Surekha Ragavan
Jul 16, 2019

Why brands should pay attention to non-traditional sports

From drone racing to the mass participation sports that are on the rise in Asia, sporting rulebooks are being thrown out across the board. Here's why brands should follow suit.

Drone racing has been defined as a 'real-life video game' where players compete via tech in physical environments
Drone racing has been defined as a 'real-life video game' where players compete via tech in physical environments

The youths are at it again. They’ve made digital and social platforms ubiquitous with sporting content, which throws into question the weight of traditional media sources such as TV, print and radio. Subsequently, we’ve seen the rise of non-traditional sports, defined in this article as types of sports that have experienced recent growth and are not usually associated with traditional broadcast media.

“Across APAC, in some cases, passion for non-traditional sports are increasing faster than traditional sports,” said Craig Roberts, head of strategy and insights at sports consultancy The Gemba Group.

“For example, in Australia, esports is growing at 9% per annum compared to cricket, which has declining passion rates of approximately -2% per annum. This suggests there is certainly potential for non-traditional sports fans to come up to par and maybe even exceed the number of traditional sports fanatics.”

Continuing with the example in Australia, data shows that there are already as many esports fans as there are fans of traditional sports such as horse racing, netball, cycling and golf.

“On the other hand, one interesting insight in our data is that today’s sports fans are passionate about more sports than ever before, so while passion for traditional sports is trending down compared to non-traditional sports, this is reflective of greater accessibility to a growing number of global sports,” said Roberts.

This means that all sports – both traditional and non-traditional – are competing more aggressively than ever for an individual’s time and share of wallet.

Because the growth of non-traditional sports is largely attributed to the youth market, there’s opportunity for brands to align their content for groups within that bracket. “As many non-traditional sports do not broadcast their content on traditional channels (such as free-to air-TV or pay TV), brands and marketers could consider sponsorship return that is not rooted in mass reach and exposure, but rather in the high levels of engagement among smaller niche audiences,” added Roberts.

As we’ve seen in the case of esports, brands and marketers will benefit most where there is a natural synergy between a rights holder (any party who holds rights to sporting content such as media or game owners) and a brand. Here, we’ll look at three non-traditional sports in the region and break down why you should be taking them seriously.

Esports: Not just a teenage fanclub

Esports is perhaps the most followed of non-traditional sports, and it could even become a traditional sport in the near future. One giveaway is that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is currently reviewing esports as an official Olympic entry, a process that reports say could complete in 13 years.

According to data from Lagardère Sports, esport has an estimated 436 million fans worldwide with US$1.5bn in revenue to be generated by 2020. From that number, just under 164 million fans are from China and 91.5 million are from the rest of APAC. Over 80% of fans worldwide are male and between the ages of 18 and 34, a group that has often been regarded to marketers as “unreachable”.

“Esports is like a new genre of sport,” said Malcolm Thorpe, VP, business development, Asia, Lagardère Sports. “It has a totally different viewing experience and distribution model, and it is an area where non-endemic brands are beginning to get involved in.”

While the endemic brands understand the esports ecosystem very well, Thorpe said that it’s the non-endemics that need to learn the game and the dynamics around fans, rights and IP holders, and profitability.

Source: The Gemba Group

“Brand marketers are going to need to understand the space before they start writing cheques. What’s important for them is to identify their objectives, their geographical market and the specific demographic they’re going after. And once they know that, they should look at a particular socio-economic group,” he said.

“Once you start dividing the audiences down, then you’re looking at the platforms that match those, the properties that will allow you access to the content, or to the IP, and to the actual physical games and events. It’s a very complicated environment but some [non-endemic brands] have learnt very quickly and really engaged with it.”

One perk for brands is that the regulation around esports is not as centralised and rigid as traditional sports such as football. Whether it’s taking the IP out of a game and placing it around a brand in a physical or digital environment, or brand placement at a physical event, or collaborating with live-streaming platforms, or even incorporating brand IP into an actual game, the options are both vast and flexible.

“In football, very simply, you’re not allowed to have the brand logo painted onto the football field. Whereas in some esports, you can have the branding actually inside the game – some games are more strict about that than others but it’s a very flexible environment,” said Thorpe. “A lot of brands come into esports because the partnerships can be set up to really suit the brand’s objectives.”

A player at this year's World Electronic Sports Games in Chongqing, China

At Campaign’s Sport Focus event in Shanghai last month, Leo Guo, marketing director for PepsiCo China, said that while esports consumers are loyal, “it’s difficult to convert them to be buyers”. “We have been working on different proposals to create a favourable ecosystem for the gamers, and to create a closed loop for them to make the final purchasing decision,” he said.

On whether conversion is a challenge for brands, Thorpe said that esports fans “are not fools”. “They are a critical audience. But once you have proved that you are providing an authentic additional value to them, they will pay that back with their trust and that’s what brands are looking for,” he said.

