On Sports Marketing: 'We have to move beyond sponsorship’ says the experts

As consumption patterns change and technological advances broaden the scope of what’s possible, why isn’t sports marketing making the most of the possibilities it’s being offered?

Every four years the Fifa World Cup kicks off, and every four years viewers are buried under a deluge of advertising clutter. Same ads, same stars, same jingles. Same despair.

“This is something that we experience every world cup,” admits Raed Kablawi, MENA head of Publicis Media Sport & Entertainment. “Too much advertising clutter and a lot of the brands just can’t stand out. But when I look at it, it goes back to the brand and whether or not it aligns with football. Brands who don’t will never capture the audience during the world cup, no matter how many times they run their ad or engage in direct-to-consumer activities.”

Clutter and irrelevance are huge issues for sports marketing during major competitions, but they’re far from the only concerns. New platforms and immersive experiences are transforming the discipline, the way people consume sport is evolving, and, like experiential, measurement of ROI remains a point of contention. The Middle East also remains shackled to traditional mindsets.

“Sports marketing in the Arab region has for ages been recognised as a sponsorship operation that delivers exposure,” says Karim Younes, regional managing director of Horizon FCB Sports. “The emotional aspect and loyalty factors have been disregarded. Under the same context, it is worth highlighting that rights holders want to understand sports marketing only from a revenue perspective, not recognising the positive effects it can have on consumers and brands.

“Sports marketing will keep on growing across the MENA region as opportunities are there. All that is needed is to rightly exploit them for the benefit of clients and societies.”-Karim Younes, regional managing director of Horizon FCB Sports

“Although sports are now competing with various entertainment formats, sponsors still consider that a couple of spots around a football match or an F1 race can create the needed awareness for their brands. This is a major illusion.”

Sponsorship and awareness are not enough. Millennials are no longer watching traditional media, social broadcasting is on the rise, virtual reality (VR) is gaining traction, and the creation of engaging content around sport is more important than ever as viewers desire to be placed in the thick of the action.

There are also certain challenges specific to the region. Namely a limited belief in the value offered by sports marketing on a commercial, community and grassroots level, says Younes, and a lack of valuation research, systems and software. All of this is before you get into the region’s “chaotic rights distribution”, which has scant regard for the consumer.

“The sports marketing discipline has turned into a money-making machine mostly for rights holders,” says Younes. “This is dangerous. Sports are silently but chaotically monetised, leading to a drop in trust in sports’ governing parties.”

When it comes to sports marketing, this region is considered more of an imitator than an innovator. That is something I would like to see change in the coming four to five years.”-Raed Kablawi, MENA head of Publicis Media Sport & Entertainment

Even when brands do have the rights, they do little of value with it. “Brands often make the mistake of acquiring sports rights through sponsorship without having the plan or the budget to activate these rights,” says Kablawi. “The creative activation idea and engaging with the audience through it is just as important as the rights themselves and brand managers forget that sometimes. Usually we recommend that brand managers budget three times the cost of the rights for the activation.”

Considering the connection that millions of people enjoy with sport, such a lackadaisical approach to sports marketing is perplexing. The sports market in North America is expected to reach $78.5 billion by 2021, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, while almost 37 per cent of global football investment comes from the Middle East, says Younes. Think Emirates and its sponsorship of Arsenal, Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain, and Etihad’s partnership with Manchester City.

“There is no other form of entertainment that evokes emotional highs and lows in us like sports does, so for the right brand an association with something as powerful as this should be extremely enticing,” says Kablawi.

So why is regional sports marketing in danger of scoring an own goal? And how should it approach a new world order governed by changing consumer patterns and rapid technological advances?

“When it comes to sports marketing, this region is considered more of an imitator than an innovator,” says Kablawi. “That is something I would like to see change in the coming four to five years. We always look at what’s happening globally and then try to mimic it or adapt it to the region. But with the talent that we have here and the budgets that some brands have, if they are willing to invest in sports marketing there is no reason why we can’t become innovators. I’m talking about creative executions and activation of rights that are driven by technology.”

Kablawi points to the Golden State Warriors basketball team, which streamed its opening game of the NBA season in virtual reality, as an example. Fans were able to get court-side during the game by buying Samsung Gear VR goggles, downloading the Oculus Home app, and streaming the game through NextVR.

It is this kind of immersive experience that Kablawi would like to see take hold in the region. After all, fans want to be closer to the action and, while sponsorship gives brands access to any given stadium, it is the production of outstanding and engaging content that has the potential to be the golden ticket.

“There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to innovate experiences along these lines,” says Kablawi. “To take sports marketing to the next level.”

Younes agrees. “What Formula E is offering for motorsports fans via VR is a perfect example of the possibility of bringing the fans as close as possible to the driver and emotionally closer to the motorsports product itself,” he says. “Can this effect traditional sports broadcasting over the long run? Sure it will. Fans are virtually racing with the drivers.

“Our priority for the coming future is to maximise clients’ ROI in – and through – sports. Consequently we need to start by investing behind sports marketing research and know-how across three aspects: brands, consumers, and sports products.

“Sports marketing will keep on growing across the MENA region as opportunities are there. All that is needed is to rightly exploit them for the benefit of clients and societies. Sports marketers, agencies and rights holders should not compete, rather align and join efforts to further build an industry that is really needed in such controversial times.”