The New
World of Sports

In today’s Age of Experience, sports are more important than ever.

Big sporting events—the Super Bowl, the Masters, Wimbledon, the Olympics, the World Cup—are of-the moment events that everyone can gather around and share in real time. Sports builds community. It’s what people talk about. There’s excitement, engagement and passion. It’s fandom untethered and unhinged.

You can imagine why brands want in on the action.

Truth be told, they always have. But things have changed. Back in the day, all a brand had to do was throw its logo up on a scoreboard and maybe build out an ad or two featuring an athlete. Those days are long past.

Today’s sponsorships are digitally powered and designed to create more informed and engaged fans. Fans control how and when they get information. No more checking the scores the next day or even tuning in to the evening’s highlight show. Instead, they’re seeing clips show up in real time in their Instagram Stories feeds, texting “did you see that” to fellow fans over Messenger and WhatsApp and celebrating victories on Facebook. All within minutes of the final score.

Spending on sports sponsorships has been soaring. According to the World Advertising Research Center (WARC), companies around the world spent around $65.8 billion on sponsorship deals in 2018, and that was due to rise nearly 5 percent this year.

Platforms like Facebook and Instagram have changed the way people engage with sports, and sponsors are taking notice as they try to drive greater value from their investments. They know that seeing their logo show up during the broadcast is only part of the deal. It’s just as crucial to understand how their brand shows up on the game highlights on Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp.These are the channels to drive deeper engagement with sports fans.

In fact, one in three Instagram users follows a sports account and 94 percent of fans use the platform to see the personal side of athletes.

Fans aren’t just looking for info on their idols on the field—they want to know what’ they’re doing to prepare for the big tournament or even what they’re wearing when they walk up to the locker room.

Since fans are turning to Facebook and Instagram to keep up with their favorite athletes and teams, sponsors need to be there too. They need to take advantage of social to drive deeper engagement, create the kinds of live experiences that lend themselves to social sharing and provide fans with the kind of locker-room access that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Scroll down to see what’s possible.


Let’s Build Some

Anticipation is a powerful emotion. And the desire to be part of an event—to have the currency of a direct connection to an experience—can be amplified via a variety of factors.

For sports sponsors, pre-event promotion can go a long way to aligning their brand more strongly with an event. It can also build viewership and excitement for the event itself, further adding to the value of the individual sponsorship.

Creating memorable events to connect with consumers, and make new fans of their brand, has been a part of Quicken Loans’ marketing playbook for years.

“Fans don’t just want a sponsor of an event, they want a brand that will provide a unique experience,” explains Casey Hurbis, CMO of Quicken Loans. “We’ve found great success in providing opportunities that add to the overall fan experience.”

With any event comes anticipation and the desire to be part of a community. This currency of a shared, direct connection can be amplified through a variety of factors.

For sports sponsors, pre-event promotion can go a long way to aligning their brand more strongly with an event. It can also build viewership and excitement for the event itself, further adding to the value of the individual sponsorship.

That was the approach taken by Quicken Loans’ Rocket Mortgage as part of its partnership with Churchill Downs for the 2019 Kentucky Derby. The sponsorship sought to align “the most exciting two minutes in sports” with the speed and convenience of the Rocket Mortgage loan solution.

The result: The Rocket Mortgage Homestretch Sweepstakes, where 20 finalists would win a trip to the Kentucky Derby, and one lucky winner would walk away with $250,000 to put toward buying a new home or paying off their mortgage.

With such an enticing prize, the program needed a bold promotion strategy to drive as many entries as possible in a short, 3-week window. That’s why social media played a key role. Custom Kentucky Derby creative was put together, with 30-, 15- and 6-second spots placed across in-feed and Story ads on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. Quicken Loans even created “optical illusion” video ads that appeared to show race horses running across a user’s Facebook newsfeed.  

Come race day, Rocket Mortgage was able to use the Homestretch Sweepstakes to raise brand awareness by showcasing the experience of the 20 finalists and the grand prize winner.  


Takes Hold

Today’s sports venues take on an almost carnival-like feel, as sponsors look for ways to engage with attendees by creating unique, one-of-a-kind experiences that fans will be willing to not only participate in but share across their networks.

Sure, many of the old tried-and-true activations are still standard issue for sponsors—hospitality tents, product demonstrations and swag giveaways still have their place. But for a lot of sponsors, those have been supplanted by tech-enabled executions that really get at the passion that fans feel.

