What Can UK Sponsors Learn From US Sports and a Physicist and Astronomer?

Synergy’s recent launch in the US got me wondering whether sports marketers closer to home could learn from America’s love for stats. My search for an answer unveiled some unexpected sources of inspiration and insight. This blog shares them and, in doing so, shows the answer to my question is a resounding YES.
Say the word “statistics” and memories of miserable maths lessons are what flood back for most of us. Yet today, US sports fans and coaches LOVE data. Broadcasters ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports and NBC Sports are feeding fans, via their websites, with a constant flow of facts and figures in every American sport going. The traditional Big Four – NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB – are perhaps the most stat-heavy sports on the planet.

So why are US sports fans and coaches today so hungry for data? Perhaps the answer can be traced back to the US in 1950, when physicist and astronomer Professor Arpad E. Elo introduced a system to rank the world's chess players. Elo’s approach has since been adopted and adapted by sports organisations, especially in the US. FiveThirtyEight, for example, use it to predict future NFL performance. In brief, using analysis of past performance and a bit of maths, his system has been used and adapted to estimate and rank the future performance of players and teams, and in doing so has come to the attention of sports fans globally.

The power and popularity of Elo’s approach among fans lies in how it can arm them with data to help win debates with fellow fans, and potentially even cold hard cash through betting. DraftKings, which gives gamers (gamblers?) sports research before they ‘play’ is both enormously popular and controversial in the US. Whatever you think of it, it may not be long before DraftKings is the latest US to UK import. Subjectivity and gut instinct no longer rule fantasy transfer decisions and heated half-time debates. The popularity of FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo Rankings is just one example of how the appetite for data among US sports fans is being met. Closer to home, @AccentureRugby’s analysis of the RBS 6 Nations is an equally compelling case of how data is changing sport.

Snapshot from FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo Rankings 

Player turned manager Billy Beane attracted criticism when he started using sabermetrics to make decisions on trades, rosters and the like at Oakland Athletics baseball team. Success ensued on the pitch to such an extent that in 2009 Sports Illustrated placed Beane in their Top 10 sporting GMs/Executives of the Decade, and in 2011, Moneyball, with Brad Pitt playing Beane, hit the screens to critical acclaim. Whether it be sabermetrics in baseball or mathematical modelling at Brentford FC or FC Midtjyjlland, data in coaching decisions is here to stay. Data has become integral to decision-making and debate. Why? In sport, data helps you win.Data is integral to decision-making in business too. How many CEOs and CMOs do you think invest in multi-million £ or $ campaigns with no view on expected return on investment (ROI) vs. viable investment alternatives? To prove the point with data (I couldn’t help myself!), recent research from Millward Brown Vermeer’s Insights 2020 showed 51% of over-performing companies said “Insights & Analytics Leads the Business” vs. a 27% for global average. In business, data helps you win.

The lesson for sports marketers? Yes, you guessed it – data can help you win. Sports fans and coaches realised long ago data can deliver success. The title of sports marketing’s answer to Billy Beane is still open to applications but – with such high financial gains to be made – it’s only a matter of time until the vacancy is filled.

 

If you want to chat about ROI in sponsorship or anything to do with sponsorship measurement and evaluation, please do send Synergy an email at tom.gladstone@synergy-sponsorship.com and, if you haven’t already, take a look at how Synergy think about sponsorship value in our white paper here.

Full Stream Ahead: How Yahoo’s Partnership With The NFL Is An Opportunity For Sponsors

While Jacksonville Jaguars’ 34-31 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Wembley Stadium in late October belied fans' modest expectations of a drab affair from two of the NFL's smaller teams, the fixture itself had far more significance for the future of NFL broadcasting and potential sponsorship opportunities
The game was played at Wembley as part of the Jaguars' four year deal to play one 'home' regular season fixture in London. The location of the game is no longer newsworthy, but the way the NFL broadcast it was.With a fixture between two sides with little hope of making the end of season play-offs, and an unfriendly kick-off time of 6.30am WT/9.30am ET in the U.S., it represented an opportunity for the NFL to trial something new. As a result, they signed an exclusive partnership with Yahoo to digitally deliver the game to fans around the world for free on any device.

