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    How to market to sports fans when there is no live sport

    The Covid-19 pandemic has presented sports marketers with a challenge, and an opportunity.
    Seseki Itsweng, managing director, Openfield
    Seseki Itsweng, managing director, Openfield
    The challenge is how to market to sports fans when there is no live sport. The opportunity though is there to understand the modern sports fan better than ever before and give them what they want.

    You see, the modern sports fan doesn't want to be marketed to. They want to be marketed with. They want to be part of the conversation. And now is the best time to do so because so many people are at home and online.

    Until now, the traditional approach has been talking to sports fans and trying to reach them through the clutter of an over-saturated sports market. The cancellation of live sport for the foreseeable future, and what I expect to be a very slow reintroduction of live sport when this ban is lifted, presents sports marketers with a unique opportunity to make the sports fan part of the conversation like never before.

    The timing of this ties in with an article I read with Gary Kirsten. Kirsten won the Cricket World Cup with India in 2011, and he did so by employing a unique coaching strategy that he felt took into account the needs of the modern professional sportsman. Kirsten realised that the Indian team was filled with some of the greatest cricketers in the history of the game. He couldn't coach down to them, because there was nothing more you could teach Sachin Tendulkar about batting. But he could coach with them. He made them a part of his process.

    As agencies, we need to apply that same strategy in our interaction with the modern sports fan, and the current ban on live sport gives us the perfect opportunity for this.

    Here's what we need to do:

    1. New content

    Now is the time when the industry should be leveraging all of its strengths in access to major teams and sports stars and creating new content. It's not enough to just start showing or streaming sports highlights.

    We should be locking ourselves behind doors and coming up with ground-breaking new magazine shows that engage the sports fan. Fans want to know what the stars think.

    So let's give them panel discussions about hot topics in sport or engaging discussions that answer the fans' questions around burning issues. Now is the time for live phone-in programmes to be making a comeback on our TV screens or portable devices.

    2. Q&As

    Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) understands content. He knows what moves the needle. So he recently reached out to his fans through his social media channels and threw open a Q&A session about anything they wanted to ask him. This isn't new, but it's definitely timely.

    Q&As with fans are particularly powerful because they give the fans a voice. And we can package them in an entirely new way. We can schedule certain days in which we'll have a Monday live chat with the coach, a Wednesday live chat with a player and a Friday live chat with the team physio about training and nutrition and so on.

    On the weekend, we could schedule a coaches' panel with a few coaches. On a Vodacom Super Rugby tour to New Zealand, a few years ago, we arranged for the then Vodacom Bulls coach John Mitchell to sit with the tour winners after the match and discuss it with them, giving them an opportunity to have their say.

    We've spent the past few years creating bespoke events such as the Castle Lager Locker Room Sessions, Kagiso Rabada's Coaching Clinics for Nissan and a whole host of others that make the sports fan a part of our journey.

    We give them access to their favourite players in a totally unique setting – that's the key. And it works just as well online and at a time when digital is in demand more than ever. It doesn't have to be long – just available.

    3. Telling the story

    The sports industry is one of the hardest hit by this disruption, so what are we as an industry doing to help find a solution? Now is a great opportunity for us to use our sponsorships to tell the story of this virus and how to combat it. Let's get our sponsored teams and athletes sharing tips on washing hands, self-isolation and so on.

    Even ideas on how they're planning to entertain their kids at home during this period of school closures. There is a lot of this taking place individually on social media, but as marketers, it requires us to pool this into one powerful message for our brands and their fans.

    We need to engage with the modern sports fan beyond just an algorithm. It needs to be personal. When it comes to digital marketing, I always believe a love lasts a lot longer than a like.

    We're incorporating the fans holistically and showing them that we're interested in you more than just whether you like our Tweet.

    4. Be creative

    A challenge such as this presents unlimited opportunities to be creative in reaching sports fans with content beyond the traditional. Let's come up with opportunities for fans to connect online together and share their passion for their sport.

    We can have discussions and debates online moderated by a leading sports presenter. Let's also ask Kagiso Rabada to share his top 10 sports movies of all time. Or Morné Steyn to share his favourite sports books of all time. And, most importantly, once they have done so, let's encourage the fans to vote and submit their own lists. Let's even pull in the Springboks' physio and ask him to suggest a training programme that can be done from home to keep fit during this time. It cannot be all about ROI to start with.

    As Kirsten put it in the article I read: "When you take the focus away from the result and look at why we're doing what we're doing, you create an environment where everyone can be at their best. Rewards are a by-product of the effort you put in."

    The opportunities are there.

    The fans are right where we want them. They're not out shopping or mountain biking or playing golf or running. They're at home. And they're looking to us for content.

    So let's give them something to remember us by.

    About the author

    Seseki Itsweng is the Managing Director of Openfield.
    Openfield is a sponsorship marketing consultancy which focuses on providing strategic expertise on sponsorship matters to key corporates, as well as assisting clients with the implementation of these strategies.

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