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21 Sports Marketing Trends to Watch Out for in 2021


2020 has been a challenging year for everyone. We’ve become accustomed to working from home, living our day-to-day life on the cloud, and constantly hunting for new forms of entertainment. Social distancing has become the “new normal” and wearing masks is now part of our everyday life.

The sports industry isn’t different. Teams and events had to quickly pivot amid absence of live sports to limit the spread of COVID-19. From fake crowd noise to cardboard cutouts to virtual fans via Zoom, innovation has been the key driver for fan engagement and sustainable commercial success. The pandemic forced businesses of all sizes to reassess their digital transformation plans to remain relevant to customers and be competitive in the marketplace.

If you still feel like your head is spinning from 2020, 2021 promises to be even more disruptive and game changing.

We interviewed 21 of the top minds in sports marketing to get their thoughts on the most important predictions to watch out for in 2021. From sports teams, leagues, brands, media platforms, products, and educational institutes, this article outlines trends in the sports industry to keep a close eye on for next year.


ORGANIZATION: BUILDING FROM WITHIN

Andy Dolich, President at Dolich Consulting: “The New Normal is over. Sports organizations from the playground to mega-stadiums have to be strategically focused on the New Different. Teamwork, Leadership and Trust are simple to say and much more difficult to deliver. Only those in the business of sports that connect with fans on these three principles will succeed.”

Adam White, CEO at Front Office Sports: “2021 will see the verticalization and consolidation of sports properties across the world. Sports has proven that it’s recession proof but not pandemic proof. Teams now want to own their omni-channel network from top to bottom. Whether its real estate, practice facilities, tech ventures, or even different sports, conglomerates will focus on consolidating all stakeholders within their range. Examples such as Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys/Legends), Tepper Sports & Entertainment (Carolina Panthers/Charlotte FC), and Fenway Sports Group (Boston Red Sox/Liverpool FC) are just the tip of the iceberg.”


OLYMPICS: ALL EYES ON TOKYO

Norm O’Reilly, Director of International Institute for Sports Business and Leadership at University of Guelph: “The Olympics and Paralympics will signal a return of sport with a ‘boom’. This is an optimistic one, but the timing right now looks possible. By late summer, when the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be set to launch, the world should be largely vaccinated against COVID-19, hopefully actions are put in place to mitigate future pandemics, and – most importantly – consumer demand for social interaction, sporting events, trips and positivity will be feverish. It could make the Tokyo Games the most watched, even if in-person access is still limited, event in human history.”

Russell Sargeant, Vice President of Strategy & Sponsorship at NBCUniversal Media: “The 2021 Tokyo Olympics will be the most meaningful Olympics ever. The Tokyo games will be the first chance for a global celebration of our shared lives and a return to “normal”. Globally, the games will be a huge celebration of humanity and athletic achievement. At the same time, with the election year behind us, domestically the Tokyo Olympic Games will bring Americans together in a way few, if any, other events can as we all cheer on the inspirational athletes of Team USA.”


SPORTS BETTING: GOING ALL IN

Cristian Nyari, Head of Commercial Content, North America at DAZN: “With the need for organizations’ to diversify their revenue streams and the rapid legalization of betting across the United States, 2021 will see further proliferation of sports betting deals across teams, leagues and media companies. We will also likely see deeper integrations into existing content and product strategies to drive engagement around betting.”

Dana Worby-Robinson, Partnerships Manager at BetMGM: “The filling in of more legal sports betting states throughout the country will allow sports betting operators to start to pivot slightly in how they’re able to market. We’ll see more pockets of states bordering one another who all have legalized sports betting and thus, operators will be able to have less wasted impressions when they advertise regionally and nationally, rather than solely trying to segment on a state-by-state basis. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an increase of sports betting operator advertisements across all mediums.”

Matt Cacciato, Executive Director, Center for Sports Administration at Ohio University: “The momentum that state by state approval of legalized sports gambling had coming into 2020 was significantly slowed as the pandemic took hold in March. I expect state by state approvals to regain that momentum twofold in 2021 as two things happen; Non gambling states see the powerful data and tax revenues of the early movers like New Jersey and Pennsylvania and, the need for states to generate additional tax revenue to pay for their pandemic responses increase significantly.”


ATHLETE MARKETING: THE POWER OF BRANDING

Justin Karp, Social Media Director at NBC Sports Group: “Now more than ever, social provides the key one-to-one connection between fans and athletes that builds lifelong affinity. Watch for leagues, teams, and brands to double-down on athlete-led storytelling and, moreover, letting the athletes evangelize the brand as much as brands evangelize the athlete. For extra credit, pay special attention to how this plays out in college athletics, as new NIL rules empower athletes to build their personal brands.”

Jessica Smith, Head of Corporate Partnerships at Angel City FC: “Endorsements of athletes either a part of property and/or league partnerships or independently, provide incredible value to brands and will continue to be an integral part of partnership. The power of personal brands and social media followings provide athletes with their own ability to leverage their likeness, sometimes in comparison to teams themselves. The growth you’ll see in brands aligning with athletes knowing the power of their influence will be significant.”

Amobi Okugo, Defender for Austin Bold FC and Forbes 30 under 30 recipient: “It’ll be more important [than ever] for athletes to hire a brand/social/business manager before an agent in 2021. With everything going on from a digital standpoint, such as NIL, there is a unique opportunity for athletes to take advantage of. More and more athletes will be seeking representation outside of the standard agent model.”

