Get your head in the game; the future of digital sponsorship

Judit Esquivel

4 October 2018

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Sports sponsorships have always been a cause for controversy, and the rise of digital sponsorships has only complicated matters. Is digital sponsorship really so different from traditional sponsorship? Does it have any real impact? Does it add value or is it just another buzzword?

In recent years, massive international broadcasters like ESPN began to notice that the number of people worldwide that were tuning in to major sporting events like the NFL, the WFA Tennis tour and the Champions League, had decreased dramatically. At the same time, the amount of resources being invested into the advertisement and promotion of these events only continued to grow. In fact, recent studies estimate that a total of 65.8 billion USD was invested in 2018, an increase of 4.9%.

At this point you may be asking yourself, are these sponsorships even worth it anymore?

Changing behaviours

Unlike other forms of traditional media, like films or television series, which are now viewed mainly on-demand, sports games are still usually watched live – for obvious reasons. The audience for live sporting events is still there, but their preferences have changed. Recent studies reveal that between 2012 and 2016, the proportion of searches related to sport which came from a mobile device increased from 18% to 83%.

These figures demonstrate the importance of ‘mobile’ in the field of sports sponsorships. Mobile has not only displaced desktop and TV as the main method for consuming live sports games, it has given users the freedom to view different sports games on multiple devices at the same time. They can follow several different games simultaneously while, at the same time, commenting and sharing their opinion with friends and fellow fans on social media and dark social platforms (e.g. WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger).

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Sports Insight Report, GWI, Q3 2017


What we’re experiencing is a change in behaviour. It’s happening slowly but, according to data from GWI, almost half of internet users globally are watching sports coverage or highlights online each month (Sports Insight Report, GWI, Q3 2017).

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Sports Insight Report, GWI, Q3 2017


Watching sports live has become a multi-device, multichannel experience. Local events have become globalised and international events like The Champions League and the Super Bowl are watched and discussed by fans all over the world. There are no longer any geographical boundaries to engaging with these events.

A new audience

We need to define a new consumer type; a more engaged consumer who is proactive in their search for new ways to interact with others users and brands. All these facts lead us to consider two different models of sports sponsorship and how effective they are at engaging this new consumer type:

  • Traditional sponsorship: the user only has access to a limited number of channels, and options for brands are restricted to stamp logos on t-shirts and billboards. The goal of this kind of sponsorship is brand exposure.
  • Digital-first sponsorship: the user has access to multiple channels; they have the power to decide when and how they consume content. As the conversation becomes more multidirectional, the number of ways in which a digital-first sponsorship can have an impact on brands increases.

As our world becomes less defined by geography, sport is able to transcend boundaries of country, gender or language. It’s only natural that brands would gravitate towards it; with sports as a middle ground, brands and consumers can interact in a way that is organic and engaging.

Moreover, digital environments allow marketers to measure and track results of online campaigns more effectively. Brands can pursue multiple goals such as generation of inbound leads, strengthening of consumer relationships and, of course, brand awareness while at the same time, understanding the extent to which those goals are reached.

So where does sponsorship come into it?

Brands need to offer their audience something of value, something that broadcasters themselves can’t provide. It has to be something that money can’t buy. As Tim Ellerton, Global Sponsorship Manager at Heineken, once said; “We don’t want to compete with broadcasters.” Think exclusive content (see the Real Madrid and GoPro’s Facebook series) or experiences.

To provide your audience with something truly out of the ordinary, technology can be a good ally. The O2 “Wear the Rose” AR campaign, for example, allowed users to experience, for a few moments, what it was like to be a part of the England Rugby team. The Golden State Warriors Facebook bot campaign, similarly, employed artificial intelligence to interact with fans in a more engaging way.

Some other things to keep in mind:

  • Create a ‘global’ strategy that appeals to an international audience, but always keep in mind the local audience of fans as well
  • Be aware of the historical or sentimental significance of the team or sport to its audience, and use this to your advantage (see Fernando Torres announcing his retirement by LG)
  • Avoid more direct, ‘salesy’ communication
  • Set parameters by which to measure the success of your sponsorship campaign; the best metric to use depends on the goal of the campaign

In short, the arrival of digital-first sponsorships has completely changed the landscape of sport-brand partnerships. Making the most of a more globalised society, new technologies and opportunities for multi-channel experiences is key. However, the most important thing to keep in mind is, as always, the consumer. Their experience of the campaign should always be at the centre of any commercial strategy.