Seven Ways Sports Marketers Can Connect with the Next Generation of Fans

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By Dan Donnelly is EVP, Managing Director of SMG’s sports marketing arm SPORTS@SMG

In the content kingdom, sports rule supreme. They are, to borrow a basketball phrase, the ultimate triple-threat: live, global, and social. The immersive nature of sports has led marketers across all business sectors to pour billions of dollars into them in a bid to capture consumer attention. Consider these statistics: Sports accounted for $8.47 billion in ad sales across the big four US broadcast networks alone (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC) during the 2014-2015 season, or 37% of their total ad revenue, despite the fact that sports represents just a fraction of their overall programming schedules. The North American sports industry currently stands at $64 billion and is projected to reach $74 billion by 2019. The biggest driver of this growth will come from media rights, which is already larger than sports sponsorships and merchandise figures, and is on track to surpass gate revenue for the first time in 2018.

In addition to reaching consumers of all types year round and live across multiple touch points, fans have an emotional attachment to sports that is unmatched by any other form of entertainment, providing marketers with a massive opportunity to drive business results. To unlock this value, marketers need specialized expertise, unique insights and a readiness to execute flawlessly without boundaries and siloes. SPORTS at SMG has become a leader in sports marketing since its formation in 2014, and combined with SMG as a network, we lead fully integrated connected sports strategies that drive effectiveness and efficiency. Here are seven ways marketers can leverage sports to connect with fans and drive results:

1. Live viewing creates opportunities for real-time relevancy. While approximately 96% of televised sports viewing occurs live—general entertainment shows, by contrast, are watched less than 50% live—fans are simultaneously engaging with other devices to get fantasy stats, updates and scores from other games. Fifty-two percent of sports fans use a tablet or smartphone to access sports content while watching televised sports, while 66% of them go online at least once per day for sports related content. To break through the clutter, brands need “right-time” content that’s custom designed for each screen and occasion, and sequenced appropriately for relevant storytelling. Heineken’s #ShareTheSofa, where the brand created a live show for the second screen for Champions League soccer with each match hosted by a different famous former player, is a perfect example. Heineken leveraged data showing most soccer fans watch matches alone while on a second screen and saw purchase intent for its beer rise by 7% as a result of the campaign. Creating authentic experiences with fans can help marketers make a meaningful connection. If the overall fan experience isn’t being enhanced, it’s just wallpaper.

2. The virtual and physical worlds collide with eSports. Competitive gaming, or eSports, is a global phenomenon, with Newzoo forecasting over 335MM global eSports fans and revenues of more than $1 billion by 2017. The huge audience has attracted numerous media companies to eSports. While eSports has an established history of success in Asian markets like South Korea and China, it’s also growing in Europe and the U.S. thanks to popular games like League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Turner Broadcasting next year will launch a new U.S.-based eSports league that will include two 10-week tournaments airing across their digital platforms, including Bleacher Report, as well as a Friday night telecast window on TBS. Brands can succeed in eSports by building an overall strategy that aligns their investments in the physical sports world to this new virtual one, particularly as millennials often see these worlds as one. Case in point: Duracell’s partnership with Twitch and EA’s Madden Football to promote its new 26-hour battery. The battery brand pitted NFL players, Twitch gamers and Madden influencers against each other in a 26-hour competitive livestream where the winner was awarded a trip to the Super Bowl. The campaign resulted in 135MM overall media impressions.

3. For fans, it’s game time 24/7. Roughly 70% of the U.S. adult population follows sports, with fans consuming on average 7.7 hours per week of sports content. “Always on” has replaced the traditional “season” mindset for players and fans alike, with content available year round. Additionally, 72% of sports fans are most engaged by pre-game content and rituals, including participation in fantasy sports. Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter are expanding their sports offerings, tapping into new age and gender demographics that are engaging with sports content of all varieties when they want, where they want and how they want. Simply advertising at game time is an outdated analog approach in a digital world. Instead, as illustrated by Starcom’s work with Electronic Arts and ESPN, brands can leverage data to create real-time, relevant game day content. EA used a combination of integrations and data-driven precision targeting to promote its game titles across ESPN’s television and digital properties globally. Using the premium content of EA and ESPN and programmatic buying approaches, we have been able to increase visits to EA game sites, allowing the company to directly tie them to sales impact.

