Pivoting sport to a direct-to-fan offering

Tom Dougherty
Chief Growth Officer
July 13, 2021
5 minute read

The proposed European Super League was the most significant attempt to-date of major sports brands seeking to create a direct-to-fan offering for their product, and it won’t be the last. The commercial attraction is growing for clubs and brands to push beyond the stranglehold of the broadcasters.

As we’ve recently seen with Matchroom, boxing’s strategic move away from Sky Sports in favour of OTT platform DAZN, there is a developing trend towards digital-first subscription and pay per view models. These allow the rights owners to maximise value beyond traditional broadcast rights deals.

Such models open up a greater opportunity to build direct relationships with global audiences, delivering as they do far more enriched and immersive experiences of live sport, using AR, personalisation, interactive participation and gamification.

The digital pivot

Over the last 18 months the pandemic has forced sports organisations across the globe to pivot into a digital-first direction; seeking new ways to bring fans closer to the action through technology. So much so, it raises the question whether the notion of ‘being there’ in-person is starting to become an inferior experience to the multi-dimensional digital alternative.

As sports fans become more accustomed to interacting with a host of different experiences in and around the live action – from chat groups to in-play betting, to social feeds, to real-time stats and AR overlays - the expectation of what live sport actually is, is shifting to a new normal.

For sports teams, clubs and rights holders, the owned digital platforms enable a better-than-ever opportunity to scale their reach beyond the attending fan or ‘legacy fans’ to the millions more, worldwide. This is where the real fan growth lies and is the reason many of these brands are architecting innovative rights and sponsorship deals that enable them to increase the value of their content, beyond the broadcasters.

Digitally enhanced live-action

With golf's Open Championship taking place this weekend, the R&A will transform The Open’s website into a fully interactive live mode, enabling its millions of global fans to engage in real time; through live scoring, live action, an on-demand video hub, player tracking and dynamic data feeds.

This direct-to-fan offer gives the Open fans unprecedented access of the event, designed to work in harmony with the live TV coverage or as the primary channel to follow the action. For their commercial partners like Rolex and Mastercard, whose association would previously have been quantified by the amount of on-TV brand presence, there is now a host of new digital properties from which to gain greater reach and deeper fan connection.

This of course creates new revenue streams for the rights holders themselves. According to a recent PWC Sports Industry Survey, 82,9% of respondents identified the creation and monetisation of digital assets as one of the top opportunities to grow revenues in sports.

The battleground for fan attention

As more channels launch - and new players and platforms come into the market - the attraction of sport sponsorship has never been greater for brands. Of course, this means the competition for the fan’s attention is ever increasing and in turn is marking a clear end to the notion of ‘fan ownership’, which was once an obsession for many sports brands. It’s now about recognising that you are part of the ecosystem of fan engagement. Ensuring that, as a brand, you have a purpose and a role to play is critical to your future success.  

For sports teams and competition owners, defining a differentiating purpose for your own platform can be challenging with so much on offer elsewhere. It’s often why we see these brands create exclusive behind-the-scenes content or host online events with their sports’ stars or offer additional layers of content during live events. These tactics can also be used, not just to attract fan traffic, but to drive towards registered membership and database growth.  

Fan-boost functionality

Racing brand Formula E take this approach a step further by fusing the digital fan experience of their race day with the actual race itself – allowing members to access ‘Fan Boost’ functionality through their own website and App, which, through fan interaction, affects the actual performance of the drivers and vehicles in the race.

Whilst it might be a stretch to believe football would adopt this level of digital disruption today, it’s certainly not something that can be ruled out, as competition owners and sports brands look to future proof their product for the digital-first world.