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Sports Marketing Gets Digital Boost

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SAN FRANCISCO As the recent hoopla over soccer star David Beckham and the Tour de France doping scandal shows, the coverage and marketing of sports is an increasingly global phenomenon, thanks in no small part to the Internet. And as online sports content grows, becoming not just more global but more social, it is creating new online opportunities for marketers, according to an eMarketer study released last week.

The report, "Sport Site Marketing: A Whole New Ballgame," by senior analyst Paul Verna, noted that sports marketers have traditionally used TV and event sponsorships to reach audiences as both a distribution platform and ad medium. But digital media's strengths in social interaction and niche marketing, as well as its international reach, will become increasingly important, the study said.

"Sports marketers can learn from the Beckham phenomenon," said Verna. "Online communication allowed the whole world to share in the explosion of interest around him. Brands can learn from that how to feed the hype machine through viral marketing." The Internet also has "amplified the profile" of the Tour de France, as well as its scandals, he added.

One emerging area of opportunity is targeting fans on TV and the Web simultaneously. About 58 percent of fans watching a game on TV are also using their mobile devices for instant messaging, e-mailing, text messaging or talking on the phone, the study found. In addition, research shows that these multi-taskers are more engaged and have better recall of the ads they see than the viewers who are only watching the game, the report said. This provides an opportunity to engage fans using multiple media at the same time.

Two offshoot industries will also provide opportunities for new digital sports marketing: video games and fantasy sports. Both are creating new opportunities for sponsorships and content deals, according to the report. For instance, ESPN partnered with game developer Skyworks Technologies in June 2007 to launch ESPN Arcade, which is expected to launch 40 ad-supported videogame titles. In another example, videogame developer Electronic Arts is making moves into the fantasy sports arena. In June 2007, EA unveiled a free ad-supported fantasy football service to extend its Madden NFL videogame, the study reports.

The study cited the Superbowl, long considered the annual highlight of sports marketing opportunities, as representative of how the landscape is shifting. Super Bowl TV ads posted on MySpace, AOL and YouTube drew significant traffic in 2007 and as a result the Fox network is offering media buyers ad packages for the 2008 Superbowl that include a presence on sister company MySpace along with their TV spots, according to the study.

The study also found that the decentralization of digital sports content and marketing would allow for more deals across more brands in coming years. The study points to the June 2007 accord that the National Basketball Association struck with Disney and Time Warner, providing those media companies with television coverage and expansive digital rights for NBA events. This approach is a shift from the digital strategy used by Major League Baseball, for example. MLB.com, launched in 1999, created a single Web destination that combines game content, statistics, news, fantasy sport functions, message boards and voting pools for the league. The NBA example represents a shift toward a less centralized model, which would spread its content across more of the Web, thereby creating more advertising opportunities.

But even with the new digital innovations, online sports marketing will continue to live in the shadow of TV advertising for the near future, because fans still prefer to watch games with friends on large HDTV screens, said Verna. Indeed, the eMarketer study showed that ad revenues at sport-related Web sites would represent 10 percent of all sports marketing spending by 2011 (up from 4.9 percent last year), which is proportional with the Internet's projected piece of the overall ad pie by that date (13.6 percent compared with 5.9 percent in 2006).

Smart marketers will leverage their traditional TV ads on sporting events with many of these digital options, said Verna.

"Compared to TV, the Internet offers sports-related brands more active user engagement and new media channels. Companies should take advantage of the strengths of each [platform]," said Verna.

The top three sports sites among U.S. Internet users are ESPN, Yahoo Sports and Fox Sports on MSN, followed by the NFL Internet Group and the MLB.com, according to eMarketer and comScore.