We are living through interesting times. Above all, we are living through years that are significantly changeable and full of continuous shifts in balance. In this perennial re-balancing of weights, in the continuous and perpetual search for a regularity that today is frankly difficult to define, even in the world of sport emergency has become a new daily occurrence. And the sport industry has had to redefine itself, even before being able to rediscover itself.
As the advertisement wants, it is necessary today to ask oneself, in the sporting industry as in all others, if the search for normality is not normality itself and if the secret of success is not in the continuous chiselling of rules and smoothing of angles. To adapt in order to survive, according to Darwinism, or – even better – to adapt in order to prosper.
The writer of these lines probably suffers, and it is quite evident, from a rather marked perspective bias. From the victory of the Euro 2020 by the Italian football team to the most extraordinary Formula 1 championship in memory, from an incredible Olympic epic to a sensational year of MotoGP, 2021 has been -sports-wise- one of the most memorable years ever. The lesson that stadiums, tracks and arenas have bequeathed to us is, in a nutshell, quite simple: transitions -even the most painful ones- can be positive, if they are governed with foresight. Sport must continue to change if it wants to keep on being one of the most entertaining show available, in a world that is changing with increasing rapidity.
This is something as intuitive as it is to go against the grain. Neither sport in general, nor the galaxy that revolves around it – starting with sponsorship and ending with television rights or ticketing – are particularly fond of revolutions: change is tiring, full of unexpected events, decidedly costly both from the neural point of view and from that of the wallet. However, when it is imposed, change lights the fuse for a series of mechanisms that, although sometimes painful in the beginning, generate largely positive results.
The years of COVID and the years of the fight against COVID
Please note: the pandemic is not, of course, the only variable in the equation. The virus played the main role on the world stage -due to the extraordinary and everlasting popularity of our and other people’s misfortunes in newspapers and magazines- but there is more in the world than COVID and the above transitions should be understood as a general principle and not a particular one. Just as the recent movie “Don’t Look Up” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is not really about a comet about to strike our planet, so COVID is both the problem and the prototype of the problem itself.
Sports and sports marketing understand the virus has not finished its race and will return with cyclical frequency among the positions that count on the global agenda. If, in essence, the years of COVID are over, the years of the fight against COVID are far from over. Health and safety protocols, containment bubbles, as well as of course the arrival of vaccines and a conspicuous organizational and control machine have made the Coronavirus today slightly closer to an injury than to a transnational calamity: players, drivers, riders, mechanics, coaches and staff members now go in and out of the quarantines imposed by the virus on a daily basis, but the show has learned to move on.
From the point of view of sports marketing, on the other hand, the pandemic has had the merit – if I may say so – of recalibrating the north of a theme that was eluding professionals in the sector: content is much more important than the container. In fact, for years, probably due in part to the easy enthusiasm caused by social networks and revolutionary methods of engagement, we had lost sight of the main road that required us to place the sporting performance at the centre of the discipline of sports marketing, that is, the sporting event, the game, the race, the competition. The cancellation of the competitions themselves, the modification of calendars and the sudden disappearance of certain events have contributed to an important triage of priorities, which have at their absolute summit the performance of the sport itself.
Sports sponsorship itself, in a game of epic nature of which the undersigned is also an accomplice, has excessively exasperated in recent times the non-centrality of the result in favour of a holistic vision that sees the return of the operation in the simple fact of being there at that moment and being able to activate by leveraging this issue. This is true if we do not come to say that sponsoring Liverpool is the same as sponsoring Norwich, or that being a partner of Red Bull Racing is the same as being a partner of the Haas team.
Significantly, 2022 will be no different than 2021, as far as the pandemic is concerned. The winter recrudescence and the diabolical Omicron impose caution, and still command the time of the dances, but the organizers have learned the score and are ready to go in rhythm with the music. There will -this is certain- still be some empty stadiums and some unguarded stands, but in the year of the sibylline World Cup in Qatar, it is easy to assume that they will sacrifice -correctly- some bleacher tickets in favour of continuing the business on the field.
The new physical, political and commercial geographies
The World Cup in Qatar is obviously a theme of 2022, as well as the Winter Olympics in Beijing, capital of that China that two years ago kicked off the beginning of the end. The Arabian Peninsula is not only the smallest state in which the planet’s greatest sporting event has ever been played, but also the definitive and most tangible sign of a movement eastward in the engine of the sports system. This does not mean that Europe has lost its relevance within the chessboard, but rather that markets and clients belonging to the new order have officially confirmed their presence around all the tables that matter.
