In this age of inclusion, brands should invite fan participation.
A new global generation of fans and customers has emerged, with new tastes and new expectations, shifting definitions of what sports brands actually are. From the rise of eSports to the transforming face of fandom, there are new rules and new winners. From fields to phones, all sports are increasingly digital. And digital distinctiveness is ever more important—to stand for something can mean everything to the next generation.
Sports brands should do more than play
For many sports brands, emerging from football’s global shadow is an imperative for growth. But establishing consumer relevance from a lifestyle perspective is only half the battle; to truly succeed, sports brands are tapping into wider societal themes to prove their worth beyond the field of play. After all, 64 percent of the next generation of Gen Z consumers agree that it’s “extremely important” for companies to take a stand on social issues. The Colin Kaepernick Nike ad won headlines by taking a stand for civil rights while also raising record engagement with the Nike brand. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg for an industry that’s beginning to tell the world what they stand for, beyond competition. From the British Olympic Association aligning with Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign to promote acceptance and inclusion, to the FIVB tapping into the very values that spawned the game of volleyball (togetherness and collaboration), now is the time for governing bodies, teams, and sponsors to take a stand that authentically amplifies what they believe.
Know your limits—then push them
Profound disruption is changing how every brand looks at itself, and sports brands are no exception. With the proliferation of how we define “sport,” companies are seeing their remits and boundaries blurring. Game developers such as EA have been at the vanguard of promoting eSports, with titles such as FIFA, Battlefield, and Madden driving huge participation (with $500,000 in prize pools for the last online FIFA 18 Global Series). With such high stakes, these brands find themselves going beyond promotion to also regulate and govern the games they’ve grown. In this disruptive landscape, brands have to be prepared to blur their own boundaries and assume new roles to thrive.
Identify your digital difference
The priority for any sports brand going digital used to be to keep fans up to date—to share scores and news, broadcast live footage, and act as an extension of the club store. But as digital has evolved, so has the need to expand the brand’s role in the sporting narrative. Off-the-shelf solutions are no longer adequate vehicles for growth; sports, like everything else, is drowning in a sea of digital sameness. Brands that are winning in this space have had to identify their difference, amplifying it to engage with fans in new ways. The evolution of CrossFit is evidence that a community of fitness fanatics needs more than how-to videos to follow their passion; the birth of the CrossFit Games is a result of the obsessive logging of times, scores, and progress to create a digital ecosystem of leagues and leaderboards, and ultimately a new global competition with its own heroes, stories, and lucrative sponsorships. Digital is no longer just an enabler for sports brands, it’s become the decisive differentiator.
Turn passive fans into active participants
Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Olympic movement famously said that the most important thing is to participate. Never has this been more true for sports brands looking to engage their audiences: Invite your fans to be a fundamental part of the experience rather than just broadcast to an audience that sits back to watch! For instance, consider the exponential growth of Twitch, the eSports viewing platform of choice. In January 2018, its average viewership was just shy of a million people at any time of day—higher than CNN’s. Twitch features chats on every stream and, importantly, offers In Real Life streaming—enabling players and hosts to share their lives beyond gaming, opening up the platform to an expanding community of everyone from artists to athletes. Similarly, beyond being a platform for following scores, the NBA’s AR Portals app allows fans to immerse themselves behind the scenes with their favorite teams; it can even turn any flat surface into a court for shooting practice.