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“Football would be nothing without traditional local fans”.

True.

However, are we aware that most of the teams we admire would not probably win any trophy if it weren’t for their global audience?

Manchester United’s stadium Old Trafford has a capacity of 76,000 seats. From their 120 million international fanbase, only 0.06% actually attend games, yet the club is the world’s second most valuable brand in football according to Brand Finance’s assessment of €1.47 billion.

Football clubs only tend to identify 20% of the spectators in their stadium on match day. Winning in our huge digital venue is as challenging as necessary to stay relevant.

What is cool and profitable today will not necessarily be in some years. Let’s go through some of the most important insights in understanding how to connect with the fan of the future.

Digital sponsors are here

New brands born in the digital landscape emerge and new categories of digital assets are becoming the core of partnerships proposals. Not because companies wanted to change, but because we tend to check our smartphones more than 50 times a day on average.

Uber Eats, Airbnb, Alipay, Booking, TikTok and Takeaway.com have become big players in FIFA and UEFA competitions, the Olympic Games and other major stakeholders when traditional sectors such as finance, aviation or tourism have been severely affected by the pandemic.

According to Nielsen, Nike, the largest spending sponsorship brand worldwide reported a 38% decrease in sales from March to May in 2020. In the same period, digital sales grew by 75%. Actually, experts estimate that the trend from physical stores to digital shopping has been accelerated by five years.

Likewise, new entrants representing new subcategories breaking from traditional sectors are expected to increase significantly. Investment from non-traditional financial services, such as cashless and online payment services, are estimated to account for 16% of the global financial services sponsorship spend by 2025.

eSports win at experience

Almost a third of young generations aged 20 to 29 years old have been watching more eSports online, becoming an expanding platform to connect with fans in a slow post-pandemic recovery. It is not about sport, but entertainment.

While we obsess about measuring return of investment for sponsors, shouldn’t we also prioritise the return of attention that fans receive from our relationships, particularly in digital? In their seek for meaning and entertainment, they are more and more selective when trading their time and attention.

The latest Nielsen’s report “The Changing Value of Sponsorship” explains how, between 2014 and 2019, sponsorship revenue increased at a CAGR of nearly 32%, with an average del value growing with a CAGR of 33%.

In a field where synergies among brands, fans and right holders are beginning to maximise commercial opportunities, the global eSports sponsorship revenue could reach a total of $842M in 2025, which would reflect a 140% growth since 2019.

China to conquer sponsorship

The Middle East region has been progressively more represented across global sports. For example, Manchester City and their Abu Dhabi ownership and Etihad partnership, Formula 1 and their sponsorship with Saudi oil company Aramco and AS Roma’s main sponsor Qatar Airways.

While this market seems to be refocusing towards building more infrastructure and home development ahead of the new FIFA World Cup, China is set to become the leading engine of the future sponsorship market.

In the next ten years, Chinese brands are expected to account for 33% of global sponsorship, leveraging major events in the region such as the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019, Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 (2021) and Beijing Olympic Winter Games 2022.

Alibaba, Vivo, Mengniu, Wanda Group and Hisense have established as strong competitors for international brands in the pursue of global recognition. As they advance in the sponsorship lifecycle with FIFA, UEFA or the Indian Premier League, brand values and monetization will matter more and more.

Athletes become platforms

Athletes are becoming the most effective vehicles of communication for brands. Promoting and campaigning social causes are expanding players and sponsors influence. Manchester City’s support to Black Lives Matter and Nike tackling racism with “Just don’t do it” reflect the change.

Being engagement vital to create relationships with young people, brands see how 48% of users aged 16-29 years prove to have increased interest in socially responsible brands. 90% of the top 20 global sponsorship brands have actively shifted in their advertising message over the last five years.

Actually, Tommy Hilfiger’s brand ambassador Lewis Hamilton helped the company to register the highest engaging rates when posting advocacy content with the F1 driver on Instagram. Content supporting causes like sustainability generated 63% more value.

Not only the attention from fans is limited in terms of time, but also in the number of accounts they give access to their daily lives. The segment composed by people from 25 to 34 year old tend to follow more athletes but engage less than 18 to 24 users, who actually do the opposite.

A new beginning

As sport prepares to open stadium doors in specific countries, digital will continue to offer a unique opportunity for accelerating attention and trust. Seeing, understanding and serving, the most challenging way is also the fastest.

Digital becomes key in commercial. An ecosystem well-known to women’s football and designed to leverage culture and lifestyle, like the new project Togethxr co-founded by Alex Morgan, Chloe Kim, Simone Manuel and Sue Bird does.

While athletes are expected to increase by four times the social media value defending social causes by 2023, the design of an appealing and in constant improvement value proposition will remain critical to convert fans into ambassadors.

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