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The future of sports in a digital world


November 19, 2020

Why the sports industry should have hope

Like so many industries, the impact of COVID-19 on professional sport has been a seismic one. Most notably, the memory of fans in stadiums across much of Europe is becoming a distant one. We seem to have been in this parallel world for so many months, that the thought of thousands of people inside a stadium is sometimes difficult to imagine. As if the idea of fans, colour and noise reverberating around a sports event was some kind of dream.

As a result, making money in the sports industry has suddenly moved from being important to absolutely critical – in many cases just to ensure their existence. But from this, there is reason for real hope and optimism. Particularly in sports whose revenues are heavily weighted towards monies received at the gate, organisations are starting to have to think more creatively than ever before, as they set about recouping lost revenues.

The short-term will undoubtedly be difficult, but here at Hoxby we are positive this new innovative spirit will serve the industry well in the longer term. And while the sports world was already headed in this direction, the pace of change has been significantly increased in response to the global crisis.

Leveraging digital opportunities

The richest opportunity presenting itself to sports clubs, leagues and federations is granting access to their inner workings and athletes’ untold stories to their fanbases. It’s widely recognised that sports organisations are in a unique position of being able to deliver highly valuable behind-the-scenes video content to engage and interact with their audiences.

The real power of video here is its ability to bring people closer to what they love, which it can do in a highly emotive way. Fans are desperate for a glimpse behind the curtain – for example inside the dressing room, training sessions, team meetings, or going on a virtual training run with a player. When it’s done right, sport can be an extremely visual storytelling industry which has the ability to capture attention like no other.

We’ll now start to see sports bodies think more as brands. Not only that, but they’ll quickly have to take the next step of monetising their reach and engagement to generate direct revenue. This is a pathway that’s open to each of them by leveraging their digital channels and online communities. The beauty of digital is that it offers ways to be creative, to engage people and to access fanbases that weren’t possible ten years ago. And the sports industry is now on a mission to catch up with other sectors, such as retail and lifestyle, which have eclipsed it in recent times.

Even with the lack of live events this year, everything from a smart TV to a Google Speaker should be seen by sports bodies as a chance to connect with the audience because, quite simply, people are consuming more digital media in their daily lives than ever before.

Digital provides opportunities to interact with audiences, create engagement for brand partners, and convert that attention into purchasing behaviour. Sports bodies, now more than ever, will be laser-focused on this as a way of creating more sustained and diversified sources of revenue.

Sponsorship marketing 2.0

Brand partnerships (often known as ‘sponsorship’) continues to represent a considerable proportion of commercial revenues in the sports world and was estimated to total £35 billion in 2019. But this particular area has been under increasing threat in recent years, as brand partners have come to expect direct returns on their marketing investments, and also as competition has increased for audience attention.

Until recently, the approach to ‘selling’ to potential brand partners (and also crucially, keeping existing ones) in sport had always been more of an art than a science, largely reliant on traditional media values via broadcast exposure. Brands were essentially trying to ‘buy’ the sports brand’s audience by association, but without any clearly measurable outcomes. That has now changed. Any sports bodies that continue to go to market with a ‘traditional’ sponsorship package of perimeter-board branding and hospitality will be faced with a lot of questions from brands – it’s simply not enough.

The advent of sponsorship in a digital world has brought about a refreshing and fundamental shift in selling ‘business growth’ outcomes to partners, which provide a tangible and measurable return-on-investment. This doesn’t just mean handing over ‘X’ number of posts a month to a sponsor. With a sophisticated digital performance-marketing approach, both the brand partner and the sports body can acquire more fans and convert them into paying customers; taking them on that well-known journey from awareness to consideration, and engagement to conversion. Sports bodies are in a great position to create meaningful value and affect the bottom line of their brand partners – whether that’s direct or indirect revenue, such as test drives, database sign-ups, or app downloads.

It’s well known that you need to engage people before you start selling something to them. The beauty for sports entities is it’s something they’re exceptionally good at because of the incredible content they can produce.

Striking a relationship with social media

Ah, the old adage of “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them”. For all the reasons already discussed, social media is a critical part of any modern-day sponsorship activation campaign. More media is consumed on social platforms now than on any other type of platform.

What social media also does, however, is potentially open the door to non-partner brands and target your fanbase without paying you a penny. This makes it even more important for sports bodies to build compelling rights packages for brands that make it attractive to become an official partner.

The key to this is providing brands with those content and access privileges, combined with the ability for them to target the sports organisation’s audiences via its official channels.

Sports bodies naturally have a fantastic platform through which to speak to consumers with huge levels of passion and commitment. This affiliation puts them in a position of strength, compared to banks and insurance companies, for instance, who might otherwise think about going it alone.

Can the sport industry afford it?

The catch-22 facing sports organisations is whether – after the most difficult year in living memory – they have the resources to invest in the new approach required to generate these increased revenue streams. Indeed, tough decisions are being made right now by sports organisations – in terms of restructuring and futureproofing – so they are resourced in ways to take advantage of future revenue generation opportunities.

The good news is that – working with knowledgeable, experienced and creative partners - it doesn’t need to cost the earth. The vast majority of organisations are already sitting on a wealth of existing assets that can be efficiently repurposed and ‘sold’ to brands. And gains in technology mean that even new, high-quality content for sports marketing doesn’t need to break the bank. As long as the content output is relevant to fans and brings them closer to what they’re interested in, the nature of sport means that a highly engaged, passionate and loyal audience is almost guaranteed, which in turn will be attractive to brands.

Spending effectively to engage

On a similar note – whether it’s social media, paid search or programmatic – the key to digital marketing is to engage audiences at scale in the most effective and efficient way; and with clear objectives and targets. As long as you’re clear on the audience you want to target who are most likely to buy, you can approach them at the right times. Using targeted messaging for different groups, you’ll see your cost per acquisition (CPA) drop significantly.

Brand partners care most about accessing engaged audiences at scale – so rich data about these audiences will help to target them and achieve the outcomes they’re seeking. This provides big commercial opportunities.

How the future of sports looks

Beyond the increased leverage of content, in 2021 we also expect to see sports organisations adopt more of a direct-to-consumer relationship with fans as they look to harvest first party data of their own. Depending on the organisation and their priorities, this could take the form of: ‘supporter club’ membership and subscription customer relationship management models, the building out of e-commerce retail offerings, hosting virtual events, and launching of over-the-top channels where fans pay for premium content.

Once fans are finally back in stadia, we’ll undoubtedly start to see organisations taking a much more sophisticated approach to using digital platforms and data to increase revenues on match-days – whether that’s more tickets, more merchandise, or more food and drinks sold.

How can Hoxby Sports Marketing help?

Whether you’re a brand looking for ROI from your sports partnership, or you’re a sports organisation looking for audience, database or revenue growth – we can help.

Hoxby’s digital marketing, commercial and content experts are highly experienced in delivering sophisticated digital campaigns, including:

  • Creative campaign concepts
  • Premium video content
  • Converting fans into customers, e.g. tickets, subscriptions, retail
  • Paid social media campaigns
  • SEO and paid search
  • Programmatic
  • Building custom dashboards to house a client’s performance data across media channels

Read more about our work at Hoxby and get in touch at if you’re looking for an innovative approach to your sport marketing challenges.

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