Sports marketing makes pivot in 2020, advertisers get back in the game

By Sean Stanleigh

The Globe and Mail

Toronto, Canada


At the height of uncertainty during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the year 2020 was starting to look like a lost season in the world of sports.

Now, with baseball playoffs in the books, the conclusion of the hockey and basketball championships, and the NFL season well under way, fans have had a chance to re-engage with their favourite leagues. The product, however, has changed.

Baseball and American football have allowed a vastly reduced number of fans into the stadiums, while basketball used technology to transport virtual energy, including piped-in crowd noise, into the playoff arenas. For the season about to kick off, most teams have yet to announce plans for live fans, though a couple of them are going to allow a very limited number of people into the lower bowls. Across the board, it’s a very different experience for spectators, near and far.

What does this mean for marketers promoting the games and the products advertised within them? What are the best strategies to deploy when it comes to broadcasting, posting on social media, and sponsorships? How are teams, marketers, and advertisers adapting in an age of COVID-19 and a series of protest movements that involved some players taking active roles?

Tens of thousands of fans used to crowd sports stadiums. Today, sports marketers have to get creative about how to harness fans' energy and enthusiasm without people present.
Tens of thousands of fans used to crowd sports stadiums. Today, sports marketers have to get creative about how to harness fans' energy and enthusiasm without people present.

These factors are a challenge, and they’re an opportunity for change and renewal.

Globe Content Studio hosted a virtual discussion under the heading “sports marketing gets back in the game” to address these issues. We were joined by three expert commentators:

“March 12 is the date that everyone in sports saw everything change.” That’s when Hosford said her colleagues started working from home and Scotiabank Arena, headquarters of the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs, shut down.

Palmer had to quickly adapt to video calls from in-person meetings, and Oehm said The Gist’s plans to expand to Los Angeles and New York, and to gear up for Olympic coverage, all came to a halt.

The loss of live fans

When the Canadian government made the decision to prevent Major League Baseball (MLB) players from crossing the border a week before the season began in July, the Toronto Blue Jays had to hustle to relocate and make plans south of the border.

Palmer said the team hosted Zoom calls with fans, players, and alumni to gather ideas, knowing there would be no spectators from Toronto in the stands at the Triple-A stadium in Buffalo, New York, where they landed. They beefed up social media content. They used the MLB Ballpark app to try to recreate a “game day” experience, including a bingo-style execution that encouraged fans to try to win groceries for a year, courtesy of a partnership with a food sponsor.

The most visible execution was the sale of life-sized cardboard cutouts that delivered inanimate fans to the stands, which “don’t make a lot of noise,” Palmer said, so the Jays amplified some crowd sounds. Rogers Stadium in Toronto holds about 48,000 fans. Even at 20% attendance, they could still host a significant number of people to support the players, create ambience, and be physically distanced, Palmer pointed out.

It’s unclear what the coming baseball season will bring from an in-person perspective, but Hosford said fans and players for both the Leafs and Raptors would agree that removing fans from the live experience impacts them greatly. The NBA, she added, worked closely with the Raptors to “seat” virtual fans in the arena in Florida last season, where all teams were based, and also amplified the sounds of cheers and boos.

The Leafs did not engage fans as closely in its live setting, but Hosford said she turned to digital platforms to promote games, activity around the games, and sponsorship promotion.

The growth of digital

The Gist, Oehm said, was about to expand to Los Angeles and New York in March. These plans were disrupted by the pandemic (the U.S. account finally launched in September). As a digital platform, her team experienced “ups and downs” over the next several months, with numbers and engagement increasing as sports came back online, and the racial injustice movement gained traction.

The Gist created different types of content and measured feedback to inform decision making. A “massive analytics sheet” is used to determine what’s connecting with the audience. Perhaps most significantly, The Gist dove into TikTok, boosting its following and increasing its overall social presence by 60%. Oehm said she took the time to implement new strategies, and on TikTok, in particular, you can really make the algorithm work in your favour.

She recommended doubling down on trends on the platform and relating them to your area of focus. For example, when DeAndre Hopkins from the NFL’s Buffalo Bills pulled off an epic catch, The Gist created a meme-type post about how he was reaching for the same sweater you’ve been wearing since March.

Reimagining advertising partnerships

Advertisers have been “great” shifting from hard sponsorship assets to digital environments, Hosford said. None of them have pulled their support. She explained that out of the gate her group brought the sports teams and their partners together for a “Bringing Toronto Back to its Feet” programme, using its massive kitchen facilities to serve meals to front-line workers and other people in need — a half-million meals in all for the community.

Palmer looked at his team’s partners with a long-term lens, considering how collaboration could work “now that we’re playing in Buffalo.” Only one sponsor paused for 2020, but said it would be back for the 2021 season.

He said advertisers recognised it was a unique situation out of the team’s control, and that the Jays figured out ways to engage partners with fans digitally while not over-commercialising the platforms. In fact, he added, the Jays held on to a higher percentage of sponsorship revenue than any other team in the league, and advertiser brand recall actually increased over 2019. Some of the digital executions “will be here to stay, post-pandemic.”

From a media standpoint, Oehm called the climate for marketing and advertising “uncertain,” with potential new partners less open to trying a new platform such as The Gist. On the other hand, she added, they also want new, authentic ways to connect with audiences. As an outlet that creates sports content by women for women, The Gist offers something unique and interesting. The site beefed up its sales and growth teams with the aim of finding and signing new advertisers. It just partnered with a coffee brand, and it launched its own merchandise.

Looking ahead

What will 2021 bring? Here’s what Hosford, Palmer, and Oehm had to say:

Hosford: With the Raptors in training camp and the Leafs prepping to start playing in January, there’s a reduced gap between seasons. In both cases, teams are facing a no-live-fans scenario. How they’ll pivot when those fans come back will be interesting, with new safety, cleanliness, and other protocols in place.

The Leafs will use learnings from what the Raptors and even the Jays did in the stands in the past season, and Hosford is “taking notes” on other leagues around the world. Expect to see differences when the Raptors and Leafs return, with digital billboards, a live event-activation crew, and lots of giveaways to make sure it isn’t a one-dimensional experience.

Palmer: There are more questions than answers for 2021, making it tough to navigate with sponsors. This is leading to things like the removal of clauses related to where the team plays and boosting the importance of broadcast-visible assets. As with the Leafs and Raptors, it’s a work in progress with live fans. Unlike the Leafs and Raptors, the Jays have the benefit of time to plan, with the season starting in April.

The team is running stadium contingency scenarios, whether games are in Toronto or Buffalo or points in between. With the benefit of experience, they’ll also take learnings from the Raptors, the other Canadian-only team in a U.S. league. There will be a renewed focus on getting fans more engaged digitally on the stats-and-data side during games, as the Jays are owned by Rogers, a big communications company.

Oehm: The Gist is still a relatively new brand and it will double down on determining what audiences want. The content strategy will continue to focus on four pillars: female empowerment, breaking news, fun and viral content, and original memes. Whether it’s Kim Ng signing as the general manager for baseball’s Miami Marlins, a female coach getting a job with a basketball team, or Natasha Cloud stepping out of the WNBA season to fight racial injustice, The Gist will be trying to get as much female sports visibility as possible.

“Sports will always be a connector and something that sparks conversations,” Oehm concluded.

About Sean Stanleigh

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