For sports fans, 2018 will be one for the history books. The Super Bowl has just passed. The Winter Olympics are underway. And shortly March Madness will be upon us, to be followed by another quadrennial event: the World Cup. These are in addition to the usual fare such as the World Series, Stanley Cup Championship, NASCAR…in short, something for just about everyone.
As athletes step into the spotlight in this socially and politically charged era, there’s an undeniable opportunity to drive conversations off the field. The default approach for too many marketers is a glorified tribute film or using an athlete with no acting ability as a brand spokesperson. However, today’s landscape allows for a more disruptive and authentic approach, as we saw with some of NBC’s Olympics-related promo spots during the Super Bowl.
Understanding what audiences want to hear from athletes can help campaigns grab an unfair share of people’s attention. And culture can help shape how this is done. This year, there are two key trends shaping this approach:
People have more access to athletes than ever before.
The proximity of fans to their favorite athletes has drastically increased in recent years. For decades, people depended on traditional media outlets to read or watch the latest sports news, and athletes relied on those same outlets as a platform to reach fans.
Those days are gone. Today’s athletes can grab their phones, upload a photo or video, or start a livestream to directly reach supporters. And fans can grab their own phones and catch it all in real time. Constant—even intimate—access to sports heroes is the new normal. Therefore, brands must ensure that their approach is “of the moment” and reflective of the cultural context.
Access sparks interest in athletes as people.
Increased access has unleashed a new wave of interest in athletes as people, not just as players. While fans remain completely engaged in athletes’ performances on game day, they’re equally as engaged when these stars buckle up for Carpool Karaoke.
And as athletes get used to this age of accessibility, they’re using it as a way to draw attention to the causes they care about and to expose their own personal struggles. In the past year alone, we saw hockey stars take on the gender pay gap, NFL teams join in peaceful protests against racial inequality, and a WNBA team rally in support of women’s reproductive rights.
As a result, today’s fans crave a deeper understanding of the person behind the jersey.
Now that fans can get instant access to their sports idols, it’s not enough to simply feature these stars in your campaigns. You need a plan that considers athletes as people first, and not just as brand spokespersons. The most impactful work taps into an athlete’s authentic self and shares aspects of her or him that are most relatable, entertaining, human and real.
A good example is the Olympics spot developed by NBC Sports that aired during the Super Bowl and focused on the U.S. skier Lindsey Vonn. Set to the Alicia Keys song “Girl on Fire,” the :60 film chronicles Lindsey’s comeback from serious injury, how she isn’t backing down, and how she is ready to set the world on fire. Viewers clearly related to this human story. To date, the ad has more than 3.2 million views on YouTube and driven 47,000 hours of watch time. And it was rated the no. 8 most popular ad in USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter poll.
So here’s some advice for winning the hearts and minds of your audiences. People respond to people, and people move businesses. When the next sports marketing brief materializes, think people, not players. Build a story that honors this. Give fans an opportunity to connect with the person wearing the jersey.