Ever since there have been sports, there have been sports partnerships. The admission to sporting events held at the Roman Coliseum was typically free – often sponsored by Roman politicians looking to curry favor with the public.
The forms of entertainment and things that capture public attention has multiplied exponentially since the days of Ancient Rome, as have the ways for people – or, more commonly these days, businesses and brands – to activate a partnership. Yet, sports remains at the center of sponsorship. And sports teams and leagues now operate extensive ecosystems of partners that deliver tangible and intangible value for the businesses that pay millions for the right to co-mingle with a league, its teams, and its fans.
At the recent Leaders Week conference, Rahul Kadavakolu, Executive Director of international brand and prominent sports sponsor Rakuten, beautifully articulated three key factors behind why a brand like Rakuten chooses to invest as a partner in sports, all strengthened by the unique, powerful emotional ties that bind fans (consumers) to their favorite teams and athletes, and to the brands with whom they partner.
It has been well-documented that sports remains one of the best ways to reach masses of engaged, attentive eyeballs on a consistent basis. And that’s why you see brands – big and small – investing in sports to help get their name out there. YouTube TV plastered themselves all over the World Series and now finds themselves on the jerseys of Major League Soccer club LAFC, while everyone that follows hockey now knows PPG Paints thanks to them putting their name on the Pittsburgh Penguins’s home arena. And it’s why Elk Grove Village continues to sponsor the ‘Makers Wanted’ Bowl, and even why an international powerhouse brand like Rakuten, seeking more US awareness, finds themselves on the Golden State Warriors jerseys and spending money on a clever Super Bowl ad. Impressions and eyeballs may be softer metrics, when awareness is the KPI, the scale and engagement that sports offers is a helluva value prop for partners.
In less crowded industries, the frequency of impressions and awareness detailed in the last point can drive business simply because, well, they may not know a ton of paint brands off their top of their head, but PPG Paints sticks with them. Then, in verticals where more options are more well-known, sports represents an avenue to drive consumer preference. This happens a number of ways we see every day in sports sponsorship – demonstrations, free sampling, first time trials or discounts, team-branded products, and players/teams using the product or service themselves. The emotions play a role, too, as many fans will opt for one brand over another simply because they do sponsor their favorite player or team. It’s why sponsors love NASCAR, in which 65% of fans surveyed were more likely to consider a product or service if they see it’s the “Official ‘x’ of NASCAR.” And perhaps all those fans of ‘Dub Nation’ will bookmark Rakuten on their browser or in their minds instead of opting for Amazon.
This is a quickly emerging element of sports partnerships – as sponsors of the same team or league congregate together, learn from each other with how they’re activating their partnerships, and often find and activate upon synergies or co-branded activations. It’s why you’re starting to see more teams host sponsorship summits the last few years and multi-brand promotions like a sweepstakes that involve purchasing a Coca-Cola product at a Pilot Flying J or perhaps even a company like Rakuten offering a discount on a fan’s next purchase of a Nike product on their site (both of these are hypothetical examples). Brand extension means partners can be so much more than the sum of their parts when they work together to win over the fans’ hearts, minds….and wallets. And sports offers entry into a community of sponsors unlike any other avenue.
Many of us who have worked in sports business don’t know it without sponsorship comprising a key piece of the pie. RFP’s come in, deals are renewed or reworked over decades, and certain categories continue to spend a huge portion of their marketing budgets on sports partnerships. And it was illuminating to hear from one of the world’s biggest companies on what makes sports special for them. So, why sports? I encourage you to watch the full video snippet below and you’ll understand the answer to that question.
In order to build a brand…there’s a certain emotional quotient that’s required. We believe that sports can do that better than other platforms.”
— Neil Horowitz (@njh287) May 21, 2019
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The next era for sports entertainment has arrived. With sports gambling beginning to penetrate the US, as state-by-state passes legislation to permit and regulate it, a business is emerging and evolving before our eyes – everyone’s out to get piece of the pie, even as the pie is still baking.
There have been calls for so-called ‘integrity fees’ from the sanctioning bodies of the country’s biggest sports (aka the leagues), there have already been partnerships – primarily around increased data and around logo usage by casinos and sportsbooks, sponsorships – now that teams can seem to freely sign on such sponsors (With some caveats), and yet it feels like we’re barely in the first inning, the first lap, the first quarter, of this game.
