By Stephan Lepitak
The sports industry is going through transformational changes to meet the needs and expectations of 21st century fans.
From leagues and athletes getting closer to culture through music, fashion and gaming tie-ups, to new partnerships designed to drive audience connection, it’s all about engaging with fans beyond the field.
However, live sports is facing a problem: Gen Z doesn’t seem to have much time or interest in following it, alarming news to the many major brands
Deloitte recently surveyed 3,000 people in the U.S., and found that while 71% of all fans’ favorite type of sports content to watch was live events, that number dropped to 58% among Gen Z and millennial viewers.
“Today, brands and marketers are under pressure to find new audiences and then engage them credibly. Sport is one of the biggest connectors of global vast, multiple cross-sectional communities and fans—[who are] huge consumers whether they play or watch,” explained Leila Fataar, founder of creative agency Platform 13.
“Sports that may not have always been in your universe while growing up through your background or location can be introduced through lifestyle brands, whether beauty, gaming, sneakers, fashion, etc.,” as well as tentpole events like the Women’s World Cup, continued Fataar. “Finding the right and credible way to do that beyond traditional endorsement is key for success.”
In the age of digital content, mostly consumed by younger audiences, fan bases have grown exponentially too, especially on TikTok.
Today, only a fraction of fans attend their team games regularly. French soccer champions Paris Saint Germain currently have 40.8 million followers on TikTok and yet its all-seater stadium holds less than 50,000 people when full. Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association has 20.6 million followers, Premier League soccer has 13.3 million, the National Football League has 12.3 million and Major League Baseball has 7 million.
Released in June, Twitch Ads’ Anatomy of Hype report heard from 12,000 people across 12 countries. Almost two-thirds (63%) felt fandom was a defining part of their identity, while over half were more likely to consider a brand that sponsors content related to their fandom.
“Technologies, like those powering social media, have helped fan culture to become ubiquitous, connecting like-minded people to build communities,” explained Allison McDuffee, head of insights and measurement for the Americas at Twitch Ads.
“Sport still creates some of the most passionate, engaged and vocal communities, but as the next generation of sports fan emerges, brands have had to evolve the way in which they are interacting with long-established fandoms,” she continued. “This evolution means creating new ways for viewers to consume and engage with content, experimenting with new and interesting digital services and platforms to allow more interactive and immersive viewing experiences.”
This is good news for marketers, since collaborations allow brands to find new routes into sporting communities. Fashion, food and drink advertisers are increasingly turning to nontraditional channels that reach younger audiences.
“With the intersection of fashion, music, gaming, sports and technology, our culture means they just all intersect,” PepsiCo CMO for international beverages Mark Kirkham said at Adweek’s Social Media Week Europe about the company’s involvement with the launch of soccer video game brand EA Sports FC 2024.
The campaign featured international soccer stars and went beyond the traditional TV hero ad, offering in-game rewards that would tie together the sport, the gaming experience and the brand.
Interest in Major League Soccer is growing worldwide, with Inter Miami’s signing of World Cup-winning Argentinian striker Lionel Messi and the Saudi Pro League recruiting Portuguese soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo, fandom has begun to transcend teams as players develop their own worldwide followings, leading to even more highly lucrative sponsorship deals.
When digital soccer publisher Footballco asked fans how they would feel about a brand if it were to sponsor their favorite player, 67% of player-first supporters said they would feel positive about the brand, compared to 47% of team-first fans.
Andrew Baker, head of strategy at Footballco, commented: “While leagues in the Middle East and U.S. are growing their global profile through the introduction of some of the biggest players in world football, this data highlights the importance for clubs and leagues to develop fandom beyond the superficial to retain and engage fans longer term.”
Fashion and collectables as a fan connector As sports marketers look to culture to grow their connections with fans, the world of fashion has become a regular space for collaboration, placing teams’ branding on more than duffel bags and baseball caps.
In October, the NBA announced Skims as the ofﬁcial underwear partner for men’s and women’s basketball, with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver describing Skims as having become “one of our most culturally influential brands.”
In her announcement of the deal, Skims owner Kim Kardashian said: “Together, Skims and the NBA will connect people of all backgrounds through fashion, sport and talent, and I look forward to seeing the partnership thrive.”
Meanwhile in October, not long after Formula 1 and Puma signed a long-term partnership, they announced rapper and designer A$AP Rocky as the new creative director at the apparel brand, with a focus on motorsports.
Last year, French soccer team PSG opened a flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York, while LVMH, which owns brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dior and Berluti, has formed a partnership with the Paris 2024 Olympics to promote the Games and the country to the world.
And luxury fashion house Ralph Lauren has become the exclusive fashion outfitter to the G2 Esports team, which debuted in July during the League of Legends’ LEC 2023 Summer Playoffs.
At the time, Sabrina Ratih, COO of G2 Esports, said: “At G2, partnerships are all about creating better experiences and offerings for the consumer, bringing fans closer to the brand and attracting new audiences. This collaboration does all of that and more.”
For its fall collection, fashion brand Pleasures began a collaboration with MLB, producing its apparel to feature the logos of its teams including the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Fanatics also produces collectibles with various licensing deals in place across major sports including World Wrestling Entertainment, Formula 1, golf and soccer leagues.
“It is the celebration of a moment, it is a memory of a moment,” explained Ken Turner, CMO of Fanatics Collectibles, speaking with Adweek’s Speed of Culture podcast on the power of sports memorabilia. “It’s not necessarily about the item, it’s what that item reminds them of, and there is great history with it.”
To capture those moments, Fanatics allows fans to order trading cards of their favorite sporting moments as they happen with Topps Now.
How fandom is developing new sports
And with fandom comes opportunity, with younger audiences always looking for the next big thing.
“One of the most interesting insights into sports fandom these days for younger audiences is their rejection of the big leagues/formats/rules of play, and instead how they’re embracing sports through new leagues and formats and new forms of entertainment,” explained Zoe Scaman, founder of strategy studio Bodacious.
As an example, Scaman pointed to Kings League, a seven-a-side football league founded in 2022 by former Barcelona and Spanish defender Gerard Pique. It is streamed to audiences across Twitch.
Meanwhile this summer, Hasbro-owned toy brand Nerf launched its own sport, Nerf Ball, in which two teams battle by hitting their opponents with soft darts to prevent them from scoring points and getting the game ball through the hoop. Think basketball, but where the other team uses toy guns instead of their hands.
And in the golfing world, champions Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have teamed up to co-create TGL, an 18-hole indoor golf league that will air on ESPN every Monday from January. It includes backing from major celebrity investors such as Justin Bieber, LeBron James, and Serena and Venus Williams.
“All of these are centered on new ways for fans to be more involved from the get-go, with new broadcast and platforms that focus and prioritize fun while saying, ‘Fuck the rulebook,’” added Scaman.