The deal represented the first time the NFL has partnered with a company to live stream a regular season game globally and Yahoo paid an estimated $20m for the privilege. The deal came in light of a report from The New York Post that over the last four years the number of young adults in the U.S. who watch traditional prime-time TV has fallen by nearly 20 percent, whilst subscription streaming grew 22 percent in 2014 alone. These insights mean the NFL, as well as its partners, should try to adopt new ways of engaging with their highly lucrative, target audience.

For Yahoo, the game was a greater risk as they had to prove that their platform could keep up with increased traffic. Although there were perhaps inevitable buffering issues, results indicate that they did.

According to Yahoo, 15.2 million people overall watched some or all of the game, which in terms of web streaming a live event, is a significant number.

Although these stats pale in comparison to the viewership of a typical NFL game (Fox and CBS average around 20 million viewers for their Sunday afternoon games), Yahoo’s example of success could mean that when the NFL comes to renew its broadcast deals there may be new bidders at the table. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the likes of Apple, Google and Netflix enter the bidding process, leaving the NFL in the happy predicament of a greater number of distributors to negotiate with.

So, what could it mean for advertisers and sponsors?

Synergy’s Chief Strategy Officer Carsten Thode’s blog on the issue of “protectionism” in U.S. sponsorships highlighted that brands are contractually obligated to commit to a minimum media spend as part of their deal, meaning advertising is therefore a driving force in leading a brand’s sponsorship campaign.

Despite Yahoo offering brands a different platform on which to activate, advertising was still the way brands targeted their consumers as the stream attracted approximately 30 advertisers. However, according to a Sports Journal report, this was only achieved as they dropped their rates from around $200,000 to $50,000 for a 30 second spot.

Significantly, advertisers were also given the option of choosing either a global or U.S. only audience for its inventory, allowing Yahoo to display two adverts at the same time depending on where you watched the game from. However, the UK stream appeared to just showcase U.S. adverts, suggesting that brands either missed an opportunity to geo-target audiences or weren’t interested in engaging the audience outside the U.S.

Such opportunities occur in international football or "soccer" as rightsholders, such as the Football Association, maximise revenues by using technology to virtually replace pitch side hoardings depending on where the game is broadcast. Perhaps with a more diverse and global audience, football is ahead of its over-the-pond namesake regarding opportunities such as these.

Of the 30 advertisers who brought a Yahoo advertising slot, three were sponsors of both the NFL and the NFL International Series, which would already give them the right to activate their sponsorship around the game both in the U.S. and in the UK.

But despite the NFL conducting their annual Regent Street event in London and having a ‘Game Day Fan Plaza’, outside of Wembley none of these brands activated their sponsorship in any way. Similarly, during the live stream in the UK, there was little sponsor integration into the live feed which seems a missed opportunity.

It appears to be an easy win for brands to target fans in game, for example, by offering fans a chance to vote for the play of the game or the opportunity to select their favourite players for the Pro Bowl.In Carsten's blog, our research indicated that around half the people under 35 constantly checked their social media channels during a live game and, by making a game only available on what is normally a fans second screen, the NFL have shown a willingness to trial new ideas. However, are its streaming partner and sponsors missing a trick by not engaging them further? Or was it perhaps the case that by broadcasting directly on the 'second screen', brands believed they were taking away the fans ability to engage directly with them, alongside their viewing experience?

Of course there will be teething issues as rightsholders and sponsors adjust to how viewers consume sporting coverage and, with the traditional television broadcast deals set to stay in place until 2022 at the very earliest, brands may be reluctant to change the status quo for one-off instances such as the Yahoo deal. But with a rightsholder who, at the very least, is showing an appetite to adapt to viewing habits, those brands bold enough to take up this opportunity to try may find greater rewards.