Does this also relate to very young fans who, perhaps, might not have the spending power of older fans? “When the audience is younger, they might not have spending power today but that doesn’t mean that creating brand affinity and preference is something that isn’t going to pay back in the longer term,” added Thorpe.

“In Europe, we work with brands like BMW around esports. If you take the view that the esports audience is so young and they’re not buying cars, the idea is that you can project the BMW brand as a cool brand which will help you sell cars to those people when they grow up. But the reality is, a large part of the audience do have money in their pockets.”

Drone racing: Zooming into the future

Drone racing is in its early days in terms of establishing a clear structure around fans, brands, teams, and media, but we know one thing: there’s a growing community of fanatics, especially in China. The sport sets itself apart by being a ‘real-life video game’ where players compete via tech in physical environments. Adding to the immersive quality is stunning aerial cinematography, multidimensional tracks and neon ‘obstacles’. If it sounds like a Blade Runner film, you’re not entirely misguided.

Kellen Malstrom, head of China at the sport’s biggest league, Drone Racing League (DRL), said at last month’s Sport Focus that drone racing largely grew on YouTube and online message boards. “It’s all been built online so in almost all of our sponsorship packages, there’s a lot of custom digital content that are aligned with our goals,” he said.

Because the passion of online communities is highly influential and contagious, Malstrom said that fans increasingly seek ‘authenticity’. “When you think about traditional sports broadcast and the way things have been done for 50 years, it’s been extremely buttoned-up, formal and professional,” he said. “But what’s rewarded online is authenticity. People will watch a feed for four hours, just hanging out with fans and talking about the game.”

Some ways brands can capitalise on the sport include activating futuristic drone races in company venues, branding large-scale course gates, sponsoring elite pilots and creating custom content. For example, during the 2019 Swatch DRL Tryouts, thousands of aspiring pilots from 65 countries competed through Swatch-branded maps on the DRL Simulator.

According to DRL CEO and founder Nicholas Horbaczewski, brands that have partnered up with DRL include Allianz and BMW, both of which are keen to tap into the hard-to-reach audiences of Gen Z and millennial males. For brands that want to be seen as cool, futuristic, and boundary-pushing, the drone racing scene could be a goldmine in the coming years. 

Mass participation sports: Buying into a sense of community  

Running a marathon seems to have become a rite of passage for most middle-class Asians, and it has contributed to the incredible growth of mass participation sports. Lagardère’s Thorpe attributes this to a rise in affluence and an increasing interest in health and wellness.

“Ten years ago, in India and China, there were double-figure numbers of marathons. In those markets now, there are literally thousands of those sorts of events. Growth has been absolutely phenomenal,” said Thorpe. Mass participation sports, in a traditional sense, may refer to cycling, running, triathlon, duathlon and obstacle-racing events.

According to Chris Robb, co-founder and CEO of Mass Participation World which provides research and advisory in mass participation sports, this rise can also be traced back to a need for “community and tribe experiences” which are reflective in events such as colour runs, or fitness and yoga events.

Events such as colour runs promote a sense of community

Now where do brands come in? “The real beauty that mass participation sports provide, in my view, is that there’s a journey that’s being mapped out,” said Robb. “Take for example, the Standard Chartered marathon [in Singapore]. The race is in December and participants sign up in June so brands have a six-month [window] to interact with those participants when they’re training. If they do that well, they’ll have a long-term opportunity to engage with those participants and work with the rights holders.”

A huge boon for the genre is being able to leverage participant data. Unlike traditional sports where spectators and consumers may consume content passively or purchase event tickets through a third-party, mass participation sports land in the sweet spot where rights holders are able to directly collect participant information in the sign-up process as well as get participants directly involved in the sport. On paper, it’s a win-win.

On top of that, rights holders are continually communicating with participants on a regular basis (such as sending follow-ups in the hypothetical six-month window) and through this, there are opportunities for brands to partner up with events to work with rights holders.

“I still see a lot of mass blast advertising and marketing and they don’t give consumers a whole bunch of options. It can be more targeted if the data is more segmented,” said Robb. “Organisers have information such as what runs people have done in the past and with whom, or maybe they’ll have photos of people reaching the finish line. This kind of content can be integrated with the brand.”

One area where mass participation sports fall short is athlete sponsorship. Where football, tennis or basketball stars are revered as demigods, the same cannot be said for this genre. “Even in the top end, some of the best marathon runners in the world, I don’t think they will necessarily come close to the kind of following that your football or cricket stars might have,” said Robb.

However, with brands paying more attention to microinfluencers, athlete sponsorship could perhaps work at a more local level where, for instance, an Asian brand could choose to collaborate with a top Singaporean marathon runner ahead of a run. Robb said: “A very good opportunity takes collaboration, it takes a bit of work. Opt for tailored messaging as opposed to just a shotgun approach.”

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