Interview with UK’s Strive Sponsorship Managing Director, Malph Minns
This interview is an extract from the 2023 Kolsquare Sports Report.
How is influencer marketing evolving in the sports sector?
There is a growing understanding of influence as it is defined elsewhere. There’s certainly an increase in spend by brands and sports rights holders like teams, leagues and federations. Influencer Marketing is being used by brands via the sponsorship of different athletes or events to help amplify existing campaigns. They do specific influencer campaigns, but this tends to be in other verticals rather than sport. Brands do ambassador deals but tend to look at those through a traditional sponsorship viewpoint rather than a digitally creative one. There is more investment going into influencer marketing as people learn what it is and how to do it, but it’s still comparatively quite small, and tends to come from the media-buy side rather than the sponsorship side of the business, because they understand the digital elements better.
There’s also simplification of how sports look at influencers; they look at size of audience rather than how engaging they are. The understanding of using several micro or niche influencers to give you scale and leverage better engagement rates; that sort of tactic is still being learned rather than being well understood. Their heads are turned by a big number; the immediate thing is to be attracted to names and faces that you know — talent like players or senior figures in sports — rather than creators who use the sport as ingredients to tell stories.
What impact are creator sporting events on the one hand, and moves by platforms to obtain the rights to traditional sporting events on the other, having on the development of influence in sport?
Sports rights holders are playing close attention to creators like KSI and Logan Paul who participate in boxing events that draw phenomenal audiences for pay-per-view and develop popular drinks brands like Prime. The question they are asking is what can they learn to further build and engage their own audiences? Sports are starting to think, “do we need to look at influencer versions like in gaming and esports”? and/or “is there a way we can credibly engage influencers to reach their audiences”, like has been done in both gaming and esports? Furthermore, integrating influencers into content teams is being considered, giving them access to the ingredients they need to tell the stories they want to tell?
In sport, there’s a need to better engage with the younger audience and rights holders see digital channels, tools and personalities as an obvious route to that. But they haven’t yet done the thinking on how they might harness influencers to broaden their message, and build the health of their sport and subsequently monetize that.
That’s where we’re probably at discovery mode. People’s ears have been pricked up by the boxing events because they’re seeing the live audience and good quality sport. There’s certainly an element of snobbishness from some purists, but they’re also seeing a younger age demographic.
The innovation will come from the creators rather than traditional sports because they’re the ones who better understand the audience. They don’t need sanctioning bodies unless they want to go up the professional scale. #United and the EE Wembley Cup is a good example of that in football; teams of influencers selling thousands of tickets to Wembley Stadium. People were much more excited to see Spencer [@ahugegorilla], a big FIFA streamer, than they were Jamie Carragher, who just finished at Liverpool.
Creators don’t need the Premier League to create those products because their narrative is the sport. We’re going to see more of it from creators, and we’re going to see sport looking for how it can get involved and leverage that to make money and use it to promote sport in a healthier way. Indeed, The Sidemen (a YouTube group of internet personalities) recently sold out 62,000 tickets in just an hour and a half for a charity football match they have on September 9th.
Sports rights holders have a decent understanding of where their live content is being consumed around the world. Coverage is carried by the traditional linear broadcasters and recently there’s been a shift to the streaming services; platforms like Prime are upping their game, Apple TV has just taken the Major League Soccer rights in the US, YouTube has the NFL.
Whilst new live broadcast players in the market have been initially welcomed, there’s also a nervousness. They recognise how dependent they are on their digital content going out through social media channels to build scale, and how much better those platforms are at monetizing it than them, and they’re worried about making the same mistake. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, currently own the audience. Sports are now having to try and harvest their own fanbases back and accumulate first-party data so that they can monetize them directly and at a better margin, Not only are partner brands demanding more direct engagement of the audience, but some are saying, “I don’t need to do a deal with you, Mr. or Mrs. Football team, I can reach your audience through a paid media strategy by going through the platform.”
They’re in a paradox of wanting to build and scale audience because that’s important to their traditional revenue streams and the future of the sport from a participation and fandom standpoint, but also an acknowledgement that if they’re giving even more content away and those platforms do a better job of monetizing that, are they just handing over more power that will come back to bite them in the long term.
