9 Winning Insights From ADWEEK's Brand Play Sports Marketing Summit

Evolving audiences and technologies make it increasingly difficult to game the system as the rules and stakes change

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The sports marketing landscape in 2024 is laden with opportunity for those willing to adjust their game plan.

At the first ADWEEK Brand Play Sports Marketing Summit, held at the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) in New York, marketers saw how technology not only personalized the gameday experience for leagues, but helped them tell their stories to global audiences who’d likely never see a live game. They learned how important the stories of athletes beyond the game have become to players, leagues and media partners, and how a growing base of streaming partners is distributing those narratives.

They learned how the rise in women’s sports viewership and engagement is as much about the economics behind the surge as it is about the push for equity, but also how sponsors’ race toward Formula 1 fortune encouraged them to walk in fans’ footsteps.

From brands making inroads through NIL deals and esports to Olympic organizers and golf legends pointing out opportunities along the sports spectrum, here’s a highlight reel of the Summit’s best postgame takeaways.

Tech tempers team loyalty

Andy Kauffman, svp of marketing strategy and science for the National Football League (NFL), said fandom is evolving beyond family and regional ties as new fans now gravitate toward players through social media, gaming and fantasy sports—which is great for the league.

Ivan Piedra Photography

“As they interact with more and more touch points, their value goes up not just to our broadcasters to our sponsors and partners, but to the league and clubs as well,” he told ADWEEK executive editor Jameson Fleming.

Manny Puentes, general manager of advertising at Genius Sports, noted that those changes will make league and club interactions with fans less transactional and more conversational—especially as third-party cookies disappear from platforms and leagues and teams pursue more complex solutions. “Having that ability to have a conversation with the fan, is where we’re going in the future versus talking at the fan.”

Connect with fans where they are

Tammy Henault, CMO of the National Basketball Association (NBA) estimates that 99% of her league’s fanbase will never see a live game. The league bridges that gap by playing nearly250 games outside the U.S., where the NBA now draws 25% of its players, and partnering with metaverse properties like Horizon Worlds and Meta Quest.

“What we can do through our content development, our social handles, the innovative way we integrate opportunities for people to consume our content on our platforms…is figure out how we get people closer to the game and get them that up close and real experience,” Henault told Vanessa Perdomo, Bloomberg’s editorial lead of sports.

From left, NBA CMO Tammy Henault, City Football Group marketing leader Nuria Barre and Bloomberg sports lead Vanessa Perdomo.Ivan Piedra Photography

Nuria Tarre, chief marketing and fan experience officer for City Football Group, added that just 5% of its followers will ever get to the UK to watch its flagship team—Manchester City—play a match. Instead, its 13 clubs embrace gaming and esports, with fans in the U.S. market often finding their favorite club through City partner EA Sports’ EAFC game. With U.S. fans choosing their team at 16 to 20 years old—as opposed to 7 or 9 in the UK—City’s forays into gaming, fashion and new content were necessary to build a fanbase.

“Trying to get into new audiences creating fandom is a difficult exercise,” Tarre said. “It’s not like growing market share in any other industry: You need to create emotional connection, but also be where the new fans potentially are.” 

Tell the stories behind the sports

How do you make viewers in the United States care about the plight and sudden prosperity of a low-tier, but ascendant Welsh soccer club? The folks behind Hulu’s “Welcome to Wrexham” not named Reynolds or McElhenney have the answer.

“It’s more than telling a story about a sports club; it’s about community,” Kristina Windham, head of business development at Maximum Effort, told ADWEEK executive chairman Rich Battista.

TIME Studios head of sports Rebecca Glitz, from left, Wave Sports + Entertainment content leader Mack Sovereign, Maximum Effort head of business development Kristina Wyndham and ADWEEK executive chairman Rick Battista.Ivan Piedra Photography

Mack Sovereign, chief content officer of Wave Sports + Entertainment—the company behind Jason and Travis Kelce’s New Heights podcast—spoke about the value of storytelling through not only digital and social media, but in-person experiences with fans. Rebecca Gitlitz, director of the four-part Netflix documentary “Under Pressure: The U.S. Women’s World Cup Team,” noted that increased access to athletes amplifies the power of already unpredictable events.

“Sports has the most amazing ability to show human nature,” said Gitlitz, also head of sports at TIME Studios: “It’s unpredictable. It is an experience unlike any other with the highest of highs and lowest of lows.”

Streaming isn’t ‘fragmentation,’ it’s a needed platform

The story of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) and its role in the rise of star players including Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and Nneka Ogwumike was one that deserved to be told… but had difficulty finding a home.

From left, WNBPA executive director Terri Carmichael Jackson, Malka Sports head of partnerships Jessica McCourt, Tubi CMO Nicole Parlapiano and ADWEEK TV editor Bill Bradley..Ivan Piedra Photography

 “This story hits on all the pillars that frame women’s sports: it’s pay equity; it is being a working mom; it is planning your family; it is working overseas; it is diversity and the importance of representation and inclusion,” Terri Carmichael Jackson, executive director of the WNBPA, told ADWEEK TV editor Bill Bradley.

Premiering in January on Tubi in partnership with Puma, the all-access documentary Shattered Glass: A WNBPA Story was stuck in development for two years as brands and distributors passed, but found a home on Tubi that gave it a free platform, a broader Gen Z audience and a unique perspective. 

“There really aren’t many women’s sports documentaries at all—anywhere,” said Nicole Parlapiano, Tubi’s CMO. “The thing about Tubi is that we look for stories that haven’t been told before, that are sort of bubbling under the surface. That’s our specialty.”

