Report: COVID-19 has forever changed sports marketing

The world has been disrupted by the pandemic and this is fundamentally altering the way brands make sponsorships and activate their partnerships with sportspeople

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered sports sponsorship, accelerating trends already in play such as the growth of hybrid events, rising importance of player advocacy and popularity of esports, according to the Nielsen Sports 2021 Global Sports Marketing Trends report.

The fresh report on the changing value of sponsorship in 2021 has identified how these macro trends will influence the commercial sporting landscape over the course of this year and beyond. In particular, the pandemic has changed the nature of partnerships and brand activations, and accelerated digital transformation across sports.

Top of the report's list is live and virtual sporting experiences, which are increasingly merging. The health crisis that saw stadiums empty of fans meant events had to change and broadcasters needed to innovate. As fans gradually return to live events, these virtual upgrades will be retained, with further investment into broadcast innovations expected, Nielsen predicted.

According to Nielsen Fan Insights, 53 per cent of fans say they are more likely to consider brands that enhance the way live sports are viewed at home. This means the sporting events rights holders developing plans for a hybrid world of merged live and virtual experiences will thrive in this new era.

Purpose-driven player endorsement

Another key trend Nielsen is anticipating will continue is the voice of athletes and brands standing for communities of the future. Last year, athletes including Naomi Osaka, Lewis Hamilton and Marcus Rashford used their platforms to engage with social issues and influence top-level decision making.

The latest Nielsen Sports report showed ‘advocacy posts’ drive 63 per cent more engagement for brands, with 95 per cent of top-tier athletes (with over five million followers on social platforms) generating US$32 million worth of QI media value last year. This was up from US$17 million in 2019 and is projected to reach US$1.2 billion in 2023. This points to a real incentive for brands and rights holders to move towards purpose-driven strategies.

Brands increasingly favour socially conscious rights holders that align and provide a platform for their values, such as sustainability. Over the next three to five years, Nielsen Sports also forecasted rights holders with an authentic sustainability agenda can expect up to an 11 per cent increase in their sponsorship revenues.

The new market in esports

At the same time, esports is becoming an increasingly important sponsorship vehicle, according to Nielsen.

In 2020, many athletes and sporting organisations looked to virtual competitions to fill the void left by cancelled events. This resulted in 16 per cent of people surveyed increasing their consumption of esports events. As an ideal channel for brands to engage with younger audiences, sponsorship revenues for esports could reach up to US$842 million by 2025.

The Nielsen Sports research also found that as consumers increasingly spend their time on digital channels to watch and discuss sport, the strategic and financial investments of rights holders against these channels are showing their first tangible results.

“Changes in the global economy are directly impacting the ways sponsorships are planned and defined,” said Nielsen Sports head of consulting, Europe and Middle East, Samantha Lamberti.

“With the increasing attention to sponsorship’s ‘value for money’ and its efficient integration into a brand’s marketing mix, metrics like sales impact will become more prominent and widely utilised in sponsorship measurement frameworks."

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