Does it follow that the next generation of creators might be young athletes with large profiles and who are digital natives, unlike the generations before them?
There will be a few who are hybrid athletes and creators. But being a creator is a full-time job, as is being a professional athlete. The logic of young athletes being digitally native and in the public eye anyway stacks up as to why you could think they will be part of the new generation of creators. Additionally, more athletes are now looking to build audiences and monetize through a variety of differing routes. There’ll be a few that standout but there will be fewer than we think because they just won’t have the time. For example, given the amount of time you need to put in to be a top-level swimmer, would you have the time and mindset to create content? You certainly don’t have the money as a swimmer to build a content team. We might see a few athlete creators, but I don’t think we’ll see floods of them. It will be down to the people that have a real interest and passion for creating, as well as the love of their sport.
What about influence around the Olympics Games? Will athletes and brands try to leverage that to a greater extent in 2024 than in the past?
The challenge with the Olympics is that any marketing you do is governed by far more restrictions than any other event. Rule 40 limits what brands can do with athletes. As an athlete, you have personal sponsors but as soon as you go into the Games period — and for a period before — you also become an ambassador for your Olympic Association partners and are limited on which companies new you can do deals with.
Secondly, individual athlete partner brands are not allowed to reference the Olympics by name and logo unless they’re an Olympic partner. Whilst there are a number of athletes that are household names outside of the Olympics, there’s probably a larger number of athletes you don’t know unless they’re an Olympian or a follower of that specific sport. Not being able to use Olympic IP stymies what you can do with them.
Rule 40 basically says non-Olympic partners who sponsor athletes are allowed to use the athlete’s image during the Games with prior consent from the athlete, if the advertising is generic, and doesn’t reference any Olympic logos, images or anything to do with the national team, has been pre-approved, and has been in market prior to the stated games period.
What are the work-arounds to that?
The most obvious (and most expensive) one is to sponsor the Olympics or the athlete’s Olympic Association. A different approach is to use former athletes or potentially athletes’ family members to tell different stories. To the latter approach, Procter & Gamble did this with their ‘Thank You Mom’ campaign where the narrative was about the mothers of athletes and the role they played in getting them to where they are now. You can talk about the sports, the endeavor and use the wording and language around the Olympics without using the words you’re precluded from using.
Are the advantages to partnering with less well-known Olympic athletes?
Lesser-known athletes generally have smaller audiences, but they may be more engaged because they’re in niche sports and they’re more invested. The prices of those deals will be lower but there are opportunities. Athletes who are unknown at the beginning of the Games may become better known post-Games because of their performance. The potential upside of lesser-known athletes could be a lot bigger than more established athletes who succeed and who are already household names. Take Lamont Marcell Jacobs, the Italian sprinter who won the men’s 100m; people wouldn’t have known who he was before the last Olympics but then he wins the biggest event of the Games.
Looking ahead, do you expect to see a rapid development of influence in sport? Or will the hesitation you spoke of continue to dominate?
We will see it develop. There’s a commercial pressure on sport to find new ways to make money, and they’ll look at influencers as a possible route to revenue. We’ll probably see three things: we’ll start to see new formats with creators, either standalone events or activations that are part of an existing event as sports start to dip their toe and see what works. Some will be creator-led, some will be led by the sports themselves.
We’ll start to see some co-creation of products to try and replicate the success of Prime. Sports and sports brands will partner with influencers to try and draw on the merits each party brings.
Finally, we’ll start to see teams, leagues, and federations work with creators and influencers to create content with the intention of reaching new audiences, and more deeply engaging existing fans.
Kolsquare, a data-driven Influencer Marketing platform, helps brands to optimize each step of their Influencer Marketing campaign with help of data and Machine Learning. The solution facilitates the identification of the right profiles for a campaign amongst a catalog of over 3 million KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders), and enables the measurement and performance analysis of each campaign. Kolsquare is a team of thirty experts who accompany you throughout the year in the implementation of your influencer strategies, to help you build effective campaigns and increase your knowledge of the Influencer sector through studies, barometers and enriching insights.