An Intersport Perspective: Sponsorship Trends to Act Upon in 2017

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Between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Cubs stateside and the Premier League club Leicester City across the pond, 2016 was the year of the fairytale, producing some of the most unlikely triumphs in the history of team sport.

As sports marketers, we’ve always known that the power of sport is, in part, its ability to take on greater meaning – and that was never truer than in 2016. Want proof? More than five million people attended the Cubs championship parade, making it the 7th largest gathering in the history of mankind and the largest gathering in the history of fankind.

These fairytale stories brought a little bit of romance back to sport in 2016. It’s our job as sports marketers to engage and enhance this renewed fan passion across the country in 2017.

To achieve this, Intersport has identified the top sponsorship trends for 2017. As an independent, Midwestern company, we injected our spirit of authenticity and sensibility into our recommendations. These are not trends to watch; these are trends that every brand, agency and property can act upon in 2017.

TREND #1: THE “ATTENTION GAME”
With more entertainment choices than ever before, there is no shortage of content and ways to consume it for today’s fan. As a result, brands increasingly find themselves in a zero-sum game for fan attention at a time when sports sponsorship is more popular – and cluttered – than ever, as evidenced by growth in annual sponsorship spending rates of 4.5 and 5.0 percent in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

We expect this zero-sum game for fan attention to escalate in 2017 because sports now represent the last viable place for mass-market consumer companies to reach customers at scale. With the stakes never higher and the competition for share of voice never more intense, the common reaction to-date by leagues, teams and brands has been to protect the “ownable” content they create and produce themselves, particularly if it has proven to successfully engage fans.

As sports begin to shift from mass media centerpiece to just another bit of aggregated content, however, the basis for winning fan attention – and thus sponsorship success – will be quality ideas. In 2017, the brands and properties that recognize this first and work together their respective agencies – rather than put up walls around their “ownable” content – will be best positioned to not only innovate the game day experience, but also to engage fans on an ongoing, daily basis.

TREND #2: CONTENT MARKETING EVOLVED
The growth of content marketing as part of sponsorship activation has been discussed ad nauseam in industry trends pieces and at sports marketing conferences over the last several years. So why do we mention it again here?

In 2017, content marketing will shift from table dressing to tablestakes in sponsorship. Whether you work at a brand, agency or property, you’ve likely noticed this evolution already. We certainly have at Intersport: our four most recent sponsorship consulting agency-of-record retainers all included dedicated resources and personnel from our Content Marketing Practice.

Increasingly, sponsorship assets will be measured against their ability to convert into something we call the “Core 3” – ideas, experiences and content. All brands should challenge themselves and their sponsorship consulting agency partners with how their assets convert to the Core 3. Likewise, sponsorship consulting agencies should challenge their brand partners to identify which of their agencies leads the Core 3.

At Intersport, we firmly believe that sponsorship consulting agencies are most qualified to lead this process on behalf of their brand partners because they are best positioned to deliver strategy and ideas that resonate with fans in authentic ways.

TREND #3: THE LIVE CONUNDRUM
It started in 2015 with Periscope and accelerated in the latter half of 2016 with Facebook, but 2017 will mark the official arrival of live content as an integral part of sponsorship activation plans.

The challenge for brands and agencies, in particular, is that we are accustomed to creating ideas, content and experiences that are highly produced – which frequently involves weeks of brainstorming and drafting of treatments, not to mention time-consuming brand and legal approvals.

In 2017, we will all need to evolve our strategic approach if we want to realize the full potential of platforms such as Facebook Live and Snapchat. This means designing two content strategies for sponsorship activation. The first aligns with what brands and agencies have traditionally programmed for in recent years, what we like to call “Social Escapism” platforms (Instagram, YouTube). The second solves for “Right This Second” platforms (Snapchat, Facebook Live, Twitter). These platforms will require us to be more flexible with our production and brand standards in order to ensure real-time relevance and, ultimately, maximize fan engagement at and beyond the properties we sponsor.

TREND #4: ASSET UPHEAVAL IN THE DIGITAL ERA
With the pace of technological change seemingly accelerating by the day, leagues and teams continue to find themselves in an arms race to update and upgrade in-stadium or in-arena systems. State-of-the-art video and LED boards, mobile on-demand concessions and more are the norm in newly-built facilities, but increasingly older – and in some cases even recently-built – venues are incorporating or replacing their existing systems as well.

The rise of this Digital Era makes it a great time to be a fan, with leagues and teams laser-focused on swaying fans to choose between the live experience in-stadium vs. in-home. As a result, it’s a great time to be a sponsor, as updated assets and amenities provide greater connectivity to fans, allowing brands to become a more seamless part of the fan experience in memorable and measureable ways. However, these changes also pose challenges to sponsors and properties alike, as there are few universal benchmarks to effectively value these assets and to determine return on investment.

A good example: digital video boards. Let’s imagine you previously had permanent video board signage and the team you sponsor moves to an all-digital video board in 2017. The team offers you digital video board exposure that is triple the size of your previous signage, but it’s rotational. You receive it for ten minutes instead of the full game, not to mention it will no longer appear at all events in-venue, just those held by the team.

Is that a fair value exchange? It depends on who you ask; there are no agreed upon benchmarks to provide a definitive answer. In 2016, Intersport provided strategic counsel across several of these value discussions between leagues, teams and sponsors. As leagues and teams continue to upgrade their facilities and amenities in line with the Digital Era, brands would do well to proactively determine how they would like to see their in-stadium asset mix evolve in 2017 and beyond.

TREND #5: REGIONAL GROWTH OF ESPORTS
The explosive growth of eSports has been one of the most prominent and oft-discussed developments in sponsorship throughout the last several years. 2016 was no exception: even more tier one brands entered the space through sponsorship, while mainstream media, sports and entertainment companies made big bets of their own. According to the eSports Market Report, eSports revenue was expected to reach nearly $900 million in 2016, with the industry projected to surpass $1.2 billion by 2019.

Although eSports has come far in a short time, one untapped area of opportunity exists at the collegiate level. Currently, professional eSports teams lack regional impact and identity, both of which are a vital part of sports culture. In League of Legends, for example, every major North American team is based near Los Angeles, where the seasonal competition is hosted in a dedicated studio.

The regionalized fandom that surrounds collegiate athletics and eSports, however, helps create ingrained rivalries and narratives – rivalries that transcend any one competition. Similarly, Activision Blizzard’s recently announced Overwatch eSports league will have teams based in a variety of major cities in an effort to engage fans based on regional rivalries. Combined, these developments will allow tier one brands as well as smaller regional players to begin to broaden and deepen their impact in the eSports space in 2017.

Whether it’s making your first investment in eSports or developing a new live content platform to support your sponsorship activation, there has never been a better time to engage fan passion. If 2016 was a fairytale year for the fan, let’s make 2017 a fairytale year for the sports marketer by connecting with fans in more dynamic, authentic and innovative ways.

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