Breaking the Model

Sports marketing was invented in the US at a time when broadcast TV was most definitely king.  The problem is that shifts in audience behavior and technology have made the media environment much more fluid.  In a recent survey we commissioned with Deep Focus/Intelligence Group (our Sister Agency at Engine) questioning nearly 4,000 people on their sports consumption behaviors, a whopping 83% agreed that the way they are consuming sport has changed significantly over the past 5 years. Quite simply, the traditional sports marketing model hasn’t kept pace with this change – it’s time for disruption.

 

The fact that broadcast TV ruled the roost when the model was established meant that broadcasters were able to set the rules.  One of these rules was a precedent whereby broadcast contracts contained an obligation for the rightsholder to guarantee a minimum level of spend with the media owner.  This obligation, in turn, is passed on to the sponsors. In pretty much every sponsorship contract we see in the US, there is a significant “minimum media spend” clause. (As an aside, that kind of clause simply doesn’t exist in the UK, thanks to the non-commercial nature of the BBC.)

This arrangement clearly makes perfect sense for both the media owners and the rightsholders. The media owners significantly reduce their financial risk as the guaranteed income partially offsets their rights fee, while the rightsholders ensure a minimum level of activation from their sponsors.  Sometimes, the rightsholder is the media owner, which makes that clause particularly attractive!

 

The problem is, in this day and age, the “minimum media spend” clause is nothing short of a disaster for sponsors.  The only thing it guarantees a sponsor is a sub-optimal activation campaign.

Firstly, it can force sponsors into inefficient media strategies. For example, one of our clients is an asset management firm whose (significant) media budget is targeted squarely at Financial Services professionals. Primarily, that means advertising outdoor in financial centers (eg. posters, taxis, airport takeovers etc.) and advertising on TV, online and in print with the key financial channels and business titles. Forcing them to spend any of their media budget with the rightsholder’s media partners is literally forcing them to waste money. Of course this is a relatively extreme example. In most cases the sponsor will choose to use a portion of their media budget with the broadcast partners anyway as a means to reach the audience of the sport, teams or events they sponsor.  But, if that’s the case, why do we need the “minimum media spend” clause at all? That’s the kind of “protectionism” the US usually stands against.

The next consequence of the “minimum media spend” clause is that it leads sponsors towards advertising-heavy activation campaigns.  With so much cash committed and so much inventory to fill, it’s obvious that the activation starts with advertising. The problem is that with such a large chunk of the budget accounted for by the media obligation, the activation often ends with advertising as well.

Over 60% of US sponsors use their advertising agency as their lead agency on their sponsorship campaigns, but that just re-enforces the issue.  Advertising agencies might create great advertising campaigns – but great sponsorship campaigns need to be so much more, because the fact is that fans are consuming sport in a completely new way.

This was clearly demonstrated to us in New York recently, when we went to a sports bar to watch the Mets take on the Dodgers in the NLDS.  Clearly, the crowd were glued to the TV during the game, but it was a completely different story between innings.  While the TV played advertising (much of which was from official sponsors), almost everyone in the bar was looking at their phone – checking their social media platforms of choice for more information and opinion on the game they were watching.  So, collectively, brands were paying millions of dollars to be on TV – but no-one was watching.

 

In the same Deep Focus/IG study we discovered that around half the people under 35 are constantly checking their social media channels during a live game. The reality is that audiences are spending more and more time beyond the reach of traditional advertising, and sponsorship campaigns have to follow them.

This reliance on advertising also means that sponsors have lost the initiative when it comes to finding new and innovative ways to engage with the audience.  They are leaving it all to the rightsholders, who are coming up with an ever-increasing list of “micro-assets” for the sponsor to buy.  As this blog in April explored, there’s nothing wrong with the “FedEx Air and Ground Player of the Week” or the “Maytag Filthiest Play of the Day”, as long as there is a great campaign around it.  But, too often, there’s not, which is probably the reason why these micro-assets don't resonate with the audience.

