The Beauty of Sport

In our digital age, dominated by social media, sports marketing and sports sponsorships face a bewildering plethora of opportunities and challenges for brands, event marketers and sports men and women.

“There’s been a growing wave for women’s sport in New Zealand that’s been coming for a while, and what this was, was kind of the moment where it broke over and just crashed down on everyone,” she said. “You can’t ignore it anymore,” columnist and Women in Rugby Aotearoa trustee, Alice Soper commented after an incredible year for New Zealand that ended with the Black Ferns securing a sixth women’s Rugby World Cup title.

The fan fervour must have had those involved in sports sponsorship salivating at the new opportunities opening up for brands to associate themselves with rising female sporting celebrities. With the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup kicking off this year in New Zealand, an abundance of new branding opportunities have opened up for sponsors to get into the game.

There is unsatisfied demand for women’s sport, where, according to a Sport NZ & Isentia report (June 2022) only 25 percent of sport coverage is dedicated to women’s sport. Other data, however, shows the gap in interest between men and women’s sport to be much closer.

“There’s still space wide open for brands to take an early ownership position in women’s sports within New Zealand be it via sponsorship, athlete or media partnerships,” says Team Heroine founder, Rebecca Sowden. “Adding to that, sportswomen are providing new ways for brands to connect with customers via their passion for sport and in more relatable, fresh, content-led, personality-driven and authentic ways.”

On the website, Correct the Internet, Team Heroine, and others are trying to help make sportswomen more visible. “Many of the world’s best athletes are women,” begins the description of the project. “Many of the world’s sporting records are held by women, but due to human bias, our search engines have learnt to prioritise sportsmen in our search results, even when the facts put sportswomen first. We want to change that.”

This is an example of the push to bring women’s sports to the fore, again pointing towards upcoming sponsorship opportunities in this area.

This comes at a time when the digital age is changing the way we communicate. “It’s no longer just about what happens during the 90 minutes on the pitch via the ‘big screen’ but everything around, alongside, off, in the lead-up to and aftermath of it across channels,” says Sowden. “Brands that can add to and enhance these moments that appeal to more casual fans via those emotional stories and insights with more entertainment, lifestyle or short-form content and stories will capture the hearts of fans and customers.”

Athletes are also playing a greater role as they become content creators and distribution channels in their own right, so brands need to view the athletes themselves as their own ‘product offering’ within the marketing mix.

Honoco provides the strategy, insights and measurement that initiate, substantiate, and evaluate best-practice partnerships. The consultancy maintains, it is vital that women’s sport is directed through channels that resonate to their audience. Traditional channels that work for men’s sport may not work for women’s sport and their audience.

Social media channel, TikTok, for example created a community #WhereAllFansPlay, when the social-media giant became the first-ever Title Partner of the TikTok Women’s Six Nations Rugby. As the “Official Fans Of Six Nations” the aim for TikTok was to build an inclusive rugby ecosystem, while Six Nations wanted to challenge perceptions of women’s rugby and grow a new, younger audience.

This innovative partnership smashed objectives by leveraging key assets to change behaviours and mindsets, with the ultimate goal of growing the game through both live broadcast integration and a host of ancillary content available for fans, including highlights packages of each game and interactive competitions appealing to existing and curious fans alike.

TikTok generated record -breaking broadcast coverage and ticket sales for the tournament.

Nicole Antonelli, Talent Manager at Halo Sport, told NZ Marketing it’s no surprise that we’ve seen a shift over time to digital and social media playing a more active role in the marketing mix. “You have to remember that most athletes aren’t full time content creators, “she says. “So, the knock-on effect is that athletes, on top of what could be eight hours training a day, six days a week, need to allocate time to invest in their own personal brand on social media. This means continually trying to upskill to be able to deliver quality user generated content in a personal and commercial capacity.”

Statistics shown to NZ Marketing by Honoco consultant, Richard Howarth, show that 10 percent of New Zealanders are more likely to follow women’s sport this year compared with last; 51 percent are advocates for gender equality in sport; and 66 percent support at least one of New Zealand’s national Ferns teams (i.e. Silver, Black, White or Football Ferns)

SkySport obviously dominates sports coverage in New Zealand and advertising across all Sky platforms continues to expand and, for example, while traditional 30-second ads are available (of course), so too are exciting new opportunities for clients to further integrate into sports coverage and commentary, be it during play or via branding on key elements of a broadcast.

These integrated opportunities often provide strong and creative ways to engage with and add interest for viewers. “In 2023 we will see a plethora of local and international sports on Sky, so the sky’s the limit (pardon the pun) when it comes to advertising options,” reports Justin Nelson, Head of Commercial and Events at Sky.

2023 is an enormous year for Sky, and Aotearoa. There will be five World Cups on Sky in 2023 which includes: ICC Women’s T20 World Cup, FIFA Women’s World Cup, Rugby World Cup, Netball World Cup and ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup. This represents the growing audiences for both the men’s and women’s games.

