Why it matters

Partnering with athletes is an effective way to leverage the hype around sports and reach a wide, enthusiastic audience, but brands risk those partnerships going awry. Leveraging other channels and assets to tap into consumer enthusiasm is pivotal for brands wanting to create sporting experiences without the risk.

Takeaways

  • Gaming is a low-risk and immersive channel marketers can use to create sports-driven digital experiences that invite younger audiences to engage with the sport, athletes and teams.
  • Besides creating immersive sporting experiences, tying sports teams to pop culture, as Barcelona FC’s partnership with Spotify did, is another way to create unique and engaging experiences that engage current fans and future audiences alike.
  • Sports marketers can also tap into social media challenges, like hashtags and TikTok challenges, to create opportunities for fans to share their personal feelings and experiences with their favorite athletes and teams to avoid tying their brands to the athlete endorsers.

It’s exciting for brands to partner with great athletes, tying the athlete’s narrative, values and story with the aspirations of the brand.

These partnerships have resulted in inspiring marketing. Many people have found motivation in the stories behind Serena Williams and LeBron James pursuing their dreams despite the challenges in Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy.’ Michael Phelps, the most medaled Olympian of all time, encouraged us “to train our minds, too” in order to overcome obstacles in Under Armour’s ‘Go Under the Armour.’

And then there’s perhaps one of the most iconic, athlete-driven advertising ever: Gatorade presenter Michael Jordan encouraging viewers to Be Like Mike, a campaign the company brought back this year.

Despite the prospect of marketing glory of athlete-driven advertising, there are still a lot of risks in using athletes as endorsers (or any human being). Sometimes, the athlete or team falls short of expectations around which a campaign is centered, or they do something either not in line with the brand’s values, or worse, get in trouble with the law.

In 2014, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice allegedly knocked his fiancée unconscious, losing all of his sponsors, including Nike, Electronic Arts and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Rice was ultimately cut from the Ravens.

Bring the games to gaming

But there are ways that brands can take advantage of the values, culture and enthusiasm of sports, and that’s by re-orienting how they tie into sports and popular culture. They can do this via sports-driven digital marketing experiences that use popular platforms to embrace teams, athletes and celebrities, but in ways that carry less risk.

Several traditional sports have turned to youth-focused platforms in order to interest younger prospective users in their sports and sporting events. One notable example is the venerable British tennis tournament Wimbledon, the oldest tennis competition, first played in 1877.

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC), the venue for Wimbledon, looking for channels to engage with younger fans, turned to Fortnite and created the “Race to Wimbledon” game.

Fortnite players were invited to compete in a race across leading London landmarks such as Big Ben, the London Eye and Wimbledon Village. Players who could beat former Wimbledon champion Andy Murray’s time of 4:45 and share a screenshot on Twitter could enter to win two tickets to Wimbledon, travel and accommodation sponsored by American Express.

The AELTC also commissioned the creation of “WimbleWorld” on Roblox with online games, videos and social features as part of a fantasy of Wimbledon for fans under 18. After launching last year and generating 12 million visits, making it one of the most-visited sports experiences on Roblox, WimbleWorld was updated for 2023 for a more immersive game-playing experience.

Look for unexpected partnerships

While creating a sporting experience on a platform known for games, like Fortnite or Roblox, is intuitive, sometimes unexpected partnerships can generate a great impact. In 2022, Spotify signed a four-year partnership to sponsor leading global soccer team Barcelona FC. For both entities, the partnership’s objective was to bring together the world of music and sports, creating unique experiences and connecting each to new audiences around the world, particularly Generation Z.

Last year, when the Canadian singer Drake became the first artist to exceed 50 billion streams on Spotify, he broke the news with an Instagram post while Barcelona FC players added Drake’s OVO owl logo to the front of their jerseys for the match against rival Real Madrid FC. To generate buzz, Barcelona FC offered the Barcelona FC jersey with the OVO logo featured in Drake’s Instagram post as the prize in a drawing. It generated 72,000 signups in the first 24 hours and ultimately resulted in 60% new users in a campaign that was completely organic.

With Spanish singer Rosalia, Barcelona FC and Spotify partnered on a drawing for Barcelona FC jerseys with Rosalia’s logo on them. This resulted in a couple of hundred percent” increase in searches for Rosalia on Spotify while Barcelona FC received 500 million media impressions from content with Rosalia’s logo across all club media channels. A TikTok featuring Rosalia remixing Barcelona FC’s club anthem, which has amassed 86 million views, enabled both Spotify and Barcelona FC to better target Gen Z.

Not every sports marketing experience involves months of planning and execution. A relatively fast and simple way for marketers to create an engaging sports experience is by sponsoring match highlight videos which appear under the game scoreboard in Google Search. Powered by WSC Sports technology, these automated, match highlight reels appear in near real-time and highlight the leading plays of the match. 

For the FIFA World Cup in November – December 2022, these highlight videos appeared in the top-ranked position on Google Search. Ads running immediately after a highlight video generated an average 7-10% click-through rate (CTR). As expected, for matches where the local team played, engagement metrics were higher. Engagement during the later stages of the tournament and finals was also greater. These strong engagement metrics aren’t surprising since sports fans turn to their phones for updates during matches, even if they’re simultaneously watching the match on the big screen.

Tap into digital experiences

Retailers looking to drive in-store and online traffic are increasingly turning to digital platforms to create sports marketing experiences. British retailer Sports Direct was looking to increase awareness and purchase intent for the launch of a new soccer sneaker from Puma, nicknamed “Flash Pack” from the Future series of their soccer sneakers.

To accomplish its marketing goals, Sports Direct and its agency created a “Hashtag Challenge” campaign on TikTok called #FlashofFuture. To win a meeting with a Puma-sponsored soccer player, consumers were encouraged to film a skill move of their choice followed by their own unique soccer celebration and upload it with the hashtag on TikTok.

The campaign generated 1.46 million challenge page views and inspired 113,000 video challenge submissions that generated 154 million video views. The brand takeover ads Sports Direct ran associated with the “Hashtag Challenge” generated a nearly 20% CTR, and the “Hashtag Challenge” drove positive brand engagement and increased SportsDirect’s follower count by 280%, from below 10,000 to over 30,000.

Currently, digital platforms offer marketers many opportunities to tap into consumer excitement around sports without tying the campaign to one athlete or team. Regardless of budget or timeline, marketers can create marketing that taps into the power of sports while mitigating the risk of a sports marketing sponsorship that goes awry.

For example, marketers can invite their users to engage with a sports brand like Chicago’s National Hockey League team, the Blackhawks, and invite fans to share their goals using the hashtag #WhatsYourGoal. Poignant moments, like a child unable to speak or walk scoring a goal can be worth more for a brand than a multi-million dollar sponsorship.