College sports are undergoing one of the biggest shifts in its history and everyone is asking big questions that will forever impact the landscape. How will they evolve their integrations of eSports programs and Crypto partnerships? How will they extend their influence beyond gameday? How are brands connecting with teams, athletes (including NIL), and the broader university campuses? Will NIL deals impact traditional sponsorship spending? How is the fan experience evolving?
Our guide for this foray into the evolution of college sports stems from a recent conversation with John Brody. Brody, a well-known and highly respected leader in the industry, currently serves as Chief Revenue Officer at Learfield, a media and technology services provider. He brings more than two decades of sports and media entertainment experience to the table including time with the WWE, MLB, Wasserman, Boston Celtics and NFL.
We are sharing some insights into what is driving the evolution of the college sports landscape.
The Dynamics Have Changed
Used to be that the media and content providers wielded the big stick. They decided how and when sporting events would be consumed by hungry fans. The proverbial worm has turned, and the traditional model has been upended.
While live broadcast still has a stronghold, fans now have more of the power. With content time now available to everyone, the new challenge is how to make content available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Universities and brands are now faced with the task of feeding the insatiable appetite for college athletics around the clock. The opportunity is huge.
The arrival of NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) on the scene has dramatically transformed college sports. New state laws and NCAA rules changes, once banning financial sponsorship in college sports, are an epic opportunity for student-athletes and brands alike. Since July of 2021, several hundred college athletes have agreed to lend their personal brands to sponsorship and advertising deals.
Mega money will be spent. The question for sponsors is how to bring together the brand and the student-athletes. How can brand partners, universities, and the athletes themselves merge their respective interests in a way that benefits them and the fans? Will brands invest in PR training for student-athletes to avert potential viral disasters? Time will tell. Long-term commitments will be needed. Learfield’s ALLIED, and programs like it, are designed to foster deeper fan connections by combining university intellectual property with the brand’s engagement with student-athletes. These programs provide opportunities for student-athletes to join with reliable brand partners already invested in college sports marketing with the support of the universities that choose to participate.
So, who watches eSports? Short answer– a lot of people. Technology consulting firm, Activate, estimates that over 250 million people watch eSports. And now that eSports is a “thing”, billions of dollars are flowing into the segment. Activate suggests that 70 million people will watch a single eSports final. That’s more than the viewership for U.S. professional baseball, hockey or soccer.
College leagues have already formed and are competing. There are tournaments and other competitions allowing eSport student-athletes to represent their respective schools. Learfield and other sports marketers have developed programs to exploit the exploding growth and popularity of eSports.
Broader Campus Reach
Sports is the gateway to creating wider and deeper relationships with universities. Brands want to know how they can extend their reach into other parts of the school. Certainly, there are opportunities for brands to act as connectors beyond sports. Might we one day see more brands choosing to sponsor business, engineering and other students in collegiate disciplines beyond sports? We live in an age when everything perceived by the five senses could act as an advertising vector into a student’s life. Learfield has a division charged with doing that.
Anything said about cryptocurrencies becoming mainstream is likely an understatement. They have become a part of everyday life. We’ve seen the Staples Arena in Los Angeles renamed for Crypto.com. Following close behind was the home of the Miami Heat in Biscayne Bay renamed for crypto exchange, FTX. In fact, many advertising experts dubbed the Super Bowl LVI, the “Crypto Bowl” due to the mass integration realized by all the “players” in the crypto space.
On the university front, FTX negotiated with the University of California, Berkeley, in September 2021 for the naming rights to its stadium. The deal is reportedly worth $17.5 million.
The crypto space represents a huge opportunity for sports sponsorships. As more exchanges pop up, they’re going to be in the hunt for sports partnerships to increase brand awareness. UC Berkeley is even accepting cryptocurrency as payment from FTX. It’s a timely example of supporting a sponsoring platform on its home turf.
Transformative Content for Fans
The power pendulum will continue to swing in favor of the fan as ways to consume content grow. Properties, marketers and brand partners must focus on creating compelling content. The future of sports sponsorships depends upon it.
Ask yourself, is the partnership adding value for fans? That’s the key question. All sports sponsorship stakeholders must ask and answer how partnerships are going to enhance the fan experience. Will it be more entertaining? Will it create a new experience or enhance an existing one? Will it humanize athletes increasing the emerging power of future NIL deals? Finding ways to transform gameday into the every day is the overarching goal.
It takes deliberate awareness and bold thinking to take advantage of emerging trends and events. With so much change occurring so rapidly in the college sports ecosystem, industry eyes must continually focus on the horizon. What seems like a quirky gimmick at first glance, may turn out to be the next big thing.