Digital has changed sport forever. The biggest challenge facing sports brands is how to use digital to maximize the value from sponsorship programs over and above traditional measures of success, such as awareness and impressions. Building a true sporting ‘Brand Legacy’ beyond just awareness is becomingly increasingly important. Sports brands need to be able to justify the rising costs in sporting rights, combat audience and customer fragmentation. On top of this, they need to overcome the prohibitive law of sports sponsorship activation, which can cost twice as much as the rights themselves. Brands need to put fan participation at the heart of their objectives, and thus make the shift from the attention to the participation economy.

In order for sports brands to do this, we recommend that they follow two key principles for success:

1. Invest more in owned media and leverage fan participation so you don’t have to buy your media, you can earn it.

2. Build out from the ‘live’ sporting engagement moment to effectively drive fan participation.

These principles will govern the shift from the attention to the participation economy. But before we look at them in greater detail, let’s consider the four major themes that are emerging in the changing world of sport.

1 – Fans: The shift from ‘Story Telling’ to ‘Story Participation’ in sport
The biggest events in social media are ‘live’ sporting events. Two of the top-ten ‘Tweets-Per-Second’ moments are football events, eg: UEFA Champions League and the Final of the Women’s World Cup ’11. This demonstrates a fundamental shift in how people engage with sports. Fans are no longer passive recipients of an armchair experience, but are now a fully contributing part of how these sporting dramas play out.

2 – TV / Broadcasters: Financial value is increasingly about the ‘live’, social and multiscreen entertainment experience
TV / Entertainment Broadcasters are investing heavily in new platforms to enhance the viewing experience. Broadcasters are increasingly looking to create new financial value around the ‘LIVE’ engagement opportunity (live game). Sky has been particularly aggressive in this space with the development of new platforms that help enhance the viewing experience, for example the SKY GO platform and their investment in Zeebox, a second screen social TV platform. As second screen and micro payment opportunities evolve, more and more clients will look to utilize live engagement opportunities for financial gain.

3 – Clubs / Owners: Helping fans get closer to the players and action to maximize potential revenue streams
Despite a record price for the recent sale of the Premier League TV rights, it is increasingly difficult for clubs to increase profits. Whether it’s the saturation of stadium capacity limiting potential match day revenues, or the increasing costs associated with players’ wages, clubs are increasingly looking to the digital space to drive new financial opportunities. Given the celebrity status of footballers (and athletes), and the ability for digital technology to connect people in ways that weren’t possible 10 years ago, it is no surprise that more and more clubs are looking to help fans ‘get closer’ to players, staff, clubs’ stories and histories. Of course these are all in an attempt to generate new revenue streams. For example, Manchester City’s deal with YouTube to broadcast online video footage is a direct attempt to use unique video content to drive desirability and interest to build their fan base. Similarly, brands such as Nike are more and more directly engaging with players to enhance their marketing activity. This can sometimes backfire, as demonstrated by Nike’s “Make it count” campaign, which was banned after the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that tweets made by Wayne Rooney on behalf of Nike did not clearly state they were adverts.

The real challenge however, is that if clubs and owners don’t adapt to this new commercial opportunity, the players themselves will ultimately drive the exclusion of clubs and owners. David Beckham is the archetypal example of a footballer super brand, and others are now following in his footsteps. For example, Rio Ferdinand has recently launched his “♯5” style brand and uses fashion clothing and magazine editorial platforms to capitalize on his celebrity brand status.

4 – Marketers: Shifting from sport campaign messages to sporting brand experiences
There has been a shift in recent years in how marketers have conducted their activity around sports. Whether it has been Adidas “Take the stage”, Nike’s “Make it count” or Coca-Cola’s FIFA ’10 “Longest celebration” campaign, we are increasingly seeing brands looking to build more participatory executions. The value these types of brand experiences offer is not only in the fan engagement they can drive, but also in their cumulative effect. As we shift in to an ‘always-on’ world, brands can no longer afford to be driven by a campaign mentality alone, with dependencies on disposable and expensive bought media. Instead, a ‘brand experience’ approach allows marketers to continuously engage audiences over time, adding incremental reach as well as deeper engagement.


Through technology, fans have never been so close to sport, and yet in some ways they have never been so far. To capitalize on this and to create value from sports sponsorship in the digital age, brands should look to put participation at the heart of their objectives, and thus make the shift from the attention to the participation economy.

This brings us back to the two key principles for success, which businesses should follow to drive participation.

Invest more in owned media to leverage fan participation so you don’t have to buy your media, you can simply earn it:

- Invest more in long-term owned media than short-term bought. Generate earned media through fan participation and fuel not only sports activations, but also wider business programs (acquisition, e-commerce, content generation, retention, business intelligence, data insight and customer preferences). For example, Foot Locker’s Sneakerpedia platform is a great example of a brand investing in owned media to harness the passion and enthusiasm of sneaker fans for business benefits.

- Sport can give a brand something interesting to say and talk about with its customers long-term. Done well, it can drive earned media effectiveness, allowing brands to not only move towards a more authentic type of communication, but also a more cost effective one. Thus, breaking dependencies on expensive and disposable bought media-led strategies to fuel conversation.

Establishing a program for how to use sport to drive earned media conversations with and between fans, and identifying how and where to incorporate this across wider business programs (i.e. acquisition, CRM) is the first step to capitalizing on the participation economy.

Build out from the ‘live’ sporting engagement opportunity to effectively drive fan participation

- Build out from the ‘live ‘sporting moment to create maximum fan relevancy and engagement, as the live moment is when fans are at their most passionate and enthusiastic. Identify fans’ needs, and use the framework to plot relevant approaches to help ensure not only active, but also mass, and on-going fan participation.

Figure 2: The ‘live’ and extended engagement opportunity space:

There are three potential approaches sports brands can use to maximize the ‘live’ engagement opportunity:

1. Broaden fan engagement
2. Deepen fan engagement
3. Extend (pre or post) fan engagement

Sports brands can look to digital technologies as a means of broadening the appeal of the ‘live’ event experience, helping to amplify the intensity and awareness of ‘live’ moments. Extending fans’ engagement to include other fans will open up experiences to the widest audience possible.

Alternatively, sports brands may wish to consider more of a ‘lean forward’ strategy and look to deepen fan engagement. Use the ‘live’ moment to draw fans deeper into experiences and empower them to contribute and add to it. For some fans and some sports however, drawing fans’ attention away from the ‘live’ moment can become a negative, and it is important that clients find the right balance between ‘lean forward’ and ‘lean back’ strategies when trying to extend fan engagement.

All true sports fans are driven by hope and belief, and as such the moments leading up to, and directly after, the ‘live’ event can be exceptionally fertile areas for brands to extend fan engagement. As fans begin to prepare and plan for a sporting event, brands have the opportunity to directly engage them in the build up hype; from stoking fan rivalries through social, to enhancing the lead up experience on the way to and in the stadium through mobile and digital outdoor technologies. However, it is the immediate moments after the event itself that are often the most social, as fans discuss, debate and relive the events and drama. Leveraging this innate desire to talk about the event and looking for ways to carry on the conversation are key, as are planning for the ‘transitions’ between events which help build up continued momentum and fan engagement overtime.

Lessons learnt from these two key principles will help sports brands make the transition from the attention to participation economy. By doing so, brands can ensure they use digital to their best advantage, creating genuine value for fans, and bringing transformational value for the wider business. Ultimately, this will help brands to guarantee a genuine sporting ‘Brand Legacy’ for their business through sports sponsorship.

Author: Andrew Gregoris is a Senior Strategic Planner SapientNitro.

The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Digital Sport.

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