What sports success teaches us about brand experience 

22 March 2024

Laura Mulcahy, Head of Cultural Practice, Daniel Van Vorsselen, Business Director, TRA

Sport has always been more than a game. It’s a catalyst for unforgettable cultural moments. In the last five years, sporting events have evolved into full-scale entertainment experiences proving to have wider appeal beyond hardcore fans. At a time when we’re craving to be around like minds, sports are a shortcut to social connection. You can replay a match, but you can't replay the feeling of being at a match.

Events like the Australian Grand Prix are more reminiscent of festivals. These dynamic entertainment experiences don't just cater to sports fans but to wider cross-subculture groups. They create shared movements that resonate beyond the realm of sports, inviting the feeling of being part of something – even just for a match. 

For brands, the recent cultural shift seen in sports offers valuable lessons on how to grow broader, more engaged fan bases. By utilising storytelling, live experiences and digital accessibility, sports events are evolving. It’s not only about the game but the people in the stands, on the grounds and following the drama. Here's what brands can learn from this. 

The power of authentic storytelling

More and more, we are getting to know athletes as people. We watch them navigate the highs and lows of their careers. We learn their back stories, know what they eat for breakfast and witness how they train. They create endless narratives for fans to follow – they are heroes and villains, winners and losers, underdogs and champions. Their stories are gripping, unfolding in real-time, and this builds an emotional currency with fans.  

On social media, athletes have been reframed through human eyes and sporting bodies are attracting new audiences beyond die-hard fans as a result. Sport may mean competition, but for many entertainment is the draw. The release of 'Formula 1: Drive to Survive' series on Netflix in 2019, which lifts the lid on the lives of drivers, managers and team members, has established a new fanbase for the sport. Over the past few years, viewership of Formula 1 has increased 70% in the US and the audience demand for the series in Australia is 9.4 times the average. Series like these have deepened overall interest in some sports and give us another side to games we thought we knew.

Real-world storytelling is a powerful marketing tool beyond the confinement of ads. Brands can create more authentic, meaningful storytelling with familiar and nuanced characters, storylines and tensions that audiences can connect more deeply with on an emotional level over time.

Welcome your guests

“Off-court” activity adds to the excitement of sports' shared experiences. The atmosphere of a festival or a carnival creates unique opportunities for people who feel like outsiders, or who are less interested in sport, to enjoy a shared experience and take part in a cultural moment.

People are tired and sceptical of pre-recorded or planned content. The unscripted drama of live events is in stark contrast to this, offering experiences that are unique and irreplaceable – the atmosphere and energy of the crowd, the sense of occasion. If you’re not there, you miss out.

The Australian Open is now a multi-faceted sports, music, art, food and entertainment event. Held in the centre of Melbourne, the event feeds off what the city has to offer – proximity to its vibrant cultural life. People come for the tennis and stay for the vibes.

For brands, think about those who are just outside your ‘fan base’. To broaden your impact and grow your audience you need to widen your offering and invite others in. Reframe your product and communications to not only invite ‘outsiders’ in but also make them feel at home.

Build a connected ecosystem 

Social media, digital experiences and online platforms amplify the reach of live events, further feeding public interest and engagement. Whether using digital platforms to plan experiences, watch races and related content, or engage with their favourite athletes – an entire ecosystem of opportunity is available for fans to connect with the sport. 

The NFL has successfully tapped into the evolving dynamics of fandom in the digital age, harnessing emerging technology to appeal to wider audiences with different aesthetics. By using AR, for instance, to display on-field overlays featuring real-time play stats, NFL is making home viewing feel immersive. The organisation also partnered with Nickelodeon to reach younger audiences, keeping kids and parents engaged. This is evidence of how smart use of channels and innovation reduces barriers to engagement, providing more opportunities for audiences to engage – regardless of age or understanding.

Investing in ecosystems of channels, media and content creates and sustains all types of viewers. This innovative, multi-channel engagement helps meet the viewers where they are at in their sports journey. It’s an approach that brands can easily mimic to broaden reach and deepen engagement.

Ultimately, the success of sports is evident in both event ticket sales and increasing viewership. Don’t assume you ‘know’ your audience. By taking off the blinkers and seeing your brand through outsiders’ eyes, you may be surprised at what opportunities you are leaving on the table.

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