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The Social Side of Sponsorship

Sports marketers take aim at activating fan engagement
  • January 30 2012

With brand marketers increasingly focusing on engagement, it’s no surprise that companies are turning to sports sponsorships to reach their most avid followers. But the rules have changed. It’s no longer simply a matter of putting up a sign in a stadium, placing an ad in a broadcast or tossing a logo on a car. Instead, marketers want to take greater advantage of the rich emotional attachments leagues, teams and athletes have with the fans that follow them.

Nowhere is this clearer than with social media, which has become the focus on how brands and teams are looking to create fully integrated fan activation. Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, location apps and mobile platforms seem almost custom-made for the obsessions and chatter of sports fans. These tools give them greater access to the leagues, teams and athletes they follow, while creating virtual camaraderie between far-flung individuals who share their passion. This passion is what brands want to leverage.

The New England Patriots, for example, boast about 3 million Facebook fans. But fan counts are just the start. During the football season, they use their Facebook page to host a “virtual tailgate” two hours prior to game time, giving Patriots fans a chance to interact and talk about the team, tweet in questions, and post their tailgate party pictures. The page is sponsored by JetBlue.

“Fans want three things: camaraderie, recognition and access,” says Pat Coyle, president of Coyle Media, an Indianapolis-based consulting company that works with sports teams and leagues to help them increase their revenue from digital channels. “Camaraderie comes from interacting with other fans. They want recognition from the team for their passion and loyalty. And access means they want to feel close to the team or the athlete. Social relates to all of that.”

At the same time, teams and leagues are turning to social platforms to learn more about their fans. With brands demanding greater accountability, social media gives teams and leagues a bigger window into fan demographics and psychographics,

While sponsorship dollars have long been a part of the economic story of sports, they are now seen as one of the biggest areas of growth. According to Changing the Game, a December 2011 forecast from PwC, global revenue from sponsorships will account for the largest share of the sports market’s $146 billion revenues in 2014, outstripping gate revenues, media rights and merchandising. It is also the fastest growing area—the global CAGR for sponsorship is expected to be 5.3 percent from 2011 to 2015, and for North America, that rate will be 6.1 percent.

In fact, many brands today spend up to two or three times as much on sponsorship activation as they do on rights fees, says Matt Wikstrom, VP of partnerships and business development at Wasserman Media Group, a sports marketing company. “As with all advertising, sponsorship dollars are intensely scrutinized for ROI,” he says. “You have to be really creative not only in how you build these partnerships, but how you activate them.”

 

Playing to Fan Passions

For teams and leagues, finding new models of sponsorship will be critical. With online tactics becoming more important, these sponsorships will be looking to go beyond traditional ad structures and get more deeply into areas that complement fan passions while helping to define brand attributes more clearly.

Consider McDonalds’ approach to the 2012 London Olympics. While the restaurant chain will have a significant presence at the games—including its biggest branch ever near the Olympic Park—its marketing and promotion will use swimming medalist Dara Torres to promote exercise and balanced eating through its “Champions of Play” initiative, which will take place in local markets, at a branded website and through special product packaging. Torres, meanwhile, uses her Twitter feed to communicate her McDonald’s relationship through tweets such as “Proud 2 be a part of the Olympic McFamily!”

More importantly, fans are turning to online and social media not as an alternative to watching a game or event in person or on television, but as a way to enhance the experience. They’re in-game multitaskers. An NBA fan may watch the game on TV while pulling up the box score online from ESPN, posting a highlight to Facebook and following tweets from fellow fans. The same can go on within the arena or stadium. For brands, this can provide the opportunity to enhance in-game messages or otherwise activate fans with related content.

With its active and loyal fan base, NASCAR has turned extensively to social and digital channels, and its sponsors are following suit. Taylor, in its consumer engagement survey of NASCAR fans, found that they now depend on social media and mobile devices to fuel their passion for the sport.

Two findings from the study stand out. First, digital media has overtaken traditional media for fans looking for news and information about NASCAR; 91 percent of fans surveyed said they visit NASCAR-related websites. Second, fan use of social and mobile media skyrocketed in the past 12 to 24 months. For example, 31 percent of fans in the 2011 survey regularly follow live race action on a mobile device, up from 6 percent in 2010, and 12 percent of fans now say they prefer to get updates on their favorite driver on Facebook, compared to only 1 percent who did so in 2009.

“We’re seeing multiscreen viewers participating through different media channels,” says Christian Alfonsi, EVP of strategic planning at Taylor. “If you’re not relevant in social and mobile content, you’re not relevant to the [NASCAR] audience of the future.”

Alfonsi adds that the loyalty of NASCAR fans extends to sponsor brands. For example, he says that in the Taylor study, 65 percent of those surveyed said they choose sponsor brands over those that are not sponsors of the sport, and among tech-savvy fans, those numbers are even higher.

 

Monetizing Sports Fan Traffic

Social and digital media have allowed leagues, teams and athletes to cut out the media middlemen and interact directly with their fans. They’re investing in creating content that brings fans closer, or in setting up “communities” that let fans interact. They understand that they need to provide a constant flow of valuable and interesting information to keep fans engaged, something their media partners have long done. Still, many are trying to figure out how to monetize the social media and digital traffic they’re getting.

“The sports brands that have done a good job understand that to increase the value of their assets, they need to find the optimal mix of content,” says Ari Osur, principal analyst at Forrester Research covering interactive marketing and former director of relationship marketing for the NBA. “Once they have the followers, they’ll find it easier to monetize it.”

Madison Square Garden, for example, has put together community sites for both the New York Knicks (Knicks Now) and the New York Rangers (Blueshirts United) that are designed as destinations for their fans. Fans are driven from Facebook (where the Knicks have more than 1.3 million fans) and other social media outlets to these sites, which house a continually updated flow of articles, videos, scouting reports, photos, contests and fan comments. The sites also have experienced sports writers—in the case of the Rangers, former New York Times reporter and New York Islanders play-by-play man Jim Cerny—contributing articles and insights. But the sites themselves don’t have sponsorships…yet. It’s still all about fan activation.

That’s not to say that brands aren’t using social media to activate sports-themed promotions. Shirtmaker Van Heusen sponsored the first “fans choice” voting for the Football Hall of Fame, making social media the hub of that 2010 campaign. Although the fan vote did not count toward the official selection, fans had never before been given this type of megaphone to be heard by the Hall, and it spurred a great amount of passionate debate and dialog, according to Mary Scott, general manager of Matter, Edelman Sports & Entertainment Marketing. In 2011, having built up credibility with sports fans through the fans choice sponsorship, Van Heusen created the “Institute of Style” campaign, incorporating hall-of-famers Jerry Rice, Steve Young and Deion Sanders as paradigms of manly fashion.

“I think social media has peeled away the layers of the onion of the sports world. We want to get close to athletes and teams,” Scott says. Still, she says brands need to hold on to their part of the bargain when it comes to using social to interact with fans. “Sports consumers are savvy; they don’t want to be sold to. This all gives brand marketers an opportunity to create compelling content. It has to be a value-add for the consumer.”