Author: Dragan Perendija | Read time: 5 minutes

Amar Singh is an experienced media expert specialised in sport content strategy. He is currently in the role of Vice-president and Head of Content and Communication at MKTG Sports + Entertainment, consulting some of the top brands on sponsorships and content strategies. Prior to joining MKTG, he worked at the platforms and Squavka, West Ham United and AB InBev, where he was part of the team that drove the “Messi 644” campaign, which received multiple awards. He offered insights for SPORTO on various aspects of sponsorships.

SPORTO: Social media and technology have changed the sports marketing and sponsorship world. Leading rights holders are media businesses, athletes are part of the creator economy, the surface of Web 3.0 in sports is only being scratched, attitudes have shifted in areas such as fans’ expectations of sponsors, the lines between gaming and social are blurring … How do you see the future of sponsorships?

AMAR SINGH: The landscape is constantly shifting. This is being driven by technology and also by behaviour of fans. It is becoming a more complex landscape, but within that, I think there are opportunities to make really meaningful connections for people who are looking to utilise sport to drive home objectives around marketing. For me, the most strategic and creative brands will win. What we are trying to do at our agency is to drive what we believe is the future of the sector, we call it fan-speed marketing. By that we mean that fans are now demanding the sport they love on their terms – when and how they want it. And this is a fundamental powershift in the consumption and structure of sports. Sports stakeholders are now playing catch-up and that includes the brands, because they want to use the undeniable passion to engage with their current and future customers. In this rapidly evolving world, this competition for attention intensifies.
So how can brands win? This is about doing the research, developing data and insights, forming individual strategic positioning and developing creativity to cut through. If you do one of those things and combine that with deep knowledge of the sports landscape, with understanding where the opportunities are and how to create lasting partnerships, you end up with content that will foster engagement, brand love and value for fans through the investment. It is a complicated landscape, which is why it is important to work with people that understand it and who use a lot of insights to keep in touch with the fan. It is the fan who drives the landscape now and not the brands or rights holders.

Fans are now demanding the sport they love on their terms – when and how they want it. And this is a fundamental powershift in the consumption and structure of sports.

MKGT’s Frontier Report, annual look at the trends that are shaping the sector, identified three key sponsorship trends for 2022: the post pandemic bounce-back, the rise of purpose and uncertainty in measuring the business return. Will some of those trends continue in 2023 in your opinion?

Through the Frontier research, we try to really understand the sector; we speak to professionals from brands, rights holders and agencies and pair that with our other annual research, analyses of audience called “Decoding”, to see where the gaps are, are people in the sector meeting the needs of the audience and if not, how to bridge those gaps. This year, we did a deep dive on Web 3, an important area where we see a lot of growth and disruption, but we also pulled out some of the key sponsorship trends. The number one was the post-pandemic bounce-back. If you look at 2019, it looked like the market was not going to grow to the levels from previous years and now we have seen this quick return to growth in 2021 and 2022. I am expecting that to continue. We are seeing some challenging economic trends and issues like inflation across the world, geopolitical situation will have an effect in terms of how much investment will go into the industry, but at the same time, sport continues and becomes hugely important in this challenging times as well.

Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard announced that he would give away his US$3 billion company to a specially designed trust and non-profit organisation. Company profits will be used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the world. Could we talk about ultimate brand purpose? How do you see purpose area in sports?

Purpose as an objective has doubled in the last seven years over traditional metrics like brand preference, brand consideration or uplift. Organisations are increasingly identifying that sports partnerships can help them drive purpose and help connect with people meaningfully. Sport is almost without an equal as an industry in terms of what you can do to reach the hearts and minds of people.

Purpose as an objective has doubled in the last seven years over traditional metrics like brand preference, brand consideration or uplift.

The pandemic really showed people that the world is vulnerable to global threats. When the lockdowns began and sport was suddenly ground to a halt, a lot of brands did something positive during this time, like support the health services, and that created purpose-related moments. During that time, there was also George Floyd incident that led to series of racial justice protests and that connected into football, where athletes starting to take a knee before games. Climate activism also really gained momentum. All of these things have been happening over the last three or four years and that shifted the landscape, and brands working in sports have adapted accordingly. They are on their own journeys when it comes to sustainability, diversity and equality. A lot of them have a long way to go, but at the same time, a lot of them are on the right track to making a difference in that area.

The key message from the “Decoding the Modern Fan” research was that great activations begin with a strong understanding of people and that it is receptivity – not passion – which is key to sponsorship marketing success.

Traditionally in sports marketing, you have the subjective, which is to find where the passion lies. To be a passionate fan only tells a part of the story and it is not the most helpful metrics because passion can mean so many things to so many people. Passion goes across many different touchpoints, while activity is the measure of the frequency and level of engagement of fans through various channels.

To be a passionate fan only tells a part of the story and it is not the most helpful metrics because passion can mean so many things to so many people.

“Decoding the Modern Fan” involves 25,000 fans across the globe and we looked at three subgroups. The first is Receptives – fans that engage most frequently through various channels and react positively to brands that sponsor their favourite sports and entertainment events. There are regions in the world where you see higher numbers of receptivity. The second subgroup were Selectives – fans that engage but less frequently or consistently. They do however maintain the positive attitude to brands that sponsor their favourite events, but they are less easy to win over. When they are won over, that can be a really big thing. And then there are Non-receptives who are not interested in who the sponsors are and are resistant to sponsorship messaging. Trying to market to those people is almost an impossible exercise. So, receptivity model is an important concept for us – we have found that is a more helpful way to define and categorize different types of fans.

