Manchester City’s Head of Commercial Media – George Duncan, on why the football club believes in branded content, and why measurement is critical to getting the most out of digital activations for partners.

The post pandemic rebound of sports sponsorship activation and the consistent rise of branded content

The sports sponsorship industry bounced back in 2022, with investment up 107% globally according to Nielsen’s 2022 sports marketing report. The welcome return of live events was a key contributor to buoyant pre-pandemic investment levels.

The appetite of brands to engage with rights holders for quality digital assets has grown steadily over the last five years. Branded Content interactions for the G11, (which are the 11 biggest football clubs in Europe) on Facebook increased by 79% from 48 million in 2018 to 86 million in 2022 according to the social aggregator CrowdTangle.

Branded video content in collaboration with sports entities has become increasingly valuable to diversify a brand’s creative and media mix. The combination of world class sporting talent, highly engaged audiences and the opportunity for more sustained brand storytelling combines well with other digital advertising activity. A recent Nielsen study recorded an uplift of 21% brand recall for branded content over pre-roll advertising.

There is a linear connection between branded content and time spent with communications – loyal fanbases and audiences will offer greater mental availability for commercial messaging endorsed by the club, sport or publisher they follow.

At Manchester City, we launched City Studios during the 2021/22 season – a new content hub unit delivering a range of services, including film making, live production, graphic design, photography and branded content. A purpose-built studio space right next to the 1st team training pitch has facilitated over 30 branded projects this season for blue chip brands and partners such as PUMA, Etihad, OKX, Unilever, EA Sports, Amazon, Gatorade and Midea.

Brands and marketeers demand greater digital sophistication from sports rights holders

Greater demand for digital experiences means higher expectations from brands: decision makers want to see the rigours of measurement and attribution of digital marketing applied to the world of sports sponsorship.

One notable drawback of branded content concerns performance reporting. The majority of distribution is organic, limiting tracking to the standard metrics of channel analytics. Rights holders and publishers have used social boosting and paid media campaigns to overcome this hurdle – optimising performance of branded video content to certain outcomes and unlocking more advanced reporting metrics such as “completion rates” and “watch time” analysis.

Audience curation is another complimentary facet of an advanced paid distribution approach to supplement branded content delivery. At City, we have invested in “data bunker technology”, via ad tech vendor Infosum, to enable more sophisticated first party data targeting strategies for paid activation. This has allowed us to cross reference City’s data records against a range of data sets from other brands, publishers and data providers, within the Infosum ecosystem, to segment known audiences into “in-market” cohorts.

In theory, this should provide more accurate audience profiling for paid media campaigns, combatting the targeting challenges that Chrome cookie abolition and mobile app tracking / privacy regulation present, as City experienced when deploying clean room technology in a campaign for the car marque Nissan.

Sophistication on both sides is vital, however. Distinctive assets that will positively influence a rights holder’s fanbase and make a meaningful impact on brand metrics is a delicate creative balance.

In depth digital planning knowledge can elevate the impact of a content release. Knowing that branded content garners higher active engagement; channel selection focused on attention can help the creative better resonate with the audience.

Assets need to be tailored for different environments: matching format time lengths to the platform consumption type and adopting platform nuances are simple yet crucial steps to maximise performance. Paid support should go beyond simple boosting, with a diversified channel mix across Connected TV, VOD, online video, display and paid social. Attention tracking for branded content also opens a new window of performance analysis. The technique allows us to gather insight at both the platform and domain level about which environments elicit more active attention, and tune the media mix accordingly. This is the level of effectiveness measurement required to match the heightened expectations of brands.

Action replay: Back to measurement

In sponsorship, digital activation has provided better range, allowing sponsorship to impact marketing effectiveness across long and short-term outcomes. Despite this continuous evolution, meaningful measurement across both elements remains somewhat inconsistent.

Certain brands will have sponsorship plugged into wider econometric analysis, some models and brand trackers find sponsorship effectiveness difficult to isolate and some organisations won’t have access to complex evaluation frameworks. Choosing the right vendors and investing in consistent qual and quant measurement over the long term is fundamental.

Manchester City has worked with Qualtrics to provide month on month brand tracking for a selection of partner brands. Up to three macro brand health metrics, out of a choice of fourteen, are stress tested over a yearlong period, against “in-market” fan audiences tailored to the brand’s target demographic.

Specific deep dives into campaign impact and message resonance, as well as “insight bolt-ons” such as “share of search” and offline sales analysis are also available in the tool. This can act as an accessible alternative to full blown econometrics, combining campaign effectiveness insight with an outlook on longer term shifts in core brand metrics. An evolution from measuring “point in time” tracking of branded content or digital activation via platform brand studies.


The appetite for quality digital output within sports sponsorships is strong and likely to keep growing over the coming years. Rights holders need to wear many digital marketing hats to continually delight partner brands in this highly competitive field. Native advertising and branded content is in vogue currently, with further growth predicted in the near future. Marrying up skills, technology and talent within the creative and distribution disciplines is a key ingredient to harness the true potential of branded content within sports sponsorship. Those who are paying attention to attention planning will provide the right canvas to maximise the impact of this highly desirable asset.


  1. Nielsen – Fans are changing the game – 2022 Global Sports Marketing Report
  2. Nielsen – Quality Branded Content outperforms pre-roll.
  3. Crowd Tangle – G11 Branded Content Interactions report
  4. Forbes - Five Keys To Building Consumer Trust Through Your Branded Content
  5. The Drum – Native Advertising Sector set to be worth $400bn by 2025