We tested this theory in the Deep Focus/IG study by giving the audience a list of 30 micro-assets and asking them which ones they recognised.  The twist was that 21 of the micro-assets were real and 9 were completely made up.  The result: the 2nd most-recognised micro-asset was completely made up (Dunk of the Day presented by Dunkin Donuts) and there was no statistically significant difference between the average awareness levels of the real and made up micro-assets.

What we are left with is far too many sponsorship campaigns that consist entirely of advertising (to fulfil the “minimum media spend” clause) and “micro-assets” to tick the fan engagement box.  And if sponsors do look to push things through different channels like PR or experiential, then it is usually some isolated activity that is not connected to the central campaign idea.

There is clearly a better way to think about sponsorship campaigns.  One which is rights, media and channel neutral; which plays out one central idea through the very channels that the audience is actively using; which has no conflicts or vested interests; and which encourages rather than restricts innovation and creativity from brands. One of our favorite recent campaigns is the Madden '15 GIFerator.  Innovative, built on a solid fan insight, social at its core and not an ad or micro-asset in sight.

But this kind of disruption isn’t easy.  The fact is that there is so much vested interest already in play, as the existing players (from media owners to large agency groups) aim to protect the revenue associated with the status quo. So the only ones who can disrupt this market are the brands.  Brands who recognise that it takes more than an ad and some off-the-shelf micro-asset to connect with fans and who understand that they need to be driving creativity and innovation in this space. Brands who realise that we need to break the old model and replace it with something born in the connected era.

Why The Premier League Killed Title Sponsorship – And Now Needs A Purpose Beyond Profit

I wasn’t surprised by the Premier League’s decision to discontinue title sponsorship when the current Barclays deal ends next season. The League’s TV riches and the bigger clubs’ sponsorship earning power and ambitions made it a question of when, not if, this would happen.

As I wrote on Twitter back in February when the Premier League’s new £5.1 billion domestic TV deals were announced:

It’s difficult to conclude the new TV deal won’t influence the clubs’ expectations of the percentage increase achievable [from a new title sponsorship] versus the current Barclays sponsorship…given the huge gap between Premier League TV and title sponsor revenue, maybe the PL title sponsorship’s days are numbered.

And so it proved. Here’s why.

The gap between current Premier League TV revenue and title sponsorship revenue is already enormous. Last season, the twenty Premier League clubs shared over £1.6 billion of centrally-generated revenue: 94.6% of this was TV money. Of the other 5.4% (just under £88 million), £40 million was from the Barclays title sponsorship — just 2.5% of total centrally-generated revenue. A pretty low percentage. When the increased domestic TV revenue — 67% up on the current contract — kicks in in 2016–17, along with new and inevitably increased international TV revenue (currently worth £2.2 billion but expected to rise to £2.9 billion), the title sponsorship money will look even more like a drop in the ocean.

And that would still have been the case even if the Premier League had been able to satisfy the clubs’ expectations and find a brand willing to substantially increase the £40 million per year title sponsorship paid by Barclays, which always looked unlikely, and which as we now know didn’t happen.

The other key financial factor in the Premier League’s decision is the bigger clubs’ ever-increasing sponsorship earning power and ambitions.

Led by Manchester United, the bigger Premier League clubs are now routinely generating nine-figure sums from their shirt sponsorships, and achieving double-digit increases when they renew or replace sponsors. They’re also aggressively marketing their secondary sponsorship packages, and looking to diversify and increase their sponsorship from other sources, such as stadium sponsorship and (pioneered by Manchester United with enormous success) training kit sponsorship and regional sponsorships.

This has also impacted on their view of the Premier League title sponsorship’s value.

The clubs keep 100% of the sponsorship income they generate individually, whereas they share equally (i.e. 5% each) the title sponsorship money generated at the centre. As with the TV money, the growth in their individual revenue streams has also outpaced their share of the title sponsorship deal and made it look increasingly minor. £2 million per club from Barclays is a drop in the ocean for the bigger clubs and now looks like small beer even to the others compared to the TV money.

The bigger clubs can also justifiably argue that they can sell the substantial collateral that they have to release to Barclays (perimeter ads, match sponsorships, player appearances, digital and data rights and the like) for much more money than that they receive as their share of the Barclays deal.

