and social advertising and consistently testing content so you’re learning what messages work best.
The Martin Group continues to work on the front lines of the sports world for clients including New Era Cap, PUMA, Under Armour, and the NFL, strategizing ways to reach a variety of audiences all over the world. Please reach out if you have questions or want to talk shop about the industry.