For example, every year, NBA All-Star Weekend turns the host city into a fairground of brand activations targeting basketball fans of all types. These can range from skills challenges (remember the classic pop-a-shot game?) to pop-up shops to live concerts. There are athlete appearances, shopping excursions and plenty of giveaways. And everything is designed to be eye-catching and amplified via social executions.

At the US Open tennis tournament, long-time sponsor American Express continually looks for ways to up its presence with innovative benefits for both its Card Members and all tennis fans.

Last year, the highlight of its Fan Experience was the American Express Super Rally, an interactive gaming experience that fused augmented reality with actual tennis play. Players entered one of eight bays featuring a life-sized transparent monitor. They received a video tutorial on how to play by Venus Williams. Then, using a custom-designed 3D-printed racket, they were able to return virtual tennis balls in AR. So, if you ever wondered what it would be like to be on the other side of a professional’s serve, this was your chance.


Beyond the Kiss Cam

Jumbotrons. Kiss cams. Racing sausages. If you’ve been to any kind of stadium, you’ve been a part of a sponsor activation of one kind or another. But stadiums today are fully wired for fan and sponsor activations that are all about information and sharing.

Gone are the days where spotty wifi or over-trafficked cell towers made in-stadium mobile access a hassle. In its place are powerful mobile apps, huge digital screens and enough on-site technology to create the kinds of personalized experiences fans now expect.

Let’s start with mobile apps.

Major League Baseball, for instance, currently produces the MLB Ballpark app, customized for each of the teams and ballparks. As with many apps, it starts with some form of electronic ticketing, but its ultimate goal is to complement and personalize the fan experience with features like ballpark maps, mobile check-in, social media, offers, rewards and exclusive content and videos. Like the batter’s walk up music? The app tells you what it is and lets you purchase it. Need some peanuts and Cracker Jack? Some ballparks include mobile food ordering and merchandise ordering as a component.

Of course, there’s also the social aspect of being at the stadium. While a couple of years back, the web was aflame with pictures of college students at a ballgame more focused on selfies than the action, that’s not too far off. Knowing the importance of social sharing, a number of stadiums have added jumbo screens dedicated to sharing Instagram Stories.

Knowing how hard it can be to get a great group photos, other arenas and stadiums have added a solution from a company called Brizi. Fans input their seat number into the app and an in-venue camera takes their picture, which can be delivered with partner branding and shared on various social platforms. At the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament, sponsors Orange SA and Emirate Airlines used this to provide a great fan experience, with more than 7,000 unique groups taking over 14,000 photos.

How far away are we from what fans do on their phones actually impacting the game? Maybe closer than you think. A new league—The Fan-Controlled Football League—offers a glimpse of the future of interactive sports. A team’s site, coach, logo, mascot, cheerleaders and players—yes, players—are chosen directly by fans via app. And fans get to use the app to actually pick the plays they want their team to run. It’s kind of a like a real-life video game.

From the

Playing to the
Second Screen

Sponsorship isn’t just about the live event. It’s also about the impact brands can have with fans who are watching the match at home.

And people are watching more than ever, both on TV and online. But technology has changed the way they engage with the game. It’s not simply about watching the action and listening to the commentary. It’s about turning the game into a multi-screen affair, as what’s happening on the field fuels web searches, social posts, texts and more and they look to celebrate or commiserate with friends.

A recent study from GlobalWebIndex found that 90 percent of sports fans around the world say they use another device as they watch TV, and 78 percent said they prefer that second screen to be their mobile phone.

Social sharing is critical to this, especially via Instagram Stories. Bleacher Report, the sports news platform that’s part of Turner/WarnerMedia, has found that people turn to its mobile app because they want to get alerts about what’s going on with their favorite teams and athletes. But the app was recently updated to allow people to share the news directly to their Instagram Story, because that’s the platform that sports fans are turning to within their social networks.

It's all about engagement

What do sponsors get out of these social and technology-driven executions? Of course, it comes down to insights. Lots of insights.

For one thing, sponsors get to know who is interacting with their sponsorship. They can learn who is at the venue and what they’re doing. They get a window into real fan engagement. Good measurability needs to be part of all modern sports activations.

It’s also about smarter sponsorship. Simply put, fans are getting smarter. Venues are getting smarter. Technology is getting smarter. Sponsors must do the same by using the latest technology to supercharge their brand concepts and really engage and personalize their relationships with fans. And that engagement comes from knowing how sports can align to your brand.

That’s what richer and more immersive experiences set out to do. And when sponsors start seeing the big smiles on fans’ faces, they’re going to have bigger smiles too.