How sport sponsorship is joining the digital age
As fans consume more digital content, sponsors need high-tech strategies that don’t neglect traditional supporters.
“The audience that we’re reaching has changed massively,” says O2’s head of sports sponsorship Gareth Griffiths. “At the last Ruby World Cup in 2011 we had a campaign that involved delivering a pie and a pint to people’s homes at 8am because the games were on at that time. Our activation for 2015 is all about virtual reality technology and allowing people to experience a training session with the England rugby team. We’ve gone from pies and pints to Oculus Rift in the space of four years.”
Griffiths’ example neatly sums up a shift that has brought technology to a tipping point in sport sponsorship, with stadiums finally becoming internet-enabled and digital experiences no longer an optional extra. Brands seeking to associate themselves with this year’s big sporting occasions – including the imminent climax of the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League football or Britain’s hosting of The Ashes cricket and the Rugby World Cup – must consider how their audiences are evolving and re-evaluate their favoured channels.
“We’ve gone from pies and pints to Oculus Rift in the space of four years.”
Gareth Griffiths, O2
For example, the latest Know Your Fan report produced jointly by Perform Group, Kantar Media and SportBusiness, shows that the proportion of British fans using mobile to consume sports content has grown markedly in recent years, from 21% in 2011 to 39% in 2014, while the proportion using social media to follow sport has grown from 13% to 26%.
This correlates with a trend that is even more pronounced in emerging markets such as India, Brazil and Russia, where 85%, 81% and 76% of fans respectively consume sports content online. Yet this digital surge is not at the expense of any other channel. TV remains by far the most popular medium, with 94% of sports fans globally and 95% in Britain using it to watch sport.
Other traditional media have shown similar resilience, with 59% of British fans following sport via the print media last year – virtually the same proportion as in 2011 (58%). This suggests that while digital channels are helping sponsors to reach new audiences, both demographically and geographically, they are supplementing rather than replacing tried and tested platforms.
Nick Keller, chairman of Sport Industry Group, believes cross-media strategies are helping sport sponsors to engage with fans more directly and show return on investment (ROI) more clearly. His organisation runs the BT Sport Industry Awards, an annual awards event for commercial achievements in sport that is taking place in London next week (30 April). O2, BMW, Marriott Hotels and Mars are among the brands nominated in the sponsorship categories.
“The market has moved on dramatically and thrived within the digital age,” claims Keller. “Sport is really benefiting from the segmentation [that digital affords], from the ability to understand what people’s tastes are and what they are passionate about, and from the ability to measure and monitor.”
Capturing the imagination
O2’s new tagline for its partnership with the England Rugby team – ‘Wear the Rose’ – aims to combine the traditional call to arms of a sponsorship activation with the brand’s heightened focus on technology. In one sense the positioning, unveiled before the Six Nations in February, is a simple message aimed at encouraging fans to get behind the team. In another sense, though, it refers to people’s ability to don the England kit in the digital world by immersing themselves in O2’s new virtual reality experience.
Fans attending matches at Twickenham stadium during the Six Nations had the opportunity to try it out, using an Oculus Rift headset to place them into a virtual training session with the England rugby team. O2 has since embarked on a tour of the country with the technology in order to take advantage of the public’s interest in rugby as the World Cup approaches. Griffiths says around 15,000 people have already tried it.
“The Wear the Rose tour will intensify in the months leading up to the World Cup, encouraging people to get behind the team and also giving them the opportunity to try out this world-first,” he declares. “No one had done anything like this before with this technology.”
Social media has also helped O2 to extend the reach of its sponsorship activations, particularly during tournaments when interest in rugby extends beyond hardcore fans to a broader demographic. The brand recently installed Wi-Fi at Twickenham and is currently testing beacon technology in order to deepen its engagement with fans, though its activities at the stadium will be limited during the World Cup by the fact it is not a tournament sponsor.
Griffiths insists that in addition to its technology deployments, O2 seeks to cater to its base of steadfast rugby fans by running promotions through its Priority loyalty scheme, and will continue to offer a pie and a pint to fans in the stadium car park on match day. “We’d never step away from the heartland of rugby – we know that audience really well and they know us,” he says.
During a panel discussion on ‘The changing face of the sports fan’ at Advertising Week Europe last month, YouTube vlogger Olajide Olatunji – also known as KSI – argued that young people’s sports consumption habits are shifting dramatically in favour of short, sharp bursts of online content. “Often I won’t sit and watch entire [football] matches,” he said. “A lot of the time I’ll just go onto Twitter or Vine to watch the goals or the highlights.”
Olatunji, who has over 9 million YouTube subscribers, warned that sponsors and advertisers will fail if they try to sell to fans too directly. Instead he argued that brands should seek to tune into the conversations young fans are already having and create content that they want to share. His arguments are borne out by the Know Your Fan report, which shows that 50% of British sports fans consuming content on mobile are under 35 years of age, versus just 27% who are 45 or older.
Also on the panel was Heineken’s global sponsorship manager Tim Ellerton, who said that the brand’s online activations around its Champions League sponsorship are primarily limited to match nights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when fan interest is high and the brand is able to drive home its association with the competition. This includes bringing in high-profile footballers to run Heineken’s Twitter feed for the evening in order to engage more fans.
“We don’t want to create stuff that the broadcasters can do,” said Ellerton. “People often say to us ‘we can build an app for you that offers x and y’, but why would fans go to Heineken for that? We don’t want to compete with the broadcasters.”
