Sports marketing is evolving – how do advertisers keep up?

By Abhishek Pandey, Head of Research and Analysis – Global Marketing 

Empty stadiums, dwindling viewership and low advertiser confidence have all cast doubts over the efficacy of sports marketing. And the recent lows in the viewership for the Super Bowl and March Madness championship game may not have assuaged those doubts. 

But before we fall into the usual marketing cliche of declaring sports advertising dead, it’s important to look beyond the headline numbers and see the way sports marketing is evolving.

With the explosion of digital platforms across which content is now available, audiences around the world are experimenting with different ways of watching live sports. While doing so, they leave a considerable digital footprint which can be used to track and target relevant consumers. And, while the changes in platform preferences were already on their way, the current pandemic has accelerated the adoption of these alternate platforms.

Sports audiences are going digital

With the advent of numerous streaming platforms there has been a gradual shift of audience from traditional platforms to streaming platforms. The current pandemic has only accelerated the adoption of these streaming platforms. 

Our analysis of sports viewing patterns across 200,000 actively engaged households in the US reveals a 19% increase in the number of households that consumed sports content through OTT medium and streaming apps in Q4 2020 compared to Q1 of the same year. And, like other trends, accelerated by COVID, this seems likely to stick around and grow.  

Understandably, this increased viewership and engagement across streaming platforms is accompanied with a decline in audience volumes and engagements across the linear TV platform. And that puts the viewership declines for recent big ticket sports events into a different context: despite TV ratings for the Super Bowl hitting a 14 year low, the streaming grew 65% compared to the streaming audience in the previous edition.


Much like the growing interest for sports content across streaming platforms, interest around pre and post match content online like highlights, match reviews and previews, player ratings, stats, fantasy predictions and so on, have all seen massive upticks over the past year. 

In the UK, engagement with soccer related content on YouTube doubled over last year, with more people engaging with fan channels, podcasts, pre-match previews, post-match discussions, and so on. Similarly, search interest around player and team stats online during the recently concluded NFL season also grew 1.8 times last year compared to the last season.  


Fantasy sports and sports betting are also avenues that have benefited extensively from digital transition. The audience for these fantasy leagues are generally of interest to marketers because they are generally young (half are under the age of 35), and have affluent professional backgrounds (three quarters have an income over the median national income).  


Even with changing consumer preferences, live sports continue to remain part of marketing calendars

Even with the shift in consumer preferences, half of marketers across the US and UK are still reserving budgets for advertising during live sporting events and sponsorship deals. Live sporting events are more important to current media strategies in the UK where three quarters of marketers have marketing budgets to make use of the live sports opportunities. 

Live sporting events continue to be part of media strategies



But many marketers are also aware of the evolution in live sports consumption and are changing their strategies accordingly. Eight in 10 who still have sports marketing plans this year have increased their spend since the restart of live sport, with a majority of marketers diverting funds from linear TV to other digital platforms. The transition of sports marketing budgets to digital platforms is again more evident in the UK where 68% of brands increased spending across their digital marketing efforts. In the US, linear TV continues to remain an important platform for marketers to connect with sports audiences, but the prominence of digital marketing platforms for sports marketing campaigns is growing.


The role of TV advertising is less focused on brand building

Historically, advertising during live sporting events has primarily been focused towards brand building. But with the evolution of what ‘TV’ means, modern marketers are viewing sports marketing as a performance channel as well. Almost half of marketers looking to use huge sporting events like the Olympics to reach customers are considering campaigns with a mix of branding and performance based objectives.


The increased use of TV as a performance channel and the shift in budgets towards digital platforms further corroborate the shift in marketers’ focus to use campaigns with a mix of branding and performance based considerations.  A higher consideration for personalised messaging and interactive high impact cross-platform creative assets among 86% sports marketers further highlight the importance of creatives in driving performance. 

How marketers can prepare for the next chapter in Sports Marketing

The way consumers are watching live sports on TV has changed, so the way we advertise on TV has to change too. 

While the fragmentation across channels, devices and platforms means that the opportunity for reaching huge numbers of people all watching the same thing, in the same place, at the same moment is declining, the data generated by digital TV and the omnichannel connections that are now possible mean there’s an even bigger opportunity for marketers – the opportunity to reach exactly the right people in all the right places at the exactly the moments they’re most likely to be receptive. 

For more information on how to make the most of the new opportunities offered by TV, read our latest ebook The multi-screen, multi-platform, multi-device opportunity.