Having recently traveled to Europe, it felt a little like traveling into the future – well, sorta. While I didn’t attend a live sports event, and there have been many stories written about betting windows at or near venues where games take place, my glimpse into gambling was thought-provoking now more than ever, given the new state of sports in the US.
But it felt more like the part of Back to the Future Part II where Biff was in charge and not the future with hoverboards and ’90s diners. (Look it up, Gen Z) Here is one of many gambling shops I saw, this from the streets of Rome.
There were live odds posted, about a half dozen TVs showing sports, and a dozen people around – smoking cigarettes, placing bets, and watching and hoping they’d be able to cash out some winnings by the end of the night. Was this the exciting future that the end of PASPA promised? Sure, most betting can and likely will take place via mobile, but shouldn’t a sport betting parlor feel more like a Buffalo Wild Wings than a corner liquor store?
The vision has become even clearer as sports executives in the States, most recently Los Angeles Lakers Owner and President Jeanie Buss speaking at the Sports Business Journal World Congress of Sports, echoed what others have said – that the promise of sports gambling for sports business isn’t all about getting rich off the rake, it’s about the enhancing, amplifying, and growing the engagement for fans.
For years, we’ve focused on building sports business and fostering fans in two ways – emotional investment and awesome entertainment. And now gambling will add a third investment – financial – into the mix. But the magic of sports fandom is all that investment comes together – the awe of watching incredible drama and elite athletes gives way to the emotional attachment to the team and to winning, and now having some actual skin in the game will only enhance the awe and the emotion.
There is arguably no nation better at creating an entertaining spectacle around sports than the US. Gambling is a new element to entice fans to invest – and what could start as a financial investment can beget entertainment, which can beget emotion. Meanwhile, those diehards now – if they have some dollars on the line, too, – they’ll invest even more following and engaging with every game, every player, every play.
Whether fans are going with their guts or poring over spreadsheets, the number of fans cheering or sobbing after a big play or big game and the intensity of the engagement with sports, the future of betting-infused sports experiences is bright.
A so-called black market of bookies and offshore sportsbooks may have emerged in the US over the years thanks to the illegal nature of sports gambling, but it’s a good thing it took this long for legalization. We got good at the entertainment side and the experience side – that’s what sports is for us, and sports gambling can fit right into this ecosystem. Let’s do it the way we know how – not a seedy, quiet place on the street, but an enhancement of the social, communal experience we all associate with sports now. It sounds like a safe bet to me.
In March 2019, the annual Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference was held in Boston, bringing together thought leaders and practitioners throughout sports business, performance, tech, and, of course, intelligence/analytics.
This deck is a collection of the best quotes, insights, and observations (for sports business, generally) shared via Twitter at the event.
Thanks to everyone whose tweets helped fuel this recap and to Sloan for hosting and providing coverage of an incredible conference! For more on me, follow on Twitter @njh287, connect on Linkedin (Neil Horowitz), and check out more on the website while you’re here!
What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.
To call esports another ‘sport,’ tantamount to basketball, football and baseball, is doing a disservice to sports business. It’s an entirely new category – a seemingly endless and growing collection of competitions and ‘titles’ (games) that come and go, with innumerable leagues and business models springing up under this catchall umbrella of ‘esports’ as enterprising individuals and organizations seek to capitalize on the millions of fans consuming and participating in esports.
It was in this uncertain, opportunistic time that Sports Business Journal and Lagardère Sports partnered to hold the esports Rising conference in Los Angeles, bringing together the thought leaders and the movers and shakers in the burgeoning universe of esports to discuss where things are and where they may be going.
I didn’t attend the conference myself, but I was able to glean quite a few interesting thoughts and insights through the videos SBJ posted to Twitter from the event. An overarching theme is that these industry leaders recognize the inflection point at which esports currently lies, and everybody is trying to figure out how to assure all this potential turns into long-term, sustained, and growing success.
Why many are bullish on esports
Ken Hersh is an investor in esports because he can see the writing on the walls, he can see the signs that show why esports has not only arrived, but is here to stay. Just look at the younger generations now, the digital natives now starting to raise kids and the kids being born into this ecosystem themselves.