Preston McClellan, Player Content Director at PGA TOUR: “The media power of the athlete will continue to rise. We have seen this trend over the last couple of years, and I think the pandemic only accelerated it. Athletes have extremely large followings on social media, with most of the top players in each sport having more followers and creating more engagement than the teams and leagues for which they play. Brands, properties, and everyone else are beginning to realize this and work more in partnership with athletes to help them build their following online. I always used the phrase that a rising tide will lift all ships, and I believe that applies here. The more people following the athletes in turn will mean more people having brand awareness for the leagues and teams.”


COLLABORATIONS: ALL ABOUT THE CONTENT

Neil Horowitz, Product Marketing Director at Greenfly: “Social is more human-based and democratic than ever, thanks largely to TikTok and adaptors like Instagram Reels, Snapchat Spotlight, and the YouTube platform in general. Because of that, more teams will engage these talented creators that are either fans of the team and/or creating content related to the team. Some may have read about HBO, for example, handing over their TikTok to a group of young creators with some loose guidance and messaging and then let them exercise their creative juices. Could a team or league do something similar, or more likely put their muscle and give access to an individual or group of individuals on one or more of these social platforms?”

Scott Sandalow, International Development Director at AS Roma: “2021 will be the year when brand collaborations become the norm for teams, leagues, and athletes alike. We’ve seen the power of collaborations in 2020 in the food and CPG sectors, specifically Popeye’s and McDonald’s. Expect to see your favorite teams and athletes link up with some of the biggest brands outside of the sports for clothing capsules, snacks, and events!”


SOCIAL IMPACT: MARKETING WITH A PURPOSE

Andy Szabo, Partnership Development Director at Oakland Athletics: “Philanthropy and sponsorship will be tied together now more than ever before. In 2020, athletes, teams and brands were influential participants in the fight for social justice and equality. Teams are deeply ingrained in their communities and brand partners help bring meaningful programming to life. Angel City FC is a great timely example of a new property embracing that challenge, aligning with like-minded partners to bring about true change and sustained impact.”

Courtney Ksiazek, Partnership Marketing Director at San Jose Earthquakes: “In 2021 and beyond it is going to be imperative for teams and brands to create real impact in their communities. There will be an expectation more than ever from fans and consumers to see that organizations are actually doing good for others as a residual effect of the year we’ve had in 2020. Not just talking about their community but a truer commitment and action to make it a better place is going to be expected across the board.”


ESPORTS: MORE THAN JUST GAMING

Chase McCaskill, Digital Marketing Manager at U.S. Soccer Federation: “2020 forced many organizations to consider – and even dip their toe into – Esports as a legitimate property. 2021 will be a year that proves which organizations truly believe in the opportunity presented by Esports. Many organizations are already heavily invested in the space and 2021 will prove which organizations are in it for the long haul. The ceiling is high for Esports (particularly eFootball).”

Brett Baur, Vice President Global Partnerships at Monumental Sports & Entertainment: “The categorical separation between ball and stick sports, professional athletes, and esports/gaming will become even more blurred. The video game industry is approaching $200B in global annual revenues with over 2 billion gamers worldwide. And the sports industry is figuring out how to capture those brand dollars and fans. We are already seeing many traditional sport athletes becoming gaming content creators and influencers in the space (eg. JuJu Smitch-Schuster, Aerial Powers, Gordon Hayward, OBJ to name a few), with endemic gaming brands backing them (see HyperX Heroes). Sports fans will want to further engage with their favorite athletes on streaming platforms like Twitch, or better yet, play with them. It creates an opportunity to ‘humanize’ these pro athletes and puts them on a level they can greater relate to.”


WOMEN IN SPORTS: LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD

Michelle Gulino, Corporate Partnerships Marketing Manager at Dallas Cowboys: “The WNBA saw a 68% increase in regular-season average viewership in 2020, their Orange Hoodie was named “Best Fashion Statement of 2020” by SBJ. Sarah Fuller’s first appearance for Vanderbilt Football generated over 200 million impressions and a social value of over $3 million. The NWSL’s was ranked 1st in Social Media Engagement Rate amongst major sports leagues (including WNBA (2nd) MLB (3rd) NHL (4th) NFL (5th) NBA (6th) MLS (7th)) and viewership increased 493% this past year. Despite the above, and the fact that women make up 40% of all participants in sports, yet they only 4% of sports media coverage. Crazy right? Women’s sports is just scratching the surface. Many brands and executives stake the claim that advancing women is core to their business, yet how they spend their marketing dollars indicate otherwise. This is a “rise to the occasion” opportunity to walk to the talk for many brands. “

Jon Scammell, International Market Lead at Chelsea FC: “We will see increased monetization of women’s sports, with record audiences, sponsorship revenues and TV rights deals. This will be driven by women’s teams beginning to operate as their own entities; negotiating their own sponsorship and TV deals; and brands wanting to support gender parity.”


TECHNOLOGY: DRIVING THE FUTURE

TJ Ciro, SVP Strategic Partnerships at Opendorse: “Technology-driven platforms will fundamentally change the endorsement industry. The endorsement market’s 100X growth in 2021 and the need for compliant disclosure demands it. A technology-based platform will be necessary for scale and disclosure between brands, student-athletes, schools, conferences and the NCAA. A new marketplace and workflow (think Airbnb for endorsement deals) will have a direct impact on the way brands and athletes transact moving forward.”

Kyle Waller, Digital Executive at the Premier League: “With many sports organizations and clubs having to deal with a lack of supporters at stadiums, I don’t think it will be too long before tickets are being marketed through a VR lens. A supporter having the ability to watch a game from wherever they are will give organizations extra commercial opportunities and bring the gameday experience back to the fans who are unable to attend. Organizations could implement this on a more regular basis with their core ticket holders, before branching out to casual and international audiences.”




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