Brands no longer have a league of their own

Sports have the ability to win the hearts of Americans and the industry professionals alike, placing them at the forefront of the media landscape. During the past 20 years, the landscape has undergone significant shifts in technology, with the sports media sector — powered by a loyal audience — leading the way.

As brands scramble to rethink their sports engagement strategies, one word is important to keep front and center: access. Access to the leagues, access to the athletes, and access to media have all been democratized. Sports media and marketing are still valuable brand, activation and performance marketing tools, but in order for brands to successfully play in the sports media sector, they have to evolve their strategies and find that game-winning consumer connection that compliments what the leagues — and increasingly the athletes themselves -provide.

The most forward-thinking leagues have opened up
Search for ‘Stephen Curry highlights’ on YouTube and you will find the most viewed clips created by fans, not the NBA. The NBA spearheaded the shift towards open access to leagues beginning with its open-door policy of redistributing and re-mixing their content. Fans, media platforms, and athletes can clip, retouch, add commentary and share their favorite highlights.

Leagues have even begun to further provide streaming rights to non-traditional media partners. We can expect to see the continued rise of fan access to the leagues especially among moves like Twitter’s live-stream deal with the MLB and MLS in 2018, Facebook streaming 47 college basketball games exclusively on Facebook Watch in 2017, and YouTube streaming MLS teams Los Angeles Football Club and the Seattle Sounders FC.

Athletes use social to go over the top
Athletes have also created their own open-door policies by directly connecting with fans while accumulating influence through ownership of their platforms. We can partially credit this trend to The Decision by LeBron James in 2010, at the height of his influence, LeBron convinced ESPN to telecast his free agency decision live from the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, Connecticut. The move further raised his profile while raising 2.5M for charity in the process. LeBron introduced the future of athlete access: wielding influence and reach for the greater good.

Athletes are expanding their reach and power through social media. Today, athletes post their thoughts and connect with fans in real time like NBA player Donovan Mitchell did via Twitter, speak directly with fans on issues that matter to them, and even find time to engage in off-season trash talk like NBA Players, CJ McCollum and Kevin Durant. These outlets have allowed athletes to become accessible to their fans and arguably more human.

Athletes as media moguls
Beyond social, athletes are starting to build proprietary media ownership. In 2015, Uninterrupted, Lebron’s digital video company, raised $15.8 million from Warner Bros. Entertainment and Turner Sports to expand the company’s efforts to bring athlete-created content to fans. Derek Jeter took a similar content-creation approach to launching The Player’s Tribune. These platforms allow athletes to share their stories in their own words, taking the power from reporters and creating direct, and more in depth, connections. Below are some tips for brands to help create their own game-winning strategy.

Tips for a Game-Winning Strategy

  1. Create unique, once-in-a-lifetime fan experiences
    Brands have the power to help fans do the seemingly impossible, but only when they know their brand purpose. Take Red Bull’s Neymar’s Five as an example. The brand partnered with the famed Brazil soccer player, Neymar Jr, to create the Neymar Jr’s Five which sought to identify the best five-a-side soccer team in the world. During its third year in 2018, the global tournament featured over 100,000 players from 61 countries across six different continents. This unique experience creates a distinctive memorable brand association with sports.
  2. Allow your audience to be proud, die-hard fans
    Brands are uniquely positioned to leverage a fan’s passion for the sport and allow them to identify even further as a die-hard fan. Identify what matters most to your audience — the live action, the analysis or the conversation — then align your brand by supporting your audience’s ability to experience, read or participate in it.
  3. Leverage direct athlete partnerships
    Athlete partnerships are on the rise. However, brands can make them more impactful by identifying an athlete that best resonates with the target audience, creating experiences and content that are only possible when the athlete lives the brand purpose. You can do this by using products to made athletes relatable (such as Sour Patch Kids / Ben Simmons) or give the right athlete creative freedom (such as Pepsi Max / Kyrie Irving).

Changes like these have evolved the fan experience, but for a brand trying to connect to fans through sports, it can feel overwhelming. The simple truth: providing sponsored access to a fan’s favorite athletes or team isn’t enough anymore. Brands must dig deeper to create unique, exclusive experiences that celebrate fans and their connection to the sport.

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