6 Ways Brands Can Draft Modern Sports Fans

Study shows marketing is welcome—but only if consumers are No. 1

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On the eve of Super Bowl 50, the biggest global sports and media event of the year, I have good news and bad news. First the good news: Our recent global We Know Sports Fans study of 2,000-plus sports fans across the U.K., U.S., Japan, Spain and Brazil reveals 86 percent would welcome more sponsorship in sports experiences. Now the bad: 80 percent said that sponsors never consider fans when activating, and only 17 percent believe brands are interested in them.

Mike SundetIllustration: Alex Fine

While fans are willing to start a dialogue, brands aren't doing enough to truly connect by building memorable platforms that appeal to what fans actually care about. While 67 percent know their favorite team's major sponsors, only 55 percent would consider sampling that sponsor's product. Brands aren't always getting a strong ROI because their experiences aren't connecting with fans in a meaningful way. The closer we put fans to the experiences they care about, the more they engage and the more brands grow.

Most current sports sponsorship focuses too much on an old model—creating an association, then riding the coattails of a property, versus putting the fan at the center and adding value to the fan experience. Our research shows some clear opportunities.

Marketers should be leaning heavily into social connection—58 percent believe sharing with others enhances fan experience and over half agree content created by other fans enhances it. Brands creating a place where sports fans can connect will enhance a memorable experience.

They should also understand ritual connections—63 percent cited "rituals with other fans" as important to the live experience. From songs and cheers to the Wave and beyond, brands that create, amplify and participate in those rituals will be remembered as creating a positive experience—which lingers much longer than a cheap foam finger.

As in most cases, marketers have to exercise millennial respect. Millennials (ages 16-35) are more open to music, merchandise and social sharing than other demographic groups. They enjoy fan-created content (64 percent, to nonmillennials' 46 percent) and share at a much higher rate (63 percent to 44 percent). Millennials are 13 percent plus more open to general advertising presences at sports events. Enlisting the millennial consumer as a brand ambassador means they'll likely share and amplify their positive experiences.

Creating life memories for fans is crucial—73 percent said being with fellow fans most enhances their experience. While being in-stadium is best, viewing parties and other external events can have impact. During the recent Men's and Women's World Cups, massive crowds came out to watch together in the U.S. And American Express created a memorable, shareable experience for the U.S. Open Tennis Championships, giving fans a place to connect with the sport and with fellow fans at viewing parties around New York.

Finally, live experiences win—82 percent agree that being close to the game enhances fans' love of the sport; 69 percent say entertainment at sports events further enhances it. Music was cited as the best form of entertainment. There are countless opportunities for brands to enhance live experiences for fans while extracting value.

Agencies, brands, leagues, properties, content partners and media need to develop new ways of working together to make sure fans never feel like an afterthought. A new approach demands new principles:

Data and intuition: Don't do what's always been done. Understanding what your target audience cares about ensures lasting ROI. Looking at numbers isn't enough. Proper data leads to insights that drive your brand's objectives.

Fan and brand led: Sports properties matter, but if platforms aren't focused on fans, you're already losing. Experiences matter more than messaging. Putting fans first and your brand a close second gives them an experience that provides a value.

Partnership vs. sponsorship: Sponsorships need a long-term view. Being a better partner leads to more access and new opportunities to meaningfully connect.

Activation vs. association: The numbers prove that simply being connected to a sports property doesn't increase sales or brand loyalty. Create an engagement that enhances or evolves the fan experience and people will never forget your name.

Ownership vs. exposure: It's the difference between an experience and a media buy. The very nature of exposure doesn't allow for personalization or a strong connection between property and brand. Creating owned equity is the brand bond you need to build a platform.

Creativity and innovation vs. volume: More than ever, fans walk by static brand placements and the messages don't connect. Build something different, interactive and exciting, and you can do more with one activation than millions of branded logos spread out across a property.

Sports fans have spoken. They feel brands see them as walking wallets. Show them you're a fan, too, by building platforms that bring people closer to the experiences they love. When it's done right, they will thank you. You can spike the ball now.


Claim to fame Mike Sundet, svp and director of sports and entertainment at Momentum Worldwide, is a sports junkie, four-time Ironman and music enthusiast.

Base St. Louis

Twitter @msundet

This story first appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.