And in a related point, the category exclusivity that is part of the Barclays deal and prevents all of the clubs from selling sponsorship to Barclays’ competitors has also become increasingly unattractive.

Bottom line: the Premier League has outgrown title sponsorship — given its finances and earning power, it simply doesn’t need title sponsorship any more.

And moving beyond title sponsorship creates new marketing opportunities for the Premier League.

It opens up the ‘hero brand’ model used so successfully by the likes of the NFL and NBA to market and differentiate their brands without the dilution of a title sponsorship. A Premier League brand free of title sponsorship has the potential to be more flexible and attractive to consumers, more attractive to potential licensing and merchandising partners, and much more attractive to potential sponsorship partners — although whether the clubs are prepared to release enough inventory and categories to allow the League to expand its very limited roster of secondary sponsors remains to be seen.

But for all its riches and all its new post-title sponsorship opportunities, there’s one thing above all that the Premier League must do for itself and its brand: to re-define, and then communicate and live by, what the League’s values are and what it stands for.

Currently it positions itself only as being ‘all about the football’. And when you ask people what the Premier League stands for, great football is absolutely one of the two things they generally say.

But the other is (and not in a good way) money — lots of money.

That’s not a sustainable position.

If the Premier League is to truly become a ‘hero brand’, it needs a purpose and values beyond football and profit.

And if the FIFA scandal teaches us anything, it’s surely that football needs a purpose and values beyond football and profit now more than ever.

The Globalisation of Rightsholders

The globalisation of sport has entered its next evolution, with geographical boundaries now more blurred than ever and global-local tensions becoming ever more apparent.

rightsholder globalisation -world map

The movement towards globalisation can be traced back as a by-product of Imperialism. As the Empire spread to all corners of the globe, so did the pastimes of the British. In fact, Britain’s colonial footprint goes a long way to explaining the universal popularity of sports such as football, tennis and golf and also shows why rugby has been confined to such an improbable mix of nations. The fact that the United States have traditionally shunned football, cricket and rugby in favour of their own national sports is likely, in part, to be down to a deliberate rejection of all remnants of their colonial past.

Fast forward a couple of centuries and the codification of these sports led to international competition and global fan-bases for athletes, clubs and leagues alike – all fuelled by extensive media coverage and brand involvement through sponsorship.

We are now firmly into the next phase of play, with rightsholders and sponsors going further than ever before to exploit lucrative new audiences in emerging markets and to satisfy an ever increasing demand from fans for richer engagement with the leagues, teams and athletes that they love.

Sport, after all, is big business. Speak to any modern rightsholder and you would be forgiven for thinking that you have stumbled into a corporate board meeting, with brand health, product portfolios and extension strategies top of the agenda.

And, like any corporation, these businesses need to grow, which ultimately means spilling over borders. In the absence of significant barriers to mobility (be they legal, economic or cultural), business and talent will naturally migrate to where it is valued most highly, with the growing middle classes of emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil providing precisely those conditions.

The middle class in China, for example, is said to be growing in size by 50 million a year, whilst in India it is expected to reach 600 million by 2030 – up from just 250 million in 2007. These people have money in their pockets and are seeking new distractions.

Off the field decisions are increasingly related to commercial activity. It’s the reason behind The British and Irish Lions’ recent pre-tour fixture in Hong Kong, courtesy of lead sponsor HSBC; it’s why the Premier League continues to explore the opportunity for a 39th game on foreign soil, why the New Zealand All Blacks recently played in front of a record crowd in the United States (AIG) and why pre-season tours now, more often than not, coincide with the headquarters or business focus of the lead sponsor.

These examples (of which there are many more) provide physical interactions with ‘brands’ (whether they be corporations, leagues, teams, or even athletes) for audiences, who, in years gone by, could only dream of this level of access on their doorstep – all of which adds up to a very potent marketing opportunity. After all, once you have sold them your brand, you can sell them a lifetime of products.

