Politically, socially and technologically the world is in the midst of its most turbulent period ever. This turbulence is impacting where investment in sport is coming from, how sport content is created and distributed, and is changing the dynamics of the relationships between an athlete*, his sponsors and his fans.
According to industry experts, Nielsen Sports, global sponsorship spend will reach over US$62 billion in 2017 and global media rights spend is expected to hit US$45 billion. These are astronomical numbers. Individual athletes need to know their place in this vast market otherwise the chance to capitalise on commercial opportunities will be lost.
Several key trends have emerged over the past five years, both globally and in South Africa, which will (not can) have a direct impact on an individual athlete’s ability to attract personal sponsorships and captivate fans. These are the three most notable trends:
- We live in an era where social media has given everyone the ability to be a broadcaster. Intellectual property has therefore never been more prized or valuable. Athletes are now their own media owners – from dedicated apps to YouTube channels. In America, so-called digital publishing is huge. The most popular digital publishing platform is “Uninterrupted”. It allows athletes to connect with their fans on a much deeper level, with insight and content not fit for other social media. Fans get a unique perspective that brings them closer than ever to the athletes they care about. Crucially, it gives the athlete more direct control over his intellectual property. For sponsors it’s a dream because they can be part of the conversation between athlete and fan without intruding – a case of three’s company and not a crowd.
- Over the last decade, research worldwide has shown that the behaviour of the fan population is changing. The most significant change is that fans are intensely interested in fewer things, but generally interested in more things. Put another way, fans’ attention spans are shrinking. It means that naturally longer sports (e.g. Test cricket, golf tournaments and five-set tennis matches) are under threat. Format tweaking becomes important and T20 cricket is already a prime example of this. But indications are that T20 cricket alone will not be enough and increasingly fans and sponsors will be looking for other versions of the game. Fortunately cricket is a multi-disciplined sport and offers many opportunities for variation. A player and an innovative sponsor can create a unique event that can capture the attention of fans – even if only for a while.
- As the world continues to be disjointed and inequalities persist, social responsibility is becoming more prevalent and impactful. Once again worldwide research has shown that people want to see brands and high profile public figures (like international athletes) adopt a position on societal issues and show how they are making a positive difference. Athletes and their sponsors have a unique opportunity to build corporate social responsibility components into their partnerships. At the same time, athletes and their sponsors will as a matter of course also be expected to show they are strong on anti-doping, match-fixing and exemplary public behaviour (in the wake of the scandals of the likes of Tiger Woods, Oscar Pistorius and Ryan Lochte).
The days of the athlete wearing a sponsor-branded shirt and appearing in a couple of golf days are gone. But in many ways the new commercial trends offer exciting opportunities for a new era in the relationship between an athlete, his sponsors and his fans.
(* In the context of the article, “athlete” means any professional sportsman or –woman.)