5 Ways Marketers Need to Rethink Their Approach to Sports Partnerships

Strategies to get brands on the field with today's consumers

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Sports are inherently nostalgic. We all share memories of that game-winning play or agonizing defeat. These moments never leave us. They become a part of our lives.

Greg D'Alba Illustration: Alex Fine

With this emotional power as a backdrop—and in a world where interruptive campaigns are losing to invited content—sporting events have an advantage. They play an influential role in shaping our beliefs and values at an early age, and activating against them helps form the ultimate emotional connections with consumers.

The best sports marketers help create those connections. From Red Bull's transformation into a media company to (our client) Visa's 27-plus years supporting Olympians through stories that pack an emotional punch, the brands that win enable unique experiences and provide access to content that stands out from the norm and is social by design.

Unfortunately, too many of today's sports marketers remain content with traditional tactics. Chasing quantifiable metrics, we follow the formula of classic sponsorships and media that is priced by CPM. We endorse programmatic buying as the answer to our desire for greater efficiencies. But in the midst of all this data and targeting-enabled technology, we still don't know which 50 percent of our marketing spend is wasted. The safe route isn't getting us where we need to be.

In today's shifting media landscape, broadcasters are paying a premium for the rights to live sporting events, on-demand content rules, and sports that didn't exist six years ago (eSports) are now being watched by 27 million people and counting each year. We have to find unique ways to win on this new playing field.

So how do we get there? Today every agency offers strategic thinking, develops creative ideas and claims to have integrated digital capabilities. But these offerings aren't enough. We have to help brands better understand the world around them, become clear on their reason for being and focus on establishing ownable platforms that deliver real value.

For example, financial services company USAA launched an ongoing NFL partnership called Salute to Service in 2011 to celebrate the military community USAA serves. With the help of IMG, Salute to Service has become a culturally relevant program that includes in-arena fan activations, on-field recognition ceremonies and player visits to military bases. USAA gets to play a credible role in the sports world with no national media buy. Members of the military gain better access to a sport they love and fans appreciate an integration that gives back.

To achieve shifts like these, we have to start answering the following questions:

Culture shapes content: What is happening right now that informs our consumers' perspectives and preferences? What is missing and where should it be shared?

Content creates community: How can we accrue and consistently engage a group of like-minded followers?

Community engages in conversation: How are we enabling discussion and sharing?

Conversation influences commerce: How can we guide discussion to influence purchase or preference decisions?

Once you've identified the narrative, you have to consider its delivery. Technology has now turned passive spectators into active participants. Take what Snapchat is doing with its Live Stories feature that collects snaps at marquee sporting events—from college football games to the World Cup—and grants insider access to millions of fans who can't be there in person.

So is there still power in appointment viewing? Yes, but brands now have the chance to engage with fans before, during and after those few hours by delivering original content, creating discussions across social and seeking feedback at every step.

With all this in mind, consider these playbook updates:

1. Partnership vs. sponsorship: Value the client enough to help them create something they can own—something only attributable to them.

2. Own vs. rent: Never rent awareness, but rather create programs that can scale.

3. Agency diversification: Eliminate the middleman by working directly with creators of culture.

4. Smart data drives big emotion: Smart data is the new creative and when unlocked can strengthen a brand's connection to its audience like never before.

5. Live (adj.) vs. live (verb): Live events begin with the brand and end with the fan, but we should start with the fan and build the event with and for them.

We've never had as many tools at our disposal to help brands create an emotional tether with sports fans.

Now go use them.

This story first appeared in the July 6 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Greg D'Alba (@GregDAlba) is president of global partnerships at WME | IMG and a juror for the second annual Clio Sports Awards.