What Sports Marketers Should Be Thinking About In ’14

In his January 2014 Media Post column, SLRG President Jon Last provides a look ahead at some of the sports marketing news stories that will shape the year ahead.

A year ago, fresh off of watching at least one series from each of the 35 college bowl games, I threw my hat into the fray with a list of predictions for the year ahead. This year, my bowl TV viewing streak was snapped, though I was able to compensate somewhat, by having the good fortune of attending a bowl game while on vacation. So, in the spirit of my own personal evolution, and amidst all of the prediction lists that you are surely reading, I’m going to modify last year’s approach with a combination retrospective of how some of last year’s predictions turned out along with some of the new sports biz developments that we are keeping our eyes on for the year ahead.

“Publish or perish” accelerates in sports, yet we seek to build enduring brands
In our 24/7, instantaneous-gratification world, I’m still amazed at our collective lack of patience when it comes to winning or losing. As sports marketers we talk about building a brand, yet with rampant free agency I’ve long maintained that we are really just rooting for a shirt. Sports fans in our annual omnibus study consistently express a desire for some continuity with the players on their favorite teams, yet the number of players that enjoy a career on a single team, regardless of the sport continues to dwindle. In the coaching ranks there are now only two NFL head coaches who have led their teams for more than three consecutive seasons without making the playoffs. So marketing a franchise has in essence come down to rooting for that shirt, that stadium or arena or the enduring hope that amidst rampant change, the magic formula will ultimately be found.

If an Olympics fell in the woods, who would hear it?
I’m all for pageantry, the unsung and upstart hero stories, and cheering on the good ol’ U.S.A., but it strikes me that the Olympics has lost some of its allure for hardcore sports fans. Maybe it’s the way in which our core sports have successfully marketed their off-seasons and leveraged the proliferation of new media to remain relevant year-round. Perhaps it’s our collective capacity limitations that make it difficult to engage in sports that you hear about or see only once every four years, coupled with the fact that our major sports have in their own rights become global stages for top international athletes. But I remain less bullish about the Olympics than I’ve ever been, and again turning to some of our recent research, I tend to feel that more avid sports fans are feeling the same way.

The in-game experience continues to get an upgrade
Last year in this space I wrote about the coming of new state-of-the-art LED scoreboards as a significant and necessary part of the next chapter in the innovation of the onsite in-game fan experience. With two of the NFL wild card games nearly blacked out on local television before 11th hour sell-outs, one of the 800-pound gorillas in the room again reared its dangerous head. Sports properties will continue to need to work harder to fill their seats by differentiating the live experience in ways that provide demonstrably greater value than plopping on the couch. This means more programming innovation around the games themselves, greater promotion, amenities, wi-fi interactivity and for sports marketers, greater opportunities for creative activation. It’s a priority that will hopefully usher in a new era of excitement across our sporting venues in the years ahead.

New media meets old media and both matter
For those who’ve been reading my posts with some regularity, you’ll know that we’ve recently completed some compelling research that demonstrates that the proliferation of new media vehicles in sports has been additive rather than disruptive. Fans now have more opportunities to immerse themselves in favorite teams, events and pastimes and our research has shown that this increase in sources has not necessarily relegated traditional media channels to the scrap heap. Rather, fans have begun to parcel out distinct uses and dayparts for different media vehicles. The mix varies by sport and by audience segment, and as marketers take a closer look at this reality, activation optimization will become more nuanced and render greater opportunity for brands who examine the situation with objectivity, rather than simply follow the crowd to the “next great thing.”

Big data meets mobile insights meets observational research meets confusion and over-reaction
Speaking of the “next great thing,” as a marketing researcher I’ve scoffed at the often irrational exuberance expressed for new fangled methodologies. But as you can see by the above sub-heading, the world of consumer/fan insights has not been without rampant evolution ranging from social media scraping and analytics, to micro-technology abetting the delivery of “reality TV” observational research, to the fusion of behavioral and attitudinal data that I’ve written about in the past. Add to that heady and lengthy list, traditional MR techniques and the promise of mobile technology as a data collection source, and my consistent rant is amplified. Sports marketers can’t ignore consumer behavior, and the need for professional researchers to find the wheat among the chaff becomes even more critical. It’s an exciting time to be in this business.