Kirsty Bouwers
Jun 25, 2019

Urban sports give brands an exciting alternative from the norm at Tokyo 2020

Sponsors testing the waters in this relatively low-cost, high-engagement area need to take extra care to strike the right tone.

Tokyo 2020 is a trial run for sports such as skateboarding, which may or may not feature at subsequent Olympics (Shutterstock)
Tokyo 2020 is a trial run for sports such as skateboarding, which may or may not feature at subsequent Olympics (Shutterstock)

The addition of so-called urban sports—skateboarding, BMX freestyle, surfing, and 3x3 basketball—to next year’s Olympics adds an edge to the usual excitement, for brands as well as audiences. Tokyo 2020 will be the first time for these sports to take a mainstream stage, presenting a unique opportunity for companies that may never have considered such an association before.

Some greeted the addition of these sports to the games with surprise, but it’s a natural evolution that mirrors society at large, argues marketing agency CSM Asia’s regional director, Holly Millward. “In, say, 1950, 30% of the world’s population lived in cities," she says. "Today it’s over 50%. Our environments are changing and alongside it, how we use the world around us to exercise. The Olympic movement has responded [to this]”. 2020 is thus a reflection of our changing, urbanising reality.

Before urban sports were added to the Games, they had little time in the mainstream limelight in Japan, with few marketing efforts by those not involved in the scene. As Tokyo 2020 approaches, things are changing. According to Yohei Matsumoto, a senior producer in ADK’s sports marketing department, brands have two distinct ways of viewing urban sports. “One is that you can reach a younger generation. Another is that it’s a great field to experiment with new solutions for the company.”

The former is clear, as both the spectators and participants tend to be young. At the 2017 and 2018 editions of FISE Hiroshima, an urban sports festival that ADK has invested in, over two thirds of spectators were in their teens, twenties or early 30s.

In terms of Matsumoto’s latter suggestion, unlike the established Olympic sports, there is comparatively little in the way of vested interests or restrictions when it comes to sporting venues, paving the way for more innovative options. “In this respect, urban sports have an environment in which players and competitive groups can respond a lot more flexibly [to brands], and if they can then get a sponsorship contract, there are great benefits for each side,” he says.

So far, that effect can be seen in new collaborations such as data company WingArc 1st featuring BMX rider Rim Nakamura in a new commercial. Large players aren’t missing out either, with companies including VISA and Uniqlo picking extreme sports athletes such as surfer Kanoa Igarashi and snowboarder/skateboarder Ayumu Hirano for their respective campaigns. The latter left his apparel deal with Nike SB to join Uniqlo, which is better-known for its $300 million, 10-year deal with Roger Federer.

Unsurprisingly, the Hirano deal made waves, but not only for the possibility of a large-sum sponsorship. There’s a strong sense of style and identity in urban sports, which sets them apart from some classic Olympic sports. This culture is key, with extreme sports such as surfing and snowboarding often included in the fold for this reason despite not being strictly ‘urban’. For those on the inside, being involved in the scene is not only shown through participating in the sports themselves, but through fashion and consumer culture as well. Brands looking to engage with them should keep this in mind, according to United Entertainment Group’s (UEG) Japan managing director, Toru Fumihara, as these sports “have a specific sense of coolness [...] so the brand should understand that, or should have someone who understands that handle the deals”. A story that resonates with the audience is paramount.

That opens the path to options beyond regular sponsorships usually considered with the Olympics. As Mike Sunda of MullenLowe Tokyo sees it, the Olympics have “increasingly come to be seen as a holistic celebration of the host city and wider sports culture”. Urban sports, with their strong city-based cultures that go beyond the sport itself, already do this in their own right, such as skateboarding culture’s intimate connection with the fashion industry.

Nowhere more so than Tokyo, where fashion and identity go hand-in-hand in youth culture hotspots such as Shibuya. Sunda notes the opening of Harajuku flagship store of influential UK streetwear label Palace in late 2018, plus the collaboration of domestic hit brand Evisen with Adidas. Yet it doesn’t just have to be clothing itself, with Shibuya’s Mortar, a store specialising in streetwear, offering “in-store activations and skateboarding school-type events”. Within the scene, brands are finding plenty of opportunities.

