Sports Leagues Are Teaming Up With Brands to Bring Digital Experiences to Fans

It's all part of adjusting to 'the new normal'

Illustration of a Michelob Ultra bottle next to a basketball
It's unclear if virtual experiences will continue next season. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin, Source: Michelob Ultra

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Minutes into a hockey match between the Las Vegas Knights and the Colorado Avalanche, fans were treated to a special reminder from the stadium’s speakers: Concessions would be all you can eat—as long as fans remembered to stock their fridges.

The stunt was a reminder of the bizarre reality facing professional sports leagues during the pandemic. Innovating on the fly and working with brand partners to bring fans into a digital experience is the new normal.

With professional football the latest league to kick off its season, the NFL has had plenty of time to pick up a thing or two from its peers in other leagues. Not everything is seamless, though. Shifting the NHL and its marketing partners into the late summer was a “major jigsaw puzzle,” said Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s chief business officer and evp of global partnerships.

For example, a brand like Bud Light might have no problem shifting creative from the winter to the summer, but a winter-proof tire brand might. But that didn’t stop the NHL—the first professional league to announce a restart during the Covid-19 pandemic—from signing Little Caesars, Nestlé and digital men’s health clinic Roman as new corporate brand partners for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“I think we clearly showed that we were leading the way in a lot of areas of return to play, and the market saw that,” said Wachtel.

To replace raucous courtside fans, Michelob Ultra pitched and sold a virtual fan experience to the NBA. Teaming up with Microsoft to host and project nearly 300 fans per game—including celebrity cameos such as Lil Wayne, Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O’Neal—across a digital screen that extended the length of the court, Michelob let lottery-winning fans cheer and jeer digitally during the league’s playoffs in an enclosed campus in Orlando, Fla.

While cementing itself as the league’s official beer sponsor, the partnership also gave the beer brand an opportunity to target the NBA’s younger audience, specifically outside its stronghold in the Southeast. Already, the Ultra Courtside experience has racked up nearly 10,000 average web visits a day and has earned more than 680 million impressions since July 30, according to Michelob’s internal tracking. It’s also the third-most-mentioned NBA-related brand on social media.

Calling the partnership a “smashing success,” Ricardo Marques, vp of marketing for Michelob Ultra, and his team had to act fast when talk of basketball’s return began.

“Agility, more than ever, is super important. Being able to deal with ambiguity and building with ideas that aren’t necessarily fully baked. Being able to live with that is extremely important,” said Marques. “We evolved into this new vision.”

With such an unprecedented season, Marques doesn’t know yet whether the virtual experience will be brought back next season. In fact, with the league’s pause and restart, tracking the return on investment for a partnership is trickier than ever.

“Even in a normal year, calculating ROI is sort of the holy grail for every brand, and nobody has mastered it,” said Matt Balvanz, svp of analytics at Navigate, a sports marketing consultancy. “It’s such a crapshoot right now; we’ll have to almost figure this out when the seasons expire.”

While only playing a little more than a third of a normal season, MLB announced a day before the season’s first pitch a partnership with Google Cloud to help run the league’s stat tracking system and a deal with Sony to help fill stadiums with artificial noise.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.