Globalisation will typically favour the biggest companies and brands, who have the resources and scale to exploit the demand. This is why there are relatively few large global banks, and why only a handful of leagues across the world draw the biggest audiences and attract the best players. Over time, this will begin to trickle down and smaller clubs and leagues will benefit. We are already at this place in the Premier League to an extent – with just five of the 20 shirt sponsors being UK-based, whilst nine of these teams alone took a pre-season jaunt to the United States and a further five visited the Far East.

What we are also seeing more of is clubs, leagues and brands creating content exclusively for the ‘foreign’ market. Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, for example, have launched a number of dedicated foreign language social media sites, whilst multi-national sponsors regularly release bespoke creative, targeted by market.

Perhaps the most oft-cited example of globalisation in sport is Manchester United, which is said to have 173 million fans in Africa and the Middle East and a staggering 325 million in Asia. At the last time of counting, commercial partners spanned 72 countries, with vehicle manufacturer Chevrolet (who no longer sell new cars in Europe) paying an estimated £53million for a place on the front of the club’s famous red shirt. Added to the fact that United are US-owned, their ties to Manchester don’t seem to extend much beyond name and stadium.

Over on the blue side of Manchester, another new and unique model is taking shape. Manchester City is now the focal point of the ‘City Football Group’, a network of linked clubs owned by parent company the Abu Dhabi United Group, which includes newly formed New York City FC and Melbourne City FC. This model of ownership sees shared resources between clubs, including players, coaches and sponsorship, helping to grow the Manchester City brand globally and giving ‘City Football Group’ a footprint in hugely lucrative markets, where passion for football is gathering momentum. And let’s not forget the exposure for Abu Dhabi-owned Etihad, which now adorns the shirts of all three teams, with New York and Melbourne both key routes for the airline.

So, what impact does a greater number of truly global properties have on sponsors? Whilst rights fees for the larger properties will continue to rise as commerciality increases in new markets, there is significant potential for global brands to become both more aligned and cost-efficient in their approach to sponsorship. Rather than selecting individual (and often unrelated) assets in local markets to solve local business needs, a single global asset can be used across markets and tailored for local requirements. Granted, global properties exist now, and have done for some time (e.g. World Cups and Olympic Games), but it is a very finite list. More global properties means more opportunities for more brands. The challenge for brands is to manage this consistency across markets, whilst remaining culturally relevant.

What is often overlooked, however, is that sport deeply differs from traditional business. Team sports in particular can be fiercely tribal and territorial. Local fans feel a sense of ownership, which transcends the goings-on in the boardroom. This leads to inevitable global-local tensions, which will only continue to grow as demand increases from across the globe.

Further tension occurs when this commercial activity has a positive impact on the pitch, with funds for better players, staff and training facilities. Would I trade a greater degree of separation from my beloved Aston Villa, if they were geared up more for global markets, for even a semblance of success? I think I probably would. But inevitably there is going to be a tipping point, which will differ in each individual case.

NFL FLAGS REGENT STREET LONDON

What of the US fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars – the team expected to make the transition from the US to a permanent NFL franchise in London – for example? The move is purely driven by commercial gain and will surely alienate the good people of Jacksonville, Florida, where they have been supporting their team in the NFL since 1995.

As a word of caution, the London Monarchs started with crowds of 40,000, but by the time life-support was finally switched off, the average gate was closer to 6,000. It therefore remains to be seen whether the UK can support a permanent franchise from the US.

Fans hold posters of NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant as they wait for a promotional event in Guangzhou

Indeed, it seems that the NBA sees its own expansion as regular overseas games, as part of the NBA Global Games schedule, rather than a permanent non-US franchise. Since 1988, more than 100 games have been played internationally, in countries including Japan, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Over 2014 and 2015, nine NBA teams will play seven regular-season and pre-season games across six countries.

So, how do we think globalisation in sport will develop over the coming months and years…

1. We will see a greater number of rightsholders create bespoke content for markets across the globe. Marketing departments’ thoughts will no longer be ‘UK first’. This will be particularly prevalent in social channels.

