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Spanish football La Liga match – Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid, madrid

Image: Dppi/Oscar Barroso/Zuma Press/PA Images March 2021

Digital strategy and branded content will remain a staple for fan experience and engagement in sports, long after the industry recovers from the impacts of COVID-19.

Digital content is a staple in any brand's strategy. For the sport industry, now operating very differently from how the norm was twelve months ago, reaching fans online has taken centre stage. 

Beyond the pandemic, digital engagement will continue to be an important strategy for brands, rights holders and media partners - whether through their own channels, social media platforms or integration of other technology solutions - especially whilst timelines of fans returning to stadiums and venues around the globe remain unclear and vary so much for different countries and competitions. 

There have been many predictions about what sport will look like in a post-pandemic era. Most can agree the last year has sparked brands and sponsors to think creatively and prioritise digital activations due to the lack of in-person gatherings or events.

The Drum recently explored how digital platforms are turning sports sponsorship on its head. The lack of spectators presents a new opportunity for brands to engage fans at home and enhance their engagement and fandom through digital experiences.

So where does digital strategy, branded content and online activation fit, even when fans can return?

Activation budgets go further online

The Drum referenced via Kantar that sports sponsorship will account for ten percent of all global ad spend in 2021. Sponsorship of a sports property typically comes with a hefty price tag… Real Madrid hold the title of the most lucrative kit deal in the world, with Adidas shelling out €120 million per year and Emirates spending €70 million each season to occupy the front of shirt branding.

Yet in an industry where consumption habits are frequently changing depending on tech and social media trends, traditional sponsorship is now being overlooked in place of bespoke content, flexible and performance-based campaigns where brands can spend less for more impact, reaching more eyeballs than traditional media or in-venue assets allow. 

Our teams deliver these kinds of campaigns everyday on Squawka, a global digital football publisher (part of Catena Media), working with brands to run shorter campaigns that have high impact and more targeting opportunities, whilst leveraging high engagement rates from a huge audience that all have an interest in football and stats. 

Brands can spend their budgets smarter whilst activating online, evaluate their success much quicker and use our content and football expertise as a way to engage fans during key points of interest, highly anticipated matches, or during bigger tournaments like the Euros and World Cup - without the price-tag of becoming an ‘official partner’ of UEFA or FIFA.

Other factors such as speculation around the UK government no longer allowing operators to partner directly with rights holders will only accelerate the growth of online activation and branded content. Shirt sponsorship by betting companies is worth £70m per year in the Premier League. If bookmakers are no longer allowed to feature on club shirts, a portion of those budgets will potentially shift to online partners, especially benefiting those who develop authentic content for the benefit of its audiences.

Hybrid models will become the norm

Sports consultancy Two Circles predicts post-vaccination habits will increase demand for live experiences. And whilst fans may be craving a return to their favourite stadium, there will be a percentage of fans that are likely to be cautious about being amongst crowds.

Outside of the stadium however, rights holders are increasingly challenged by accommodating consumption habits and staying top of mind for not only their loyal fanbase, but expanding and reaching new audiences. Branded content offers a 24/7 experience through relevance, geo-targeting and an ability to reach fans in an authentic way.

Brands have been forced to pivot strategies to fill the void of experiential and live events to reach audiences online. Taking branded experiences online has allowed for global reach, something unprecedented that in-person events could not offer. There is a trade off between low reach, high impact from live events to high reach, low impact from online events. It’s a compromise that most brands would see the benefit in using both models. 

A hybrid blend of digital (at home) content with live or event-based activations is likely to continue. So far though, we’ve seen countless examples of athletes, rights holders, broadcasters, brands, fans and influencers all embark on the digital world of branded content, and its potential to benefit the fan experience for everyone!

Online activations take on new meaning to build connections

Sponsorship without activation can be quite a dry partnership for all parties involved. The sport industry is now tasked with providing its brand partners the experience of connecting with larger communities and wider groups with digital strategy at its core. 

Social platforms and wider online groups are vital for building deeper connections with fans and global audiences. Platforms also have a job to enable fans to interact with their favourite teams, athletes and brands, just like how TikTok encourages a variety of creators on their feeds. Digital viewing and ‘watch together’ experiences have become even more important without live spectators. Channels such as Twitch are empowering more social connections whilst users watch streamers, esport matches, and now also official football club channels.

It can be extremely difficult to target consumers without key data about them - access to online platforms makes it easier to reach these fans with deeper insights. Rather than using social channels purely for amplification, they can also be utilised to get fans involved, spark discussion and have users feel like they’re contributing to or creating their own experiences and opinions.

One of our favourite tools used on Squawka to spark debates is the Comparison Matrix, allowing football fans to make their own comparisons using up-to-date stats across more than 3,000 teams, 81,000 players and 65 competitions.

[Image: Interactive Comparison Matrix on]

Social distancing may be temporary, but the delivery, reach and creativity of digital fan experiences and online activations will live on, cementing its importance for every brand strategist and sports marketer. 

COVID may have propelled digital and branded content strategies to the sole means of fan activation, but I’m betting on it being here to stay.

Why digital strides taken during the pandemic are here to stay