SPORTS MARKETING: How fans are benefitting from the modern age of technology in sport

In years gone by the matchday experience for sports fans would involve shivering on the terraces, glancing through a simple souvenir programme and picking through a soggy meat pie.

It was basic. It was rustic. But it was all about the sport.

Fast forward to 2016 and the landscape has radically changed.

In a tech-savvy world where many teenagers – let alone adults – have smartphones, the matchday experience has evolved beyond the confines of the game action.

Sports marketing is a lucrative industry, whether it be the glitz and glamour of the NFL, or the thrills and spills of the Ulster Grand Prix motorcycle race – cleverly billed as the ‘World’s Fastest Road Race’.

Sport has the power of attraction, turning the passion of the fan into a lifelong consumer-brand affinity.

“Sports marketing allows brands to piggyback on the sentiments and devotions of fans towards their favourite teams and athletes,” said Kiyoshi Tatani, president of Mizuno Singapore.

And it seems the sporting organisations, and fans, can’t get enough of it.

But what exactly does sports marketing involve? And what does the future hold for a rapidly evolving industry?

We spoke to Geoff Wilson to gauge his thoughts on sports marketing.

Geoff is a sports strategist and sports consultant who has worked with global sporting organisations, including FIFA.

GF: What exactly is sports marketing, Geoff?

GW: For me, sports marketing is about promoting and building a brand, and the commercialisation of sports events and the properties that sports teams and federations own. It is as simple as that. It is that holistic view of every aspect, looking at fan engagement as well and also other stakeholders. And obviously generating money from that.

GF: What way do teams, organisations and players market themselves? What tools do they use?

GW: There has been a big change due to digital becoming so prevalent.

Social media is obviously massive, with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat etc, and the huge audience that you have on those social platforms. We also have live streaming now, particularly with things like Facebook Live and Periscope. People are now live streaming events, which is really taking off. There are also the traditional marketing routes, such as emails.

But if you organise and create events, then it gives you something to hang your hat on, to market and communicate to the people you are trying to talk to. So organising great events is key to how people promote their club or team.

Ulster Grand Prix | Sports Marketing
The Ulster Grand Prix is now widely recognised as the ‘World’s Fastest Road Race’ – Picture by Presseye

GF: Are there any specific examples of sports marketing that have really hit the mark?

GW: There are a few, but I will bring it home to the Ulster Grand Prix. I am not just saying that because I am involved.

The UGP wasn’t in a great position financially a few years ago, and with the number of fans watching the event. What we did was conduct extensive research into a whole range of different stakeholders. We looked at the issues and we implemented a strategy, which is absolutely vital.

There is no point in doing something without a roadmap. We then got the brand right by selling the UGP as the ‘World’s Fastest Road Race’. Then on the back of that we created ‘Bike Week’ instead of just the racing itself. During ‘Bike Week’ there is a host of events where we can get additional PR. We did a vintage rally on the Monday, we tried to break a world record with the number of different manufacturers in the one place, and we did a ride-out from Dromara with the ‘Dromara Destroyers’, and there must have been over 200 bikes in the village that day.

The local businesses boomed and they want us back again. It was amazing. We also had a business conference on social media in sport, and that got us into the business market and business publications. We created a product using new events and we targeted different media outlets and brought new fans into the UGP. The event is now financially stable and we have 50,000 fans going to the racing. People know it as the ‘World’s Fastest Road Race’.

We also had Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre over, Keith Flint from the Prodigy and former Northern Ireland football star Keith Gillespie. So the UGP is a great example of how to do it right.

Geoff Wilson | Sports Marketing
Geoff Wilson

GF: How can smaller, grassroots sports benefit from sports marketing?

GW: I always talk in stories, and another great example is Crumlin United in the Amateur League. What we did with Crumlin United was we looked at the fundraising side – where the money was coming in.

We created a bar and a social club, and then we got investment to develop a 3g pitch. That meant we could generate money from the introduction of an academy. We are reaching out to the community and bringing on average 150 kids a week to the club. They pay money to be taught football in the proper way.

There is the revenue side, and that is membership, sponsorship, money through bar sales, central government funding and also fundraising programmes.

On the event side, we did a big weekend of Country and Western music, and we did a Strictly Come Dancing event. Between that, and the kids, that gave us a reach out into the community, and it got us publicity in the local newspapers. That meant we were front and centre.