Women’s sports are a financial force

Sports Innovation Lab CMO Gina Waldhorn recently held a NewFront on behalf of her group’s Women’s Sports Club to both simplify women’s sports media buying for potential partners and to spell out the business argument for their purchase.

“I came into the sports role on calls with teams and a lot of women’s sports properties and used words like “lifetime retention rate,” “new retained fans” and how much more are they worth than a new fan?” Waldhorn told ADWEEK’s programming manager Christine Lane. “And they were like, ‘what?’ They weren’t thinking in those terms.”

Golden State Warriors svp of marketing Amanda Chin, Sports Innovation Lab CMO Gina Waldhorn, Moolah Kicks founder Natalie White and ADWEEK programming manager Christine Lane.Ivan Piedra Photography

Natalie White, who grew her Moolah Kicks women’s basketball sneaker brand from a startup gathering data outside Boston College’s Conte Forum to a brand with WNBA and NCAA partnership and a presence in 450 Dick’s Sporting Goods stores, said the growing economy of women’s sports requires no comparison to the men’s game. While addressing fan criticism of Caitlin Clark’s $75,000 starting salary in the WNBA, Golden State Warriors svp of marketing Amanda Chin—whose organization just paid $50 million for a WNBA expansion team of its own—suggested considering their fandom in more fiscal terms.

“I would ask those fans, are you attending games? Are you buying merchandise? Are you tuning in? Are you subscribing to League Pass? Are you engaging on social?” she said. “Those are the metrics that brands are using to measure their ROI: We have a role in this as well, and it’s really important that we play ball.”

Formula 1 brands must walk before they can drive

Before Formula 1 and its partner brands could take an initial lap in Las Vegas, they had to figure out how anyone was going to enjoy their inaugural Grand Prix.

“In Vegas, you have lots to do during the day.” Emily Prazer, chief commercial officer, Formula 1 and Las Vegas Grand Prix, told ADWEEK CEO Will Lee. “Whilst the track opened up, how do we make sure from the minute they leave the hotel, they have an experience until they get to the racetrack? We spent a lot of time in 300-degree heat during the day, we were walking past the Venetian and we said ‘This empty Barney’s store needs to be a Formula 1 shop.’” 

From left, Heineken USA's Frank Amorese, Shia Suzuki from American Express, Formula 1's Emily Prazer and ADWEEK CEO Will Lee.
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Shiz Suzuki, vp of global brand sponsorships and experiential marketing at American Express, noted more than half of the tickets for the race were purchased with its product and the company produced a unique on-site experience as it had for U.S. Open tennis and Coachella—enabling it to “show up in the shoes of the fan.” Frank Amorese, vp of media, partnerships and creative studio for Heineken USA, noted that even as the event’s naming-rights sponsor, Heineken put its guest and fan experience first. 

“We even did some things where we would take a beer from the hotel, drink it while we walked, figure out where we were going to finish that beer and figure out how closely we could put another beer stand close to that,” Amorese said.

Even ticket sellers can make fans

Ticketmaster discovered that fans who interact with its app are 30% more likely to buy a ticket and show up again. Why? Because the ticket seller used its data to personalize ad messages around live games, increase purchase intent, attract a younger audience, and drive sales for its brand partners like the NFL, NBA, and NHL.

Sonika Patel, svp and head of marketing for Ticketmaster North America.
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Ticketmaster encourages users to go into the app, select their favorite teams and venues and get an early look at seats when season schedules are released. For fans hesitant to get in the game, Ticketmaster ran a brand campaign capturing the postgame emotions of people leaving sporting events and sent four fans to the most recent Super Bowl. 

“Our app is our important marketing channel,” said Sonika Patel, svp and head of marketing for Ticketmaster North America.

Build your brand into sports

A brand can show up in multiple corners of sports, but fans take notice when sponsors take ownership.

Financial services provider Ally has a presence in NASCAR, esports and Major League Soccer, but two years ago pledged to divide its sports media spend 50-50 between men’s and women’s sports. Ally chief marketing and public relations officer Andrea Brimmer told Sportico sports business reporter Kurt Badenhausen that the split went from 90%/10% in favor of men’s sports to a 54%/46% margin, with Ally now deeply invested in the NWSL, WNBA and even the Wrexham women’s team.

From left, Ally marketing and PR leader Andrea Brimmer, State Farm evp and agency, sales and marketing head Kristyn Cook and Sportico sports business reporter Kurt Badenhausen.
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“There’s not a better place where you see more passion than sports,” Brimmer said. “The engagement is incredible.”

While State Farm evp and chief agency, sales and marketing officer Kristyn Cook noted the company’s multiple sports sponsorship, she singled out its partnership with NCAA multiple record holder and Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark—who signed the brand’s first name, image and likeness rights deal.

“When you think about who she represents and what she represents, it’s passion on the court, it’s this commitment to excellence, but it’s this community as well,” Cook said. “It was more than just putting air in a commercial and saying, ‘Hey, look how great we are.’ At the end of the day. It’s building a meaningful relationship.”

Get ready for more Olympics

There are just 78 days until the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. That means that Jenny Storms, NBCUniversal’s entertainment and sports CMO, and Jessica Park, svp and chief of brand and fan engagement for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, are in the “final sprint” to prepare for the event, which will produce over 5,000 hours of content for NBCUniversal and Peacock. 

ADWEEK TV editor Bill Bradley spoke with Park and Storms about how to reach viewers on linear, streaming and social, and brand building for the Team USA athletes that will inevitably skyrocket to stardom between July 26 and August 11. 

“Younger audiences are telling us they want to see more Olympics every day—they don’t want to wait four years—and the No. 1 driver of intent is the athletes themselves,” Storms said. “How are we building flame-to-flame content making sure we are not just spreading content across platforms every four years you are seeing it all the time?

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