Updated: Jan 21, 2021
It's no suprise that 2020 has been full of them.
No one could have predicted how this year would've unfolded. With almost all of the world's sporting, entertainment, music, and arts events impacted, it's fair to say there is still a large amount of uncertainty that remains.
All we can do is move forward. The Sponsorship Space recently asked five industry veterans on what major themes and trends they envision for 2021 and beyond.
Director, Corporate Partnerships
In 2021, collaboration and patience will be key. Teams/rights holders won’t have access to some of the same tools to which they’ve become accustomed. But this isn’t a bad thing. Necessity is the mother of invention. New opportunities will present themselves. Partners will benefit in the short and long term as activations become more thoughtful, impactful, and creative. Teams that foster a culture that promotes collaboration across disciplines to achieve the common goal of providing value to fans and partners will be the clear winners.
Formerly of Vegas Golden Knights and DraftKings
1. One thing to look forward to in 2021 is how companies embrace the legalization of sports betting. Although still not yet legal in a good portion of the United States, expect the amount of states to legalize sports betting to grow in 2021, especially as many states identify it as a possible way to recoup revenue that was lost due to COVID-19. As more states legalize, more and more large existing sports betting companies will be eyeing sponsorship deals with sports teams, news outlets and news personalities. With legal sports betting new to the industry and wide swaths of people working in sports uninitiated with the fundamentals of sports betting, we’ll see the maturation before our very eyes. This will be especially apparent as mobile sports betting allows for interaction that isn’t dependent on having fans in stands at games. Some ideas will fall flat, others will deliver great success, as different places adapt at different rates and with different levels of effectiveness. With billions of dollars on the line, it should be fascinating to see how it plays out.
2. When and how fans return to stands is a great unknown of 2021, although with progress made recently with many vaccines, it gives me hope that we’ll be closer to normal at the end of 2021 than we are at the end of 2020. The great unknown is not only will fans return, but will it be all at once? Will we still see partial capacities? Will we see different processes in different jurisdictions, even with teams in the same leagues? Once fans return, how will venues ensure safety? What will they do to make people feel safe? Will people need to carry proof they’ve received the vaccine to enter? Communication of processes and standards is going to be of paramount importance. In the social media space, what social media teams do push the message that it’s safe to return will be important, too.
3. There’s definitely a difference between now hiring trends “should” change and how hiring trends “will” change. For one, the sports industry NEEDS more diversity across the board. That’s a given. The other thing that will be interesting is that there may be more job opportunities than ever before. With so many having lost jobs due to the pandemic and many furloughed workers opting to leave the industry to get much-needed guaranteed paychecks, companies are going to eventually have to rebuild departments. This is an opportunity to not only promote diversity, but to also embrace diversity of thought. Given the nature of the times, of paramount importance will be developing revenue-generating ideas that aren’t as affected by COVID-related variables. Individuals who adapt and have solutions of how to harness social media in this regard should be of paramount value. Now more than ever, it will be important for social media departments to generate revenue, rather than drain revenue.
Head of Corporate Partnerships
Angel City FC
The Power of Purpose
Purpose will continue to be a filter of partnership consideration for properties, leagues, brands, and athletes. The market is shifting toward an accountability model that fans and consumers expect from any brand they work to align with and sponsorship opportunities have an opportunity to deliver on all fronts.
The Athlete's Brand
Athletes continue to increase their personal likeness and power with younger consumers identifying with them vs. solely with a team. Individually and collectively beside teams they represent an incredible extension to partnership initiatives.
At 4FRONT, we keep hearing from our team clients the phrase ‘we’ve seen 5-6 years of innovation in the first 6 months of COVID-19’– but I believe the sports world still has a lot of catching up to do. A few topics I think #SportsBiz folks should all be closely watching include: athletes as content collaborators (vs. content creators), teams viewing themselves as a media channel, investing in resources (vs. viewing themselves as ‘just a sports team’), a bigger emphasis on the out of market fan (vs. traditional local restrictions) and a greater focus on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion as a driving force organizationally (vs. just checking the box).
Athlete content has never been hotter and now athletes are proactively seeking out more opportunities for not only endorsement deals– but support in their overall personal brand and content strategy. Teams/ leagues need to shift their focus away from viewing athletes as content creators and more as content collaborators. Athletes should be asked not only what type of content they want to be part of– but also what they love creating, what their passions are and more. A new competitive advantage for teams will be proactively supporting athletes with brand building sessions, athlete social media training and providing content producers in-house to attract not only the top talent on the field/ ice/ court– but also online. Will an athlete’s TikTok following be viewed as a part of their overall value to a team? I think it’s something to watch…
Content, content, content. Everyone– the teams, leagues, brand partners, fans and community all want more content. But not all teams and organizations are willing to put forward the appropriate resources. One trend to watch is which teams will see social/digital as the heartbeat of the entire organization (vs. another department). More teams will be weighing whether or not to invest in full in-house production studios and creative talent to product the next-wave of best-in-class social content. I will be closely watching which teams/ leagues start new trends and online conversations vs. simply just joining in on the conversation. The key here will be monetizing social in new ways with new digital inventory. The savviest executives will start to see themselves as revenue-generating storytellers.
Don’t forget about the (out of market) fan! How many fans around North America and the globe will never step foot inside of their favorite team’s stadium? One upside (trying to find the silver lining to 2020) is teams/ leagues shift to virtual. Going virtual is more cost effective and there’s a ton of benefits, too. It’ll be interesting to see what leagues/ teams find new touchpoints and ways to engage with their out-of-market fanbase like never before.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion has been increasingly important for sports organizations in 2020. One thing to watch will be the organizations that view diversity as not just ‘checking the box’ but as a competitive advantage of their organization. Further to that point, it’s not about the optics of a diversity statement or words on paper– it’s about tactics and actions to back up what you’re saying. I’ve always loved the quote ‘Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.’ But recently heard someone say, ‘You can’t enjoy the party if you aren’t invited– but who are you bringing as your plus-one?’ And in 2021 – I think asking yourself ‘who is your plus-one’ is going to be an important question and action.
Director, Product Marketing
There was so much acceleration of digital and values among brands and partnerships in 2020 that'll stick around for 2021, no doubt, along with existing trends. I would expect to see more partnerships with a purpose-driven element, supporting an initiative or cause to benefit society. Everyone got better at, or at least tried to, activating digital and social media more. I anticipate more brands looking at content franchises, live virtual events/experiences, and mobile games (including predictions, pre-betting games).
One more thing to keep an eye on are more limited edition team-branded consumer products. These aren't just for beverage brands anymore and providing a more branded and novel entry experience with a partner seems to work.
Last thing, three words: first party data.