The calendars of the top international motorsport competitions are a clear sign of this, with 20 races, including MotoGP and Formula 1, away from the old continent. The reason for this, as is evident, is the economic availability of certain territories which, although lacking in European heritage, today possess the capital to become the stage for the events that count.
Not even this telluric movement is free from polemics, some well-founded and some less so. Certainly, ethical and social concerns regarding the conditions of workers in charge of preparing the stadiums and infrastructures that will host the World Cup fall into the first category. Doubts, on the other hand, remain about the fuss recently raised over the alleged “cookie” that the Sheiks would have organized to the detriment of the Azzurri, and that would allow the phenomenon Ronaldo to participate in the World Cup instead of the team that won the last continental tournament. It is necessary to separate bran from flour and to make a good selection of the infinite flow of information that floods computers, telephones and various other devices on a daily basis.
From the point of view of our profession, i.e., sports sponsorship, the most damaging implications of these new geographies have been evident for a long time. The top sponsors of the world’s most important properties often come from the East, be it the Middle or the Far East. However, there is no need to deceive ourselves about the reason for these partnerships, which are not aimed at “conquering Europe” at all, but rather at a positioning that is much more global and much less local. Sport has become too important a communication asset on a planetary level to think that Saudi or Chinese groups care only about the European client: Italians, French, Germans and Spaniards are too few and too stagnant in terms of economic growth to still be the object of desire of any company on the globe. Metaphorically speaking, Etihad is not on City’s shirt to conquer Mancunian or British fans, but to quickly reach all those who are even vaguely interested in football, regardless of where they are.
It goes without saying that the system of activations will also change – and this is already happening – and will be increasingly divided into two macro-systems. There is that of the super-sponsors, interested almost exclusively in the exploitation of name/image/famous rights and in high-end visibility, and then there is that of the lower-end sponsors (an ugly word that would need a worthy substitute), who will increasingly benefit from small but intense local activations that include hospitality activities and one-to-one presence.
Of cryptocurrencies and metaverse
That of physical boundaries is not the only geography being challenged by modernity. The advent of cryptocurrencies, blockchain, NFT and other financial/technology players has imposed itself on the sports industry with a speed that the industry itself was not necessarily prepared for. It was just a few hours ago that Scuderia Ferrari signed an agreement with Velas Network, a new and powerful player in the NFT and digital wallets market. In a few years, sometimes months, brand new companies made very rich by the popularity of bitcoin and similia have started to conquer the world of sports, signing multi-million-dollar agreements that have redefined the scenario: for some it is the new tobacco, or the new banks, but the difference is substantial.
Unlike more “traditional” companies (another ugly term, imprecise, that offers a negative meaning to something that in reality has nothing negative about it), these new large investors are profoundly -and in every sense- dematerialized: they do not have a precisely stated physical location, they address an often undeclared and brand new target, they have streamlined structures that -at the expense of the budgets they have- allow them very rapid operations and sudden changes of direction. They are, in essence, a fairly unknown animal that is still being measured. In fact, these companies are opening the field to new types of partnerships, sometimes based on the creation of NFT or dedicated cryptocurrencies, sometimes based on pure brand reputation activities (this is the case, for example, of Crypto.com and the purchase of naming rights for the Los Angeles Lakers arena, following the sponsorship of the F1 Championship) and brand development in order to emerge in a market that is rapidly becoming crowded.
Despite the perplexity of even some insiders and the initial manoeuvres to approach these semi-unknown objects, digital finance already represents the present, and no longer the future, of sports marketing. Tomorrow, quite recent to tell the truth, is clearly in the metaverse – the mega network of connected networks that guarantees virtual worlds but absolutely real experiences and economies and that represents the next big thing in digital. If the big names such as Meta, Amazon, Apple have already been equipping themselves for the metaverse for years, there are many who have already built -and then speculated on- the internet of tomorrow, as is happening for example on Decentraland. The big sport properties promise to be not to be outdone and give their fans and stakeholders a new world of 3.0 opportunities to be enjoyed in the metaverse (or metaverse, depending on the definition) and managed through blockchain and proprietary NFT.