“Today’s parent is probably not going to take their kid to a baseball game,” he said. And given what we know about the genesis of sports’ affinities – how it’s typically during those years when a kid is 6-10 years-old when they fall in love with a sport and often inherit the sports their parents love – it’s no surprise many are concluding that the relative mole hill of esports fandom now may become a mountain in the years to come.
And Hersh also studies the experience of his kids, and how and why the sense of passion and community inherent to going to an arena, a stadium or a sports bar [not that esports can’t fill arenas] is also aflame with esports. It’s the ultimate lean-in experience for a fan and the barrier to entry for fans is slim to none.
“People who are gaming are having an intensely social experience, they’re just doing it in a room by themselves,” said Hersh “…It’s not a stadium of 20,000 people, but it kind of is – digitally.”
esports does not have a linear future
What do you think about when you think about esports? The casual observer may know Fortnite and Ninja. The next level of informed fan may also know about Overwatch League, DOTA, and PUBG. That represents a small fraction of the competitive titles and leagues out there, however. And in an industry where monetization will largely rely on the growing demand and interest of corporate partners and media distributors, a couple of the panelists noted there is risk with ‘too important to fail’ aspects of esports. Because if brands decide to invest in esports, but for them that means only Fortnite and the very few transcendent megastars like Ninja (Tyler Blevins), that’s tantamount to brands saying they only want to work with LeBron and no other aspect or player in the NBA. And that’s not a recipe for sustained success.
The word ‘ecosystem’ was used multiple times – as in an ‘ecosystem’ of esports that needed to develop – beyond a single title and beyond even the currently prevailing ‘battle royale’ format of games that seems omnipresent at the moment, but wasn’t the case just a few years ago. They encourage esports-interested leaders and brands to think ‘holistically’ when it comes to esports strategy and not to solely focus on capitalizing the flavor of the moment because there’s no guarantee Fortnite will be #1 next year, let alone next decade.
“The industry is not yet robust enough that the failure of a major esport can be survived by other esports,” said Riot Games’ Head of esports North America, Chris Hopper, who cautions about the fickle nature of individual titles and inherent change in what the influential star players and fans are focused on, particularly for games that are conducive to becoming true sports.
“I’m not 100% convinced Fortnite has the strategic depth to survive as an esport for a decades-long span…To me, there’s a difference between esport and video game competitions…If (the biggest players) stop playing…they lose a massive chunk of what made that game incredibly special.”
There are millions of fans, sure, but as most Internet entrepreneurs can tell you, all the eyeballs in the world amount to little without an effective way to monetize all those fans. Compared to the longstanding major sports, the revenue per fan is much lower in esports. But that represents an enormous opportunity for the industry, the models for monetization are just now beginning to mature. And the options are plentiful.
It seems like the last few years have seen a proliferation of subscriptions. Maybe it’s for food delivery, for Netflix, for Amazon Prime, and, oh yeah, Internet and cell service, to name just a few. Well, there is an option for the IP owners to offer an option that eschews advertisers, a white-label solution of sorts, that drives revenue directly from the consumer.
But of course there are sponsors and advertisers. And if esports distribution rights are ever to maximize revenue, it’ll likely be through successful integration of brands. However, esports fans are notoriously tough, skeptical and eager to identify and shun marketing and advertising. It’s benevolently forcing a better paradigm in the sports industry, as brands recognize they have to do it differently for this audience and this space.
“You have to do something different for this particular audience who can sniff out marketing right away,” said Shiz Suzuki, AT&T Assistant Vice President for Sponsorships and Experiental Marketing.
She thoughtfully noted that it should not and cannot be about driving fans to retail first and foremost, they, as partners, must ‘drive benefits back to fans.’ This may be through awesome content, through interactive activities at events, through freebies and prizes, and it can get more creative from there. Christian Flathman, who works in sports sponsorships for ExxonMobil, identified a unique opportunity in esports, too – value-add activation into the game itself.
Flathman noted a sweet spot is to “take our product benefits that we put on the [race] track in real life (and) actually see a product benefit in a game also.” So maybe one’s character can drink a Red Bull to get some energy back or to grow some wings, they can view the board better thanks to AT&T or ClearEyes, or any number of integrations that fans and players will welcome, because it enhances the game and actually helps them in the game – a positive interaction and a relevant activation. This will be an interesting area to watch.
