Match report: exclusive debate on football’s expectation gaps

Last week e3 and LSU hosted an exclusive lunch at Jason Atherton’s City Social inside London’s iconic Tower 42.

Attendees included new and traditional media (Sky Sports, Ball Street, ArsenalFanTV), commercial brands (Virgin Media, 888, Orange, Mondelēz), Nike and charity Football Beyond Borders.

Following the recent launch of our report into the expectations gaps experienced by football fans and players, we debated the issues it highlighted and opportunities to make the beautiful game better for everyone – fans, players, sponsors, sports performance brands and society as a whole.

The warm-up

A few key insights were shared from the report before we kicked off.

• Fans are shifting from old to new media

TV broadcasters, newspapers, football magazines, official club and governing body websites, apps and social media all represent traditional publishers in football. They may now all have a strong digital offering, but the format of their content is losing its appeal with young fans.

Broadcasters paid 71% more for rights for 2017/18, yet viewing on Sky’s live TV channels fell 14% last year.

Younger fans (aged 30 and under) in our survey said they still follow football in traditional media at similar levels to older fans, but they supplement this with an even higher consumption of new, unofficial channels such as ArsenalFanTV and Copa90. They are more than twice as likely to follow such channels at least daily than over 30s are.

The numbers aren’t small. Ball Street has an aggregated global audience of 50 million whereas Sky Sports has just 5 million subscribers.

• Digital experiences are more than content

Whilst many examples of partnerships are essentially just badging, even in digital, the opportunities are much broader.

Digital experiences support much richer targeting and personalisation, real-time data integration, interactivity and immersion. Virtual Reality, for example, is enabling fans to get their team’s live stadium experience from anywhere in the world.

• The role commercial brands play is changing

Shirt sponsorship deals for Premier League clubs grew 24% in value on last year and are close to trebling in just seven years. It can be too expensive or hard to justify for most brands to invest at the top end of football. However, there are plenty of new opportunities below this, even for brands that may have never considered sponsorship in football before, opened up by technology advances and the changing interests and behaviours of fans.

Brands that take advantage of these opportunities can reap rewards far exceeding the ROI of traditional sponsorship or advertising, through direct customer acquisition, brand sentiment and loyalty.

• Sports performance brands need to stand out

There’s too much parity between brands like Nike and adidas and they’re all playing the same game. How do they find a new way to win? Sports performance brands must connect more with young players and close the expectations gaps.

Players expect products to be exactly right for them. How about connected boots that collect your data to create unique performance enhancing kit?

Players expect to know as much about themselves as they know about the pros. How about an Alexa skill that delivers player performance stats on you and your heroes?

Players expect to be able to master and show off skills. How about a ball-tracking AR app that gamifies your skills?

The first half

There was much to discuss and tummies were starting to rumble. We posed two questions over lunch to focus the debate.

Question 1: What is the most effective role for commercial brands?

All the brands attending had their say as well as others around the table. It was unanimous that whatever brands do it has to be genuine. With brand trust at a low, people see right through it if it you’re not genuine.

Brands also need to bring value to win people over. Virgin Media for example has added value to fans with its Twenty’s Plenty campaign. The timing of our lunch coincided with the launch of BBC’s Price of Football study revealing the extent of ticket prices putting off young fans.

Fan channels provide a fresh new way for brands to activate, but it was recognised that traditional advertising and sponsorship opportunities still play a role. Sky acquired social content producer Diagonal View earlier this year, enabling the broadcaster to broaden its reach and combine the strengths of both old and new media partnerships.

The Second Half

As our mains were simmering in front of us, we announced the second question…

Question 2: If you were Nike what would you do to connect with young football players?

Having a representative from Nike in the room should have made it easy for one person in particular to answer this question. But we didn’t let him off lightly.

Daniel Smith, Head of Track and Field, Cross Category and Operations Sports Marketing at Nike talked about the brand’s complacency in the past. They acknowledged that they now need to find ways to connect and show value more to people.

When Nike represents someone who has walked in your shoes, it resonates much more strongly. Nike athlete John McAvoy, who also attended the lunch and served ten years in prison, talked about the impact he has engaging young people to choose a life away from crime. Sport is one of the few things that can get do that, and, back to the earlier theme, that message feels genuine from John.

Extra time

The discussion continued way beyond our original booking duration and a number of other topics were aired.

Jasper Kain, co-founder of Football Beyond Borders shared some of their insights working with teenagers. He cited that they’re more bought into player brands than player performance, and more into personalised football boots over team shirts.

It was clear that there are huge expectations gaps in football, yet many opportunities for brands to close them. We heard and contributed to many viewpoints on the beautiful game and the debate continues…

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