Judging when to engage with fans and when to take a step back is a delicate balancing act for sponsors (see ‘More than a badge’ box, below). BMW’s general manager of sports marketing Peter Walker says one of the car marque’s core concerns during its sponsorship of the Ryder Cup last September was to enhance golf fans’ overall enjoyment of the event. This included catering for visitors through its own facilities at the venue, while for people watching at home it focused on providing real-time updates and exclusive content on social media.
Last year’s tournament was the brand’s most successful social media campaign for a sporting event, resulting in 11,000 website visits and over 500 product leads. BMW also made use of RFID (radio-frequency identification) wristbands given to visitors by the event organisers to encourage prospective customers to quickly swipe next to one of their venue promotions for the chance to take a test drive and win a car.
“The car is not an FMCG product, so it takes time between people expressing an interest at an event like this and then purchasing,” notes Walker. “An interaction on social media is just the start of a conversation but to get that many leads was very pleasing.”
New forms of fan engagement are also helping sport sponsors to reach consumers in different geographical markets. Since its inception, the global reach of the Premier League, which is followed by an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide, has attracted brands seeking to expand into new markets. With the added impact of digital media, brands are now able to localise their activations to different countries and create a wide range of online content in partnership with rights holders.
Liverpool Football Club, which has approximately 40 million social media followers globally, has partnered with a number of brands seeking to reach consumers in new territories. In January 2014 the club agreed a sponsorship deal with US snack brand Dunkin’ Donuts, while in February this year it became Nivea Men’s first partner in the Premier League. Liverpool’s commercial standing has improved significantly since Fenway Sports Group acquired the club in 2010, with sponsorship deals playing a major role in the strategy (see Q&A with Liverpool FC’s CCO Billy Hogan).
Billy Hogan, chief commercial officer at Liverpool FC, confirms that one of the club’s key metrics for measuring ROI from a sponsorship deal is digital engagement. “It’s great to say you have huge numbers [on social media] but if you’re not engaging with them it’s hard to make it work for anybody,” he says. “We see it as a big opportunity and so we do a lot of activations and campaigns with our partners, both regionally and globally.”
He adds that there is a mutual commitment to ensure partnerships promote both of the brands involved, with sponsors not only working towards their own marketing aims but also helping Liverpool to expand its fanbase. The deal with Nivea Men, for example, includes a TV ad starring players Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Simon Mingolet in which the Liverpool team crest appears in parity alongside the Nivea Men logo in the final frame.
“We rely on our partners to help bring the club closer to our fans,” says Hogan. “Having both brands on screen at the end is an important visualisation of our belief that a partnership should involve both sides helping each other.”
The All England Lawn Tennis Club similarly seeks to form partnerships that help to amplify the worldwide appeal of the Wimbledon tournament. Commercial director Mick Desmond explains that the club’s partners, which include IBM, Rolex and Lavazza, are global brands selected on the basis that they have strong reach, prestige and credibility.
This week Jaguar was named Wimbledon’s first official car partner in a three-year deal, but Desmond says the All England Club is not looking to continually add more brand partners in a similar fashion to some football clubs. “We don’t seek to have a long tail of partners,” he says.
“We have 13 official supply partners as we call them and the very reason that we have such strong partnerships – Rolex has been with us for over 30 years, for example, and IBM for 25 – is because partners know that they have that exclusivity.”
Wimbledon has a strict policy against allowing advertising boards on its courts or grounds and instead focuses on creating content with its official supply partners. This is disseminated by the partners but also through Wimbledon’s own channels, including its website, online TV channel and social media feeds. Such platforms allow the event to continue pushing into new territories.
“Wimbledon is already a huge global brand – we’re in 200 territories worldwide and it’s growing,” he says. “But while we have many mature markets, the emerging markets are becoming much more critical to us, so we want to work with partners that have that global reach.”
More than a badge: making the most of sponsorship
Football fans with keen eyes will have noticed that imprinted into the kit numbers of each of the Football League’s 72 teams this year is the image of a tiny man – the ‘man of men’ logo of charity Prostate Cancer UK.
This partnership began with the charity’s agreement to appear as the main kit sponsor for Championship club Millwall FC during the 2013-14 season. The deal, for which Prostate Cancer UK paid no fee, came about after Millwall chief executive Andy Ambler decided the club needed to improve its reputation following problems with fan violence.
The Millwall deal has led to a nomination for Prostate Cancer UK at the BT Sport Industry Awards next week (30 April), as well as to the wider – and again free – tie-up with the Football League this season. Director of fundraising Mark Bishop says the charity gained extra donations of around £400,000 from its football activities last season.
“Some of the best things are deeper and more instinctive,” he adds. “When men go to watch the Football League they are seeing our logo – not just on the players’ shirt numbers but on replica shirts being worn by fans all around the grounds.”
Rapid Retail, which provides merchandise kiosks to some of the UK’s biggest sporting venues, argues that brands could go further in communicating their messages by making more use of the areas outside stadia. Managing director Nick Daffern suggests that “more progressive venues” are starting to look at providing ‘fan zones’ and meeting areas where event, club or sponsor brands can engage fans with promotions and experiential marketing campaigns.
“With some Premier League shirt sponsors you see the name and logo but often haven’t got a clue what some of them do or sell,” he says.