The future of marketing in sport is going to be fan centric. Sports brands are investing heavily in their own content production. FIFA has made a huge investment in this area with the introduction of FIFA+ in 2022 – a fan engagement platform consisting of everything from lean-back content such as documentary series, live and archive World Cup content, gaming content and more. The focus on real-time and digital-first content is huge, and it’s proving a sound strategy to ensure a more mainstream sports fan is attracted to football.

“For most of us this trend means ensuring you’re a trusted and entertaining source of news for fans, and not just at event time,” says FIFA Women’s World Cup Head of Marketing Services Host Countries, Kim Anderson. We expect it in the off-season too, across all your social channels. The public no longer expects media outlets to be the first or only source of news about our events – meaning event marketers need to consider how they can tackle that as a strategic marketing opportunity to engage and attract fans to their product proposition.”

With so many entertainment options on our plates these days, the content has to be worthy of our attention and provide an exceptional narrative that rings true to whatever audience you’re trying to connect with, be it the event, the sponsor or the athlete. Great storytelling brings a brand to life.

“Speaking from an athlete’s individual commercial portfolio perspective, we have seen these sponsorships evolve from athletes being contracted to be purely “a face” of a brand to be more meaningful and collaborative partnerships,” says Antonelli. “The best and most sustainable partnerships are where the brand and athlete come together because there is identifiable shared values and alignment between the two.” 

Advertisers will have so many opportunities to engage with TVNZ in 2023. TVNZ is taking on a number of sports currently showing on Spark Sport from July.

As Melodie Robinson, TVNZ’s General Manager Sports & Events, told NZ Marketing: “Our ambition extends beyond this and needs to consider all the various ways viewers interact with sport. We’ll be talking to advertisers in the next couple of months about what opportunities will be available and the various ways that brands will be able to tap into audiences.”

TVNZ’s aim when it comes to sponsorship opportunities is to integrate partners seamlessly around the content and identify ways to enhance brand sentiment. For each event, TVNZ looks at how it can leverage the viewing experience and provide a bespoke solution.

Toyota’s partnership around America’s Cup 2021 is a great example of this. TVNZ & Toyota worked closely together to connect viewers with an ambassador working across the coverage. TVNZ also created a unique standalone TV programme to educate viewers in a fun and engaging way.

The introduction of streaming, multi-channel viewing and the increase in device capability has changed things significantly. Digital viewing and the data it yields has helped make advertising and sponsorships more informed and in turn more engaging.

There’s also much more access to events and new content to integrate with, from short-form digital content, to highlights packages and pre & post-match interview content. This is all designed to keep fans engaged beyond game day or after an event has concluded.

The rise of social media has given fans a voice and increasingly they want to be part of the decision-making process. Listening to fan feedback and having it guide decisions in real-time is fundamental in building communities and growing a sport or event. 

Warner Bros. Discovery has partnered with Sky and has a great line-up of FTA sports across 2023 on Three and ThreeNow with a selection of the NRL games including the first State of Origin, One Warriors and the NRL Indigenous round. The channel also have SailGP and the Repco Supercars Championship, and the regular Sunday CRC Motorsport afternoons.

Warner Bros. Discovery offers sponsorship on many of their sporting events bringing a sponsorship to life beyond opening and closing credits, using their talent, news and current affairs platforms, and through the creation of long and short form content to further amplify the sponsorship.

The partnership with ASB last year for the Rugby World Cup 2021 was a great example of that. The channel did everything from live events to sponsorship and content creation, and the team at Warner Bros. Discovery produced all of their sponsorship assets in-house, including those featuring ASB’s iconic Ben & Amy characters.

Ten years ago, a broadcast sponsorship with “brought to you by” logo inclusion was almost the pinnacle of sport sponsorship and served as a terrific vehicle to achieve mass reach for a brand in front of a highly engaged, often difficult to reach audience. Due to the major shift in sport consumption and what fans now value, a lot more layers and therefore opportunities for sponsorship strategy are available today.

“Consumers are savvy and can recognise an equal value sponsorship exchange, even going as far as calling out unnecessary logo slaps or integrations which can be to the detriment of the brand/s involved,” Chae Blewitt, Marketing, Acquisition and Retention Lead at Spark Sport, told NZ Marketing. “Sponsorships need to find a way to connect naturally. More and more brands are starting with a values first approach and looking for opportunities they can support which align to theirs, rather than who can provide the most spots and dots on a media or broadcast schedule. From there, building out opportunities to bring the partnership right the way through the funnel is key and can deliver much more incremental value for all parties.”

Production and distribution of content alone has exploded in the last 10 years. It’s produced at all budget levels, from athletes to broadcasters, grassroots to Tier 1 and is released constantly, often outside a linear schedule. If a fan watches a race, game, or match for two to three hours on the weekend but spends another six hours through the week consuming related content across multiple channels on multiple devices, brands simply cannot ignore this when considering sponsorship strategy.