2. As with the examples cited earlier, there will be a continuation of commercially driven one-off events in non-domestic markets. The NFL will be the first to take up a permanent residency in a foreign market, but it will be some time before others follow – in any sport.

3. There will be increased regulation governing bodies to try to find the balance between global opportunity and local tradition. This could be through the incentivisation of only allowing domestic-based players to play for the national team (as we have seen in Rugby Union with New Zealand & England) or by introducing quotas of home-grown players (as seen in the Premier League and cricket’s Indian Premier League). These have the benefit of not only safeguarding the quality of the national team, but also strengthening home ties.

4. Foreign owners of UK-based clubs will seek to follow the Manchester City model and purchase franchises in emerging markets. This is never likely to be commonplace practice due to the sheer level of investment required, but expect to see it replicated.

5. It is feasible that we may see fans fight back, using fan ownership models seen in Germany to retain a greater degree of control of their clubs.

The geographical boundaries which define the most prominent sporting properties are eroding as the world continues to become ever more connected. Whilst this provides lucrative opportunities for brands and rightsholders alike, there are underlying global-local tensions which are only likely to become more pronounced over the coming months and years.

Sport is inherently different from normal business, with an often fiercely tribal local following – a factor which should not only not be underestimated, but celebrated.

Tom's blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship outlook for 2015, which can be viewed in full here.

Badge of Honour

Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog on the latent potential for sponsors of Major League Soccer, citing climbing attendances, announcements of new teams with celebrity backers, a new major broadcast deal and a raft of high profile players from Europe.

On the face of it, the latest step in this development may not seem to be the most significant, but it’s perhaps more innovative than it first seems, and is yet another indication of the League’s progressive thinking that is helping to raise its profile with fans and sponsors alike.

With the current logo having been in use since the League played its first game in 1996, it was perhaps time for a refresh. The new effort is much more than a simple change of font, however. There are the usual ‘design inspirations’ that always surround a launch of any new logo whether that be in sport, art or fashion. In this case, the primary colours represent the United States and Canada, home to all MLS Franchises, whilst the prominent 3 stars represent the brand’s core values of ‘Club, Country and Community’. Nothing too groundbreaking here.

What sets this new design apart is the fact that the colours are fully interchangeable, making it easier for teams and sponsors to incorporate into their own content, whilst helping to drive the overall profile of the League itself. Any rightsholder’s goal should be to drive scale and commercial saleability for their property, and in something as simple as allowing interchangeable colours in their logo, the MLS is making it easier for both sponsors and teams to promote the League on their behalf around the globe.

Here it is amended for all teams within the League and how it will look on the LA Galaxy kit as of next season:

A criticism often leveled at rightsholders is that they are prohibitively inflexible, often fearing that the equity that they have invested over time in their own intellectual property will be compromised as sponsors make their presence felt. It is easy to see why this can be the case – sponsors after all, will come and go, so effort must be made in order to protect the enduring asset. What the MLS have done - and what I hope they continue to do in other areas – is to keep the bigger picture in mind of the promotion and growth of their sport, whilst appreciating the sponsors’ role within this.

LOCOG dipped their toe in this water for London 2012, developing a suite of colours for the Official Logo, allowing partners some freedom in its use in various contexts. It is also reminiscent of the Coca-Cola ‘Club Colours’ campaign – in which Synergy was instrumental – which saw Coke, as sponsors of the Football League, change the colours of its iconic logo for the first time in its history to match the colours of all 72 Football League clubs.

The MLS example however, represents a significant next step and a template for the future, that I would expect to see replicated elsewhere in the world – particularly in the developing leagues of Australia, Asia and the Middle East.

A perpetual issue within the launch of new partnerships can be the design of composite logos, which try, often in vain, to shoe-horn sponsor marks in with the existing logos of the rightsholder. If, as expected, the MLS open up their logo template to sponsors, it will be interesting to see whether more conservative football bodies such as the Premier League and the Football League take some inspiration from the other side of the pond – particularly with major title sponsorships on the market in the near future.

