Leaders 2017: The Future of Sports is Already Here

“Technology will literally impact every aspect of sport,” Swansea City FC’s Steve Kaplan declared at a Leaders Week chock-full of provocative content and endless networking. And while technology and its disruptive impact on the sports industry is now a table-stakes theme for all of us, leaders in sport beat three drums repeatedly whether onstage or in conversation: value-driven sponsorship, data-driven business, and fan-driven content.

Partnership in Sponsorship

Sponsorship came up in just about every conversation at Leaders 17. For rights-holders and agencies that depend on sponsorship as a revenue stream, Leaders sessions delivered plenty of insights to leverage. Sir Martin Sorrell did not mince words in the opening panel at Leaders: “A rights-holder’s biggest challenge moving forward is in its ability to provide clarity on ROI through sponsorship.”

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Excerpt from Brilliant's 5 Love Languages

Kevin Brilliant, Business Strategy and Analytics Senior Manager at the Chicago Bulls, delivered the zinger, given that Billy Beane had been honored the evening prior and was set to speak the following day: “[Sports] sponsorship today is where baseball was just before Moneyball was published … Impressions for sponsorship measurement is sort of like batting average in baseball. It isn’t that it isn’t important. It’s just not as important as you think.” Instead, Brilliant focused on how we can engage with fans, with a clever play on the 5 Love Languages to explain how we can approach fans based on their needs vs. ours.

Brilliant advocates for immersive, relevant yet unconscious brand exposure as the holy grail for the fan, the rights holder and the sponsor—to go beyond logo placement and incentive offers to achieve a sense of shared identity. Or as Werner Brell of Samsung put it, “The right ad at the right place at the right time is not an ad—it’s content.” But usually, it does not happen this way.

Fan-Centric Content & the Data-Driven Organization

So, how does it happen? Stephanie McMahon, Chief Brand Officer of WWE, shared an impressive brand and content strategy that’s fan-driven and fan-sourced, with the WWE’s status as the second most viewed YouTube channel in the world as proof-positive for this approach. The packed crowd leaned in to to hear how WWE became the 5th largest streaming platform, and how their shift from broadcast to OTT equipped them to better understand their fan base. Leveraging the OTT platform, WWE was able to move beyond traditional Nielsen ratings and track when fans are watching, what device they’re using, how long they are watching—and what content they prefer.

Stephanie McMahon at Leaders 2017

McMahon’s team monitored Twitter activity and saw an initial outcry for more screen time and higher wages for WWE women wrestlers turn into a 3-day trending #GiveDivasaChance campaign. What began as a potentially negative sentiment morphed into fan social engagement that delivered fan-based content programming and ultimately, a new revenue stream for WWE and a way to collect more data about their fans.

McMahon’s strategy was a perfect lead-in to a packed house of sport professionals eager to hear about “The Future of Sports Sponsorships” from brands like DHL, Pepsico and Rakuten. The biggest risks and challenges for brands in sponsor partnerships? According to Mark Kirkham: complacency.

Rahul Kadavokolu of Rakuten offered, “It’s not just about storytelling, it’s about storydoing.” Fiona Taag of DHL asked for partnerships with sport organizations to address the “fragmentation of consumption” by fans, and to create relevant content across channels.

A telling moment was when Taag asked the audience how many had up-to-date data on fans. She counted the hands and pointed to the difficulty in initiating or continuing sponsorship investment when sport organizations can’t provide current data about their fans interests, affinities and engagement.

The Future Is Here

While Kevin Brilliant compared sponsorship to pre-Moneyball baseball, the statistics that Billy Beane used were being put into practice long before the book.

As Umbel CEO Lisa Pearson wrote earlier this year, “the data is out there, waiting for those willing to put in the effort to collect and use it. Fan loyalty gives sports marketers an advantage, but will only take them so far if they take it for granted…Those who embrace fan data in order to engage fans both present and future will be unstoppable in the competition for fans’ wallets.”

As attendees heard throughout Leaders, organizations are putting data to work today, and neither brands nor sports organizations can afford to wait for the book to be written, but need to start writing it themselves.

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