How to be relevant and engaging in a quite toxic social media environment today to navigate content strategies properly?

With experience in running social media accounts and managing social media professionals, I think social media is one of the great undervalued elements of the sector. It is so important, because it is often the first and most meaningful touchpoint that people, brands, rights holders and organisations will have with the fans and audience. Often social media professionals are hired and expected to do a lot of different things for quite average salary, so I am a big believer in valuing that profession correctly and driving best practice. It is a consistently shifting landscape and people who have that “learning on the job experience” are very valuable. It is important for brands to work with good social media professionals who understand how to communicate in that space and who understand the audience.

Social media is one of the great undervalued elements of the sector. It is so important, because it is often the first and most meaningful touchpoint that people, brands, rights holders and organisations will have with the fans and audience.

And the clue is in the name. It should be about social exchange, it is not a one-way communication system. Too many brands and rights holders working in sports consider it as a one-way messaging device. The ones that develop the tone of voice and understand how to converse on social media, how to connect, where to show up on other feeds … those will win on social media. Sport really does come to life on social media.

Amar Singh

One of your passions is football. Among your other roles, you have worked as the Head of Football Content and Strategy at Budweiser. How to break through content clutter in football? Which would be the sponsorship activation(s) from football standing out?

There aren’t many brands in the world that invested so much in sport as Budweiser has over the last half of the century. I joined them when they were securing partnerships with LaLiga and the Premier League. I had a fantastic time, I really enjoyed it and I developed a lot of my learnings about brand strategy working at a company like AB InBev that has such passion for marketing and creativity.

The standout activation, the one that won quite a few awards, was “Messi 644”. We signed a deal with Lionel Messi and the idea behind was that when Messi scores 644 goals for FC Barcelona, he would be surpassing Pele’s record of 643 goals for Santos, the most goals scored by one player for one club. We felt it was a once-in-a-life-time record that might will not have been beaten again in our lifetime, given the way football is going and players are not staying at the same club so long anymore. With our partners at Copa90, who came up with a fantastic idea, we created 644 special bottles of Budweiser, each with the number on it, and we would send each bottle to every goalkeeper he scored against. It really cut through and captured the imagination of fans. We planned the activation for months in advance. Since Messi is not the kind of person who likes to troll his opponents, he wanted it to be done in a very respectful way, so we had a handwritten note in each one saying, “In order for me to achieve this record, I had to beat you, and I have respect for you as my opponent, so please join me in this moment.” That was well received among goalkeepers who were driving that for us on social media. We had goalkeepers like Casillas, Buffon or Oblak involved, sharing the bottles via their channels.

At MKTG, we work with Cadbury and I also like what they do. The brand has deep connection with British community. They moved partnership from Premier League and partnered with twenty clubs across the football pyramid. That allowed the brand to get closer to the action in terms of working with the clubs on a range of purpose-driven and community-driven initiatives.

Nike continue to do incredible work in sports. It is less about sponsorship and more about athlete partnerships. I always talk about “Dream Crazy” being one of the great campaigns of the last ten years.

In one of your latest “The Sports Marketeer” newsletters before the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, you wrote that brands are shifting their focus towards the memories and love of a tournament. Are there any other approaches from sponsors that you are noticing?

I wrote about Argentinian beer brand campaign that connects two great insights – the nostalgia that Argentinian fans feel towards the 1986 team, the last time Argentina won the World Cup, and also the coincidences that people are trying to find with almost superstitious nature of fans and how much hope they have. I felt that was a great campaign.

A lot of organisations around the World Cup, particularly broadcasters, take the cue around the host nation’s iconic landmark. While the Middle East has an incredible heritage and football culture, Qatar with Doha is a very young country that doesn’t quite have the same iconography that could be utilized, and also by leaning too much onto the host country, you then open yourself up to people accusing you of being a part of the so-called sport washing experiment. So that’s why also many of them are looking backwards. Because we are going through economically challenging times, people are feeling unsecure because of what’s been happening in Ukraine for example … Nostalgia tends to come into its own during times like these. We are seeing a lot of nostalgia in popular culture as well, and creativity around World Cup is often looking back in terms of what people love about this tournament.

Connected to national team sponsorships and image rights, more and more athletes are vocal regarding the brands they associate with. The French Football Federation (FFF), for example, reviewed its agreement on players’ image rights after Kylian Mbappé declined to take part in one of the team activations. When discussing individual vs team sponsorship rights model, could we say that rethinking is needed and not just in case of star athletes?

This is where the national organisations are almost at a disadvantage. For example, if you want to have Kylian Mbappé on your product, you have three options: one is to partner with the player, another is to partner with PSG or to partner with the French Football Federation. And of course, there will be caveats to that, such as that you can use the player for the limited amount of time or you have to use him with four other players. What is happening is that the power is shifting more towards players, particularly to the players that are extremely marketable, and Mbappé is definitely one of them. My advice to brands is, if you are entering a partnership with a team, then you must be ready to celebrate what that team is about; if you are partnering with FFF, then you should be ready to activate around the Les Bleus, not just two star players, you need to be ready to embrace everything that this team stands for and is a powerful brand itself. If you are trying to use that partnership as a Trojan horse to get Mbappé on all of your products, then it would be better to speak to athlete’s management.

The article was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 17 (December 2022).