NFL Fantasy Football – A Missed Opportunity?

The beginning of September is like Christmas for many American Football fans, as the time for talking ends and the road to the Super Bowl begins. However, while teams were frantically finalising their 53-man rosters and practice squads in preparation, fans were busy too as they looked to create a team that would beat their colleagues and friends in NFL Fantasy Football.

nfl-fantasy-440

For the uninitiated, the American Football version of Fantasy Football differs greatly to the round ball equivalent most play over here. Instead of a free-for-all with managers picking the same players for their teams, the American Football version mirrors real life with a NFL Draft ensuring each manager has to adopt a strategy in order to gain a competitive advantage against his league rivals.

With every single player available for selection (including those that are no longer active such as controversial Quarter Back Tim Tebow), the draft forces team allegiances to be put to one side as fantasy managers look to develop a team and strategy to emerge victorious.

As a fairly recent convert to the Gridiron, I was invited to take part in my first NFL Fantasy Football Draft and while my knowledge is limited, it represented a great chance to learn more about the league and players outside of my team, the San Francisco 49ers.

While football fantasy managers have until the first game of the Premier League over here (although nothing stops you entering later) to select a team on their own, the American Football version requires all participants to join a league – you can’t actually play individually – to take part in a draft together.

League commissioners (think League Chairman over here) organise a draft time and managers can either choose to take part themselves or simply use auto pick which takes the highest rank player available each round.

However, the biggest surprise I found wasn’t that someone took the Houston Texans defence in the sixth round, but that the entire process seemed completely devoid of any brands outside the NFL. In a sport and country that is highly commercialised, brands are missing out on a great opportunity to connect with American Football fans.

According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), approximately 33 million people play Fantasy Football in the US each year, with 49% paying to play through league fees, subscription advice sites and analytics apps, spending on average $468 a year - a truly staggering figure.

Although brands such as Volkswagen, who commit $3 million in fantasy football sponsorships with CBS, and Lenovo, who produce content around Fantasy Football as part of their official computer partnership with the NFL, activate around fantasy football, no brand really owns this space.

Given that Fantasy Football managers are keen to access the latest information and are willing to pay for it, it's strange that there hasn’t been a similar sort of platform to IBM’s Try Tracker, which is used during the RBS 6 Nations (in conjunction with the Daily Telegraph), that’s free and accessible to fans.

The NFL’s Fantasy Football offering is partnered by Lenovo, who do provide the ‘Fantasy Coaches Corner’, but while this does provide some tips and highlights successful managers, it doesn’t feel like an immersive platform that offers something for both the hard-core and casual fan. Similarly, the partnership between Volkswagen and CBS Sports offers more of the same, and while the content is perfectly fine, it doesn’t offer enough variety to ensure participants use their website rather than a competitor's.

Much like any sporting organisation, the NFL has a long list of sponsors covering all areas from cereal to data storage. With Fantasy Football such a huge part of the NFL, surely a natural extension would be for one brand to become the official NFL stats provider and then link them to Fantasy Football. This would ensure they create further brand awareness – especially when you consider the rise of TV consumption on two screens i.e. fans watch while playing on a phone or tablet.

The Fantasy Football market will only continue to grow, especially as fans in new markets such as the UK embrace the idea. Currently UK fans can play either the original, American versions which contain the draft system or the NFL UK version which is presented by Sky Sports - mainly due to their ownership of the broadcasting rights for the majority of games.

However, the UK version loses some of the appeal generated by its across-the-pond rivals as it tries too hard to simplify the process and mimic the soccer version here with a salary cap. While it's admirable they are trying to cater to the UK market, the majority of fans who play Fantasy Football associate the process with the American versions, and as a result take part in US based offerings.

But what US brands have seemingly neglected is that with more fans, both domestically and internationally, comes greater opportunities for brands to reach new consumers. It’s certainly an area worth exploring, as the US advertising revenues on Fantasy Football sites are estimated to bring in $2 – $5 billion annually and with every player having to participate in the draft, taking ownership could prove lucrative for any brand bold enough.