4. Sports content transcends genders, ethnicities and borders. The 2015-16 NBA season began with 100 international players from 37 countries and territories. In the past 25 years, the English Premier League went from having 11 players from outside of the UK to more than 60%. These examples illustrate the continued globalization of sports, and underscore the need for leagues to maximize the popularity of athletes outside of its base markets. Additionally, with 45% of sports fans being women, and female viewership increases surpassing those of men, sports also provides the opportunity to speak to every demographic set. Marketers can best leverage the diverse appeal of sports with a global-local strategy. Regional markets can tailor creative and tactical approaches to best suit a particular audience, but having the overall global strategy align can unlock significant value when done right. SPORTS at SMG is excited to activate this approach with the NBA’s International League Pass, its multi-channel video service that features all NBA games for live or on-demand viewing in international countries.

5. All sports are mobile. It’s no secret that mobile is a vital part of daily life for even casual sports fans—42% of U.S. fans consume sports content via a mobile device; in Spain that number shoots up to 46%. It is imperative for marketers to have a connected mobile strategy that goes beyond game updates and traditional exposure-based advertising. A great illustration of this approach is seen in Samsung’s Galaxy 5S promotion of the LeBron James app, which was created ahead of the 2014 NBA playoffs, when basketball’s most famous player and avid social media user goes dark to focus on the championship pursuit. The app aggregated stats, family updates and other content that James would typically post to keep fans connected. Fans want an authentic connection to athletes and teams. An engaging conversation doesn’t repeat itself, and marketers need to be prepared to sequence the story.

6. Next gen tech creates more immersive fan experiences. Digital data has given fans access to a huge treasure chest of “next gen” stats such as tracking athletes’ heart rate, acceleration and impact. Last year, the NFL tested out Zebra Technologies’ RFID system to track players’ speed, distance and direction traveled during each game in real-time. This season that technology is embedded in every player’s shoulder pads, and viewers at home can see that data come to life in the NFL 2015 app for Xbox One and Windows 10. Additionally, advancements in virtual reality provide new immersive experiences for fans to become fully engaged with sports content like never before. Athletes have even begun utilizing VR as a vital training and preparation tool. Marketers that can identify and create the most compelling utility and access for fans will win. At SPORTS at SMG, we have been working closely with rights holders and media owners to continue testing and advancing virtual reality—for instance, we partnered with NBC to test virtual reality within their first Nascar race broadcast from Daytona this past July.

7. Sports are inherently social. Fans want to be connected, and in fact, nearly half of all fans, and close to 60% of millennial fans, say that sports is more about being social than anything else. Athletes themselves are engaging directly with fans on social media, not only about sports, but also sharing perspectives and personal stories. Brands that can weave themselves into an athlete’s real life in an authentic, relatable way, such as the Samsung-LeBron James example mentioned above, will win in the future. However, it’s important to remember that athletes are human, and brands need to be prepared for the good and bad inherent in these types of relationships. Brands that are successful in how they leverage and activate their relationships with athletes and their followers are not only planning ahead, but also ready to reassess and reinvent their plans in real time with speed.

The growing sports landscape gives brands a powerful means to engage billions of fans around the world. Next year will be another major event-filled year with the Summer Olympics in Brazil, the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl in San Francisco, and countless regional soccer matches, including the Euro Cup in France. To succeed in this increasingly complex landscape, brands must leverage these best practices to create relevant, real-time global, social and mobile marketing strategies to maximize their investments in sports and generate a healthy return.