The structure and consumption of esports
It’s pretty cool to see a sport, a number of leagues, and a model for distribution, live events, monetization, and, well, everything be born in front of our eyes, particularly in this digital-first world. We’re seeing now how esports consumption is different from that of ‘traditional’ sports and some of the esports habits and features are even making the day to traditional sports, and a little vice-versa.
Turner Sports’s Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer Craig Barry hit on some thought-provoking ideas on traditional sports presentation – emphasizing that these young fans don’t necessarily want to be dependent on the produced broadcast, they want to pick their own experience, cameras, and angles. But that’s if you can even get them to tune in in the first place – Barry noted the omnipresence and ease of access for highlights. For them, watching highlights is equivalent to watching the game. Barry knows they’re living in a time of transition and change – that’s not to say the experience of watching a full game, lounging in the EZ-Boy is dead, there are just other experiences to consider, too.
“There will always be a place to lean back and watch, but the day-to-day consumption of content – that landscape is changing, and it’s highly digital and mobile,” said Barry. “And therefore the habits of the way people consume content has changed. And esports is a primary driver of that.”
Another interesting area where esports and traditional sports look to share some similarities – kinda – is the power of superstars. Except it’s to the nth degree in esports. Yes, clubs in the NBA, NFL, et al. benefit greatly from star performers that turn heads on and off the playing field, but the financial viability of an esports franchise and league can rise and fall with a star’s ability to build, engage, and activate a fan base even more so than in other sports, where winning titles remains the most valuable objective. But an esports athlete that brings along with him/her a fan base, whether they’re #1 or #10 in their sport, is worth everything. They can help attract more sponsors, more viewers, more fans just as much or more, for now, than winning the Super Bowl of one’s esports competition. It’s a unique trait if esports, but not surprising for an industry and ecosystem that was born through digital and social platforms, beginning with Twitch streamers attracting audiences of millions – for their play, but also their personality.
Finally, Brendan Donohue, Managing Director of the NBA 2k League, offered some insight into how they’re envisioning a fully formed league with teams representing cities. The likely outcome will not be traditional home and away games, with teams traveling to and from opponent cities throughout the season, but is more likely to evolve as a ‘traveling studio’ in which the league visits each of the member cities to put on the competitions; a barnstorming of sorts. It remains to be seen if this is also the long-term vision for other esports leagues, as well.
Major pro sports was largely an invention of the last century, but here we are in 2018, watching a new sport arise to major participation, popularity, spectatorship, growth, and monetization. There remain several questions unanswered, more developments and models to come, but it’s the 21st century now, and digital gaming is no longer a curiosity or a niche; digital is the new way of the world.
In October 2018, the Realtime Summit was held in Chattanooga, TN, bringing together some of the leading minds and practitioners that are creating digital and social content in real time, across the sports, news, and entertainment industries.
What follows is a collection of the best quotes, images, insights, and observations shared from the event via Twitter #RealTimeSummit. Thanks to all those whose tweets helped fuel this recap, and to the organization for putting on sharing this great event!
In August 2018, I attended a Los Angeles Angels game on a Saturday night against the Oakland Athletics.
Come with me to the game with a sports biz lens in the following slides.
In July 2018, the Sports and Entertainment Alliance in Technology (SEAT) held its annual conference, this year in Dallas. The events brings together thought leaders from throughout the industries to discuss the trends of the day and learn from each other.
What follows is a collection of the best quotes, insights, images, and observations shared via Twitter #SEATDallas from the event. Thanks to everyone whose tweets helped fuel this recap and to SEAT for always putting together a phenomenal event!
In June 2018, Hashtag Sports held its fantastic annual three-day conference, featuring thought leaders and experienced pros from throughout the sports industry to sit on panels and lead provocative discussions about the trends and questions of the day.
What follows is a collection of the best quotes, stats, insights, images, and observations shared via Twitter #HS18 at day 2 of the event. Thanks to everyone whose tweets helped fuel this recap!
Thanks to the folks at Hashtag Sports for putting on such an incredible event.