“Sport is ultimately about connection,” says Blewitt. “It makes all of us feel something and the explosion of content being produced from athletes, teams, brands, and sporting organisations has simply increased the access and ability to connect, whenever and however you like. Previously in so many cases, access to athletes or teams behind the scenes was almost taboo, however the true value of engaging with old and new fans via multiple layers of content across multiple channels is now impossible to ignore.

“Consider what “removing the helmet” has done for F1 through Drive to Survive, introducing the personalities of the sport to a wider audience has brought in an almost unfathomable number of new fans to the sport. Cue the race to long format sporting series!”

Coming from the advertising agency perspective, Megan Compain, director EightyOne, points to the increase in data driving decisions. “Seems to be gone are the day when sponsorships were invested in by the whim of the CEO, there is a lot more emphasis on partnerships delivery on KPIs and ROIs. There is a shift to digital and social media, which means partnerships can reach and connect with more fans and more diverse audiences than ever before.”

There is a generation of fans growing up who may never watch a full broadcast, but closely follow athletes and teams related content and catch regular highlights. Data can help sport to identify and embrace this changing shape of consumption and market to all types of fandom, ensuring effectiveness is still being achieved.

Dame Valerie Adams and Dame Sophie Pascoe tend to align with long term commercial brand partnerships. Adams and VISA have partnered since 2007, before she won her first gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and continue today as she transitions from being a professional athlete.

Dame Sophie Pascoe and Westpac New Zealand have partnered together since 2010. In this time they have launched a podcast together, done incredible work in local communities and schools and have an exciting new programme launching this International Women’s Day.

Insights informed by data to guide creative is what EightyOne does best, giving partners confidence that the marketing strategies the agency puts forward have the best chance of success measured against the brands objectives. Fans want content that connects them on an emotional level and this in turn will create deeper relationships with the brands who can tell these stories. 

FIFA’s Anderson agrees. “Sports and data are more intrinsically linked than ever before, both inside and outside the event arena. To drive an effective marketing strategy, you need to have a good grasp of your audience through a data-driven lens. Whether that’s building and nurturing your customer database, to your performance marketing that’s building and converting demand from new fans, or the audience research that underpins your strategy, data is inherent to your success.”

Anderson’s team analyses data on the daily from ticket sales, owned channel engagement, advertising, search, and third-party sources.

The growing role data is playing in sports covers everything from enabling better on-field decisions by refs and coaches, to enhancing fan experiences to management of player wellbeing through the likes of injury and load tracking which is opening up new opportunities for brand engagement and revenue streams. For example, overseas brands like EE (the youth arm of BT, the British multinational telecommunications company) track the online abuse towards England footballers to help manage mental health.

GPS, heart rate and ball data provided by brands like Adidas provide an additional layer of story-telling to add to their own fandom as well as their product offering.  

In 2023 there is a real focus on social responsibility in sports sponsorship. The Saudi sponsoring the FIFA Women’s World Cup has been challenged by local football associations in New Zealand and Australia recently, a clear example of how expectations are changing. In a politicised world there are inherent dangers for sponsors, events, and players.

There are a number of international examples of brands experiencing negative publicity as a result of their association with sports. One of the most notable is Nike and the Lance Armstrong doping scandal: In 2012, Nike faced backlash and negative publicity when it was revealed that Lance Armstrong, who was sponsored by Nike, had been using performance-enhancing drugs during his cycling career. Nike faced criticism for continuing to sponsor Armstrong even as rumours of doping circulated.

Locally, McDonald’s continue to face negative publicity and criticism for its association with unhealthy eating and obesity, particularly in relation to its sponsorship of sports teams and events that target children and young people.

In order to attract and retain quality sponsors, the teams and the players have to present as good humans, not just good players. Further to that, sponsors aligning with teams or events expect not just the franchises or brands to uphold a certain standard of behaviour, but for the individual players to as well.

New Zealand is changing, and event sponsors and advertisers need to consider how they will engage and talk to many different groups including minorities. They need to ask the question: ‘How will I connect all of Aotearoa with these athletes or performers?’

Today’s fans aren’t overly fixated on history, nor are they totally handcuffed to wins and losses, what they want is inclusion, enjoyment, and social satisfaction. The future of marketing in sport is going to be fan-centric more so than led by the game or players, because fans best relate to fans.

Sport delivers lifelong friendships and memories for fans. For brands, this is an association that reaps substantial rewards.

There are great opportunities sitting right in front of us waiting to be tapped into. Women’s Rugby is a prime example. The Black Ferns captured the nation in late 2022 as they were crowned Rugby World Champions here on home soil. Kiwis all over the world laughed, cried and sang with them. We eagerly jumped on board and celebrated every win on their Rugby World Cup journey as they overcame adversity to be at the top of their game.

Yet, at the time of writing this we still wait for a brand to be brave enough to invest long term ONLY in Women’s Rugby and the Black Ferns. Some have come and gone but there is a massive opportunity for a brand to be part of writing history, by investing in these incredible players who are still working hard every day to change the professional rugby landscape, just like those before them, to carve a better future.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

Graham Medcalf

About Graham Medcalf

Graham Medcalf is former Editor of NZ Marketing and regular contributor.

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