Whether it’s individual athletes, teams, leagues, promotions or brands, the sports industry has been forced to adapt and change over the last 18 months, with many of the innovations we have seen fast-tracked as a result of the pandemic set to stay for the long term. As we emerge from a post covid era, the sports world will look vastly different.
But what changes have we seen across the sports industry and how are brands and rights holders adapting to accommodate the new reality?
No doubt this will be a topic discussed and debated at length at the Leaders in Sport conference which returns in physical form at Twickenham Stadium this week. I will be attending to hear the insights being shared by leaders from across the global sports ecosystem, but in advance of the event, I thought I’d share some of my own observations about the trends that are here to stay.
The shift from physical to digital activations
The pandemic has changed the nature of partnerships and brand activations and accelerated digital transformation across sports. The shift from physical to digital activations has perhaps been one of the most significant changes we have seen. With events being held behind closed doors for so long, rights holders needed to innovate – and fast – to find meaningful ways to still be able to reach and connect with their fans.
As a result, we have seen an increased amount of innovation and creativity in this space. For example, Vodafone conducted the world’s first 5G shirt signing which meant that Rugby fans in the UK were connected with Lions players 8,000 miles away in South Africa, creating a unique fan experience.
Although physical activations will continue to return and take up their rightful place as a fan activation and engagement tactic, the digital elements will undoubtedly be here to stay.
Athletes as influencers
Athlete brand partnerships and the power of social media have become an incredibly important combination in the last couple of years. Throughout the last 18 months, athletes have demonstrated their unique ability to engage with large followings and galvanise support by operating as a direct line of communication with fans and followers. Many athlete influencers have used the opportunity to speak out about the issues that are important to them. Brands and sponsors, therefore, have had to adapt quickly, and the authenticity of those relationships between brand and athlete have started to be scrutinised more closely. The brands that get this right – partnering with the right athlete, who can help them deliver the right message, to the right audience – will continue to reap the rewards. Whilst the pitfalls for those that get it wrong will become bigger and more damaging.
Entering the world of e-sports
The popularity of E-sports – already well on the rise – became a topic of debate for the mainstream media during the early stages of the pandemic when ‘real world’ competition had ceased across the board. Whether it was the NFL virtual draft, the launch of the Formula One Virtual e-series or the inaugural ePremier League, viewership numbers and fan engagement with e-sports reached record highs, particularly amongst the highly sought after millennial and Gen Z audiences.
As a result, we’ve seen major blue-chip brands from multiple sectors investing in sponsorship deals and sports that now don’t have a virtual offering may be questioning why they don’t. The evolution of immersive technologies as traditional sports evolve into virtual offerings will see them become part of the regular sporting calendar moving forward.
To conclude, the pandemic has fundamentally altered the ways in which brands and sponsors activate their partnerships, as well as having accelerated digital transformation across sports. Fan behaviour has shifted significantly in the new environment, and this has led to all brands and rights holders taking a fresh, innovative look at how they operate and engage meaningfully with consumers. It has also opened a door on to what can be made possible and achieved when the circumstances are demanding enough. Certainly food for thought as we look ahead to what is sure to be another disruptive decade within the sports industry.
If you’re speaking or attending the event and interested to discuss how you can raise awareness of your sports brand, then get in touch with us today.