For a more mainstream, larger platform, urban sports are finding the spotlight through events. FISE Hiroshima, one of the largest initiatives in the country for urban sports, was brought to Japan and co-produced by ADK in an attempt to show just what these sports can do, both within the scene and for advertisers. It’s clear that they could do with some good press: the recent withdrawal of skateboarding from the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, after a dispute between World Skate, plus its counterpart Street League Skateboarding, and the Games organisers, casts doubts on how skateboarding will be received at the Games and the professional nature of the sport.

In this respect, events such as FISE can help athletes prepare for the world stage, both in terms of training and possible sponsorship deals. Rim Nakamura’s deals with both VISA and WingArc 1st are good examples of how this partnership could work. “[Rim’s] name value has been raised. WingArc1st’s support to Rim should be something substantial for him as he needed to improve his training or practice environment to compete in the top level in the world. He proved that coming to the 2nd in the final at FISE 2019”, Fumihara contends.

Beyond the Olympic arena, the lack of actual places to train due to strict regulations and use of infrastructure presents a unique challenge. Street sports have few official spaces in Japan, with favoured hangouts such as Tokyo’s Miyashita Park disappearing due to redevelopment, as Sunda found when launching Tokyo 20XX, MullenLowe’s cultural insights service on the city. It’s a void some brands and spaces have cleverly jumped into. Miyashita Park’s disappearance is softened by the opening of a new skatepark in Shinagawa by Nike, while the brand-new Shibuya Stream and its namesake hall has been the site of multiple pop-up sporting events, including (women’s) 3x3 basketball.

With the continuing development of the sports inside and outside the stadiums, Tokyo 2020 should serve as a testing ground for years to come. These particular Games will act as a blueprint for their involvement in future Olympics, as the urban sports have only been included as a one-off so far. Their return for the next edition isn’t guaranteed, and incidents such as skateboarding’s withdrawal from the Pan American Games could complicate the matter. This means their success in 2020 will have consequences for Paris 2024, when the urban sports lineup will see another addition: breakdancing. For athletes and marketers alike, these are developments worth watching.

Those willing to take the leap could reap the benefits early. With the lack of structured training environment and the relative obscurity of urban sports in the general public eye, urban sports athletes are an affordable option for brands looking to break into the Olympic arena without the costs usually associated with such a move, as long as they know how to engage with the audience.

“There is a big win-win potential,” Fumihara says. “And there are definitely chances for those smaller corporations to support them because of this. The key is who can match them.”

A novice's guide to working with urban sports properties

  • Be authentic. Holly Millward argues going back to basics, and asking yourself who you are targeting and what you are trying to achieve. “Partnerships are the chance for brands and businesses to wear their best clothes – even the chance for audiences to slightly re-imagine and re-appreciate who they are and what they stand for. But the strategy must fit.”
  • Be specific in your targeting. To be authentic, you need to understand how that authenticity plays out in the community. For that, you need to dig deep, says Mike Sunda: “There’s no substitute for ethnography when it comes to something like urban sports.” The communities aren’t just monolithic wholes, but consist of several different actors with their own interests, from hobbyists to professional athletes and those on the sidelines, such as videographers. “Work out which of these your brand can best support and go from there.”
  • Get your timing right. For both mainstream brands and smaller ones, jumping in early could reap benefits, according to Toru Fumihara. Engaging with an urban sports audience early on could be more economical, as they tend to be more reasonable than mainstream athletes, and make your brand stand out if you get the content right.
  • Tell a story. Being able to tell a story that resonates with the audience is key with these sports, says Fumihara, with the athletes themselves being the vehicle for this. Millward agrees: “Sport is human and brands can connect on a deeper level by telling human stories. Urban sports, often individual by nature, offer an amazing opportunity to do this. Stories of risk, stories of bravery, stories of exploring our growing urban environments in a new and innovative way.” Use these to further your brand.
  • Get involved. Urban sports may be a way to target millenials, but don’t underestimate your audience—beyond trying to be authentic, giving back is an important way to keep them engaged. Sunda: “Make sure you’re contributing something to the community rather than just extracting value, because people will see through that immediately. Even brands with the best intentions can end up doing more harm than good, so make sure to run your strategy by credible figures from the scene in question.”
Campaign Japan

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