The theme now is that of the connection between the two worlds: the virtual and highly digital world of the metaverse and the real world of sport. Many see in the metaverse a new way to enjoy competitions, matches and games, thanks to virtual reality technology, big data and real-time stats, but doubts about the state of the technology today remain especially in function of the massive amount of bandwidth that some platforms would require. The metaverse seems instead a no-brainer for the world of e-sports that, after a surprising media exposure due to the first pandemic wave, today continues to live a moment of absolute splendour thanks to a base of gamers in constant enlargement. The video game -this has been understood for some time- is not only the medium of the future, but also the evolutionary base at the foundation of many of the technologies that everyone will use in the coming years.
Concluding the reasoning on the metaverse, and putting on paper a concern that emerged in a recent chat on the subject, the hope is that there is fire behind the smoke. The impression is that many people talk about this internet of the future, but few have really understood what’s behind it and know how to manage the impressive amount of conditio sine qua non that are necessary to access it, such as the possession of a digital wallet and similia.
Return to energizer
To end this overview – perhaps a bit disjointed – on the themes of 2022 sports marketing, it is useful to take a step back and try to grasp the big picture. As we said at the beginning, the pandemic has taken the lid off Pandora’s box and evaporated many of the superstructures that modernity had put on the sports event. The months of absence of the sporting event itself have put the accent back on the foundations of the sports system, that is, the sport itself. If you don’t play, don’t run, don’t compete, the rest is all useless.
Everything else, from social to metaverse, from geographic declinations to new generation activations, is based on the emotions and moods generated by the champion’s performance, by the beautiful technical gesture, by the joy of victory, by the emotion of a memorable event.
If what happens on the field is therefore the fulcrum of everything – and it can’t not be, of course – then the theme of competitiveness is of extraordinary interest and is the first thing to safeguard as we look to the sport not of 2022 but of the future. Those who deal with sports marketing* need to find mechanisms to ensure that unpredictability, spectacle, uncertainty and duels (in sports, of course) are always the ultimate goal of those who organize championships, series, events and tournaments.
It is a very modern theme, actually, even though it rests on ancient foundations. Will MotoGP survive Rossi’s farewell? Can there be a world championship without Messi or Ronaldo? Can the NBA thrive if teams far from the Big Market win? Obviously, the answer to this question is yes, as long as ways are always found to ensure a great show on the track, on the turf and on the parquet respectively. In this sense, as has already been mentioned, it was especially enlightening the 2021 Formula 1 championship won by Max Verstappen but, above all, decided on the last lap of the last race. The same sport that for years has been branded as a boring bandwagon, this year has bewitched the world with its exciting battles and the clash between two great champions.
The year to come
In conclusion, the year to come, 2022, is actually already here and presents with sufficient clarity the challenges, complexities and nodal issues for sports and sports marketing. Many of these challenges have been listed in the preceding lines, many would need further exploration. The Covid-19 pandemic and the arrembant Omicron variant will still be the main headline in the newspapers, but the centrality of the Gulf countries, the role of cryptocurrencies and metaverse, and the need to put competitiveness at the centre of the next competitions represent the future of our profession and the facets that characterize it.
The bottom line, as we have been saying lately, is that sports and sports marketing cannot afford not to adapt to change and the many mutations that modernity presents. On the contrary, they are obliged to align themselves first and then to anticipate these trends, these difficulties and these innovations if they want to maintain the leading role they play in everyday life.
In a recent article in Sports Illustrated, NBA commissioner Adam Silver stated: “Sports have been a bellwether of sorts in our society. Our ability to find a way to keep operating is also significant for society, to show that there are ways, despite living in this era “**. These are interesting words, coming from the head of one of the most important sports leagues in the world and marking another, perhaps the last and final argument for the years to come. As everyone knows, sport is much more than a simple form of entertainment or a recreational toy: it is a complex social and cultural object with a myriad of practical, concrete and vivid applications and implications.
Understanding, governing, communicating and managing these implications is probably the most important mission for the coming year and those to come.
* We won’t go into another discussion here on the dichotomy between sports marketing and sports marketing, but suffice it to say in simplified terms that the former is concerned with promoting the sports product or products, while the latter is concerned with using sports to promote third-party products or services.
** “Sports have been a kind of taskmaster for our society. Our ability to overcome problems and continue to function is just as important for society to show that there are solutions to the problems of this historical era.”