Then, on a publicity point of view, I secured funding to take 10 of us away to Portugal on a coaching trip. From a PR side we developed a press release around that, and because the trip was unique we got great coverage in the media. That got coverage for the sponsor as well.

We took events we organised, and we developed the PR around that. And, like everyone, we use Twitter and Facebook to promote things every Saturday.

From a local point of view, the local media are absolutely key. You need to build relationships there. That ranges from match reports to promoting events, and don’t think it is not newsworthy. There is always an angle in it somewhere.

We now have a club in the Premier Division of the Amateur League with one of the best 3g pitches around. We engage in the community, and that community helps us tell the story of Crumlin United.

There is also merchandising, so people see your brand and image around the village.

GF: What sports have really embraced sports marketing the most?

GW: I think the NFL is the most prominent. They are now starting to live stream 10 live games on Twitter. They are normally first to engage in live streaming, and also fan engagement programmes.

They have the tailgate parties and the big screen. Most of the stadiums are Wi-Fi connected and they are now extending their brand by having games in London. They are very innovative and creative with their marketing ideas, both using traditional and digital methods.

They are making a fan’s experience better, and improving the experience of people going to the games.

GF: What about the Premier League in England, are they playing catch-up?

GW: I think the NFL is ahead because they are willing to take a considered risk. They are happy to push the envelope and push the boundaries. They are happy to be first to do something, and then they are leaders.

Now, everything might not work, but they are trying and innovating and that’s why the NFL would be ahead.

Fans | Sports Marketing
Fans now want to get closer to their heroes – Picture by Presseye

GF: How are fans impacted by sports marketing?

GW: What is happening is, sports teams and clubs are looking at improving a fan’s journey from their home to the stadium and back home again. How do they improve that?

Manchester City have the City Village, so you can go to the ground and watch a live band and some Q&A interviews before the game even starts.

The club will obviously benefit from merchandising and also food and beverage, and they are now even providing healthy options. The stadiums are much better. Man City’s Etihad is easier to get into and out of.

The stadium in Lyon where Northern Ireland played during the Euros was very accessible. And they are all starting to provide Wi-Fi. The clubs are doing a lot.

You have the older fan who isn’t really that much into the smartphone. They just want a good user experience and a good match. They want the fans singing and to cheer on the team, have a clean seat to sit on and get home safely.

Then you have the millennials who are a little bit more tech savvy. They want their content and their data. They want stats on individual players and how much ground they have covered. There is so much more on the digital side. You can order your food from your seat and it is delivered to you. Things like that.

The knowledge and data is becoming more prominent.

GF: How many different countries have you worked in?

GW: In just little over 12 years I have been to just over 80 countries, working in different football federations, sports organisations etc.

What I have always loved is you are there to help. You are not there to show off and pretend you know everything. You want to help. Thankfully I am able to help organisations evolve and grow their sport.

You also see their culture and heritage, but I can also sell Northern Ireland’s proud culture and heritage. When people hear Belfast, nearly all will mention George Best.

But I always take something away from a foreign country that I can learn from.

GF: What countries have embraced sports marketing the most?

GW: America is obviously up there, but Norway is a country that has really embraced sports marketing.

In football, they have developed their stadiums and are using Wi-Fi at their grounds. They are putting up a lot of social content on their televisions.

They are looking at branding and the fans’ journey to the grounds. So they are doing a great job.

GF: How does Northern Ireland measure up with other countries when it comes to sports marketing?

GW: I think within the so-called professional sports, we are doing a great job.

That could be football, rugby or GAA. You see a lot more fan engagement events now, like ‘meet the manager’ and things like that.

I think the sports that are more voluntary-led probably need more assistance, but that’s because volunteers run them, so that is a challenge.

We need to exchange knowledge between sports and understand what volunteers can do.

GF: What does the future hold for sports marketing?

GW: I think there will be a lot more live streaming, and a lot more on data.

Sports bodies will be able to get so much data on you, the fan, and they will market towards you.

They will send you targeted messages to you on a match day. An example would be, if you bought a football top last Saturday, the club could then target you with a text saying there was an offer on getting a number and name on your shirt.

Everything will be more personalised, to improve your experience on match day.

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