Op ed: Short-Format Sport. The Future of Sports Sponsorship?

19 Feb 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

From 100-ball cricket, to 3X3 basketball to Tie Break Tens, new short forms of sport are attracting plenty of media attention alongside their growing armies of fans. But what does the proliferation of short-format sports mean for brands?

In this exclusive feature for Sport Industry Group, Simon Dent, Founder of creatively-led sports marketing agency Dark Horses, looks at the sponsorship opportunity presented by the short-form sport phenomenon.

The agency, lanched by Dent, Danny Brooke-Taylor, Helen Calcraft and Andy Nairn in summer 2016 , has been shortlisted for the BT Sport Industry Awards 2019 Young Agency of the Year in association with Getty Images.

When 3x3 basketball thunders its way onto centre court at next years Tokyo Games, it will signify more than the Olympic debut of basketball’s newest iteration.

As the third short-form sport to be added to the Olympic roster, after beach volleyball in 1996 and rugby sevens 20 years later, 3x3’s inclusion is a high profile example of how shorter, more dynamic formats of traditional sports are being embraced by the mainstream.

An early adopter of the short form set-up, tennis has been forthright with ideas to increase its popularity. New formats and competitions designed to capture the attention of the elite players and fans alike, such as the newly conceived Laver Cup (backed by Roger Federer) and the modified Davis Cup format, both pitch the best players against each other in a knockout style format to reach faster concluding victories.

These efforts are alongside steps already undertaken to create more exciting individual player tournaments, such as the winner-takes-all Majesty Cup and short-format Tie Break Tens, where players battle to reach 10 points under tie-break rules to win the pot.

Outside of tennis; cricket, golf, and rowing have also dabbled in expedited formats to varying degrees of success. This continued experimentation with abridged formats poses a big question: why would any sport, especially those with such demonstrated histories, want to mess with a tried and tested formula?


Sport Is Facing Up To A Crisis

Amongst fans, sport consumption habits are changing.

Given the influence technology has had when it comes to how we watch and engage with games, it’s not surprising that it’s one of the biggest challenges facing the industry today.

While short-form has been on the rise, traditional sports formats have been struggling to attract new audiences and participants. According to McKinsey, fans of all ages—not just millennials—are watching fewer games, and also quitting them faster. With multiple viewing and interaction options available via streaming, and social media sites, fans are no longer locked into slow moving play. Add to this, declining numbers at live games, and it’s no wonder that brands are worried. How can they sell when no-one is watching?

The introduction of short-form formats provides the perfect antidote to the modern fan’s appetite: action served up fast, live, and without extended breaks.

“The modern sports fan’s content consumption is now mobile, motivated by a desire for immediacy and flexibility”, says Jonny Madill, a sports lawyer at Sheridans and co-founder of Digital Sport Club. “Given the breadth of sport content now assessable to fans, there is a shift in the balance away from traditional media and consumption in favour of active participation and engagement. This has initiated a new environment of ‘snack-able’ content delivered by social platforms including memes, gifs, highlights, and clips that are more suitable to a modern audience”.

Madill believes that this new era of sports formats reflects, and is being driven by, the increasingly blurred lines between traditional sport, entertainment and the online world. “In the same way that traditional sports rights holders and brands are turning to esports, influencers and online content creators as a means of targeting and engaging with a new, younger audience, using shortened or adapted versions of traditional sport has exactly the same objective: increase engagement by appealing to the viewing and consumption habits of the modern-day sports and entertainment fan.”


What Does This Mean for Brands?

In an industry where fan engagement and interaction are high on the priority list, short-form sports allow brands to hold a more captive audience through a combination of easy to digest rules and unique entertainment offering.

Louise Johnson, CEO of Fuse, believes that short form represents an evolution of sport rather than a disruption. “It focuses on the more dramatic aspects of the game that really appeal, often within a festival atmosphere. It’s a key way to grow any sport. While core audiences may be harder to win around, for example in T20, the longer form products are still there to satisfy their needs. 

Short form are designed to be more accessible in terms of show timings and lower price points. This is appealing to a family focused audience, which is in turn attractive to brands.

In addition, the new formats are being designed by innovators from the ground up, meaning they are more open to brands bringing new technology and opportunities to enhance the fan experience”.

This new reshaping of traditional formats is not just limited to how we consume, it’s also affecting who is consuming.

The family friendly and festival like atmosphere associated with many live short form events makes it appealing to a more diverse and younger audience. Shorter games have the benefit of being fast paced enough to keep the attention of the whole family while still allowing everyone to get home in time for bed.

While this means that brands already involved in sport can target new demographics, it also opens up sport to brands who may never have considered using sports as a way to communicate.


Facing Up To The Future

As it grows in popularity, short-form sports will continue to provide unique opportunities for brands through both digital interaction and live event engagement.

Does this mean that conventional sports formats are dead? Far from it. Time-honoured formats of traditional games will stand any test of competition. However, that’s not to say that there isn’t room for something different.

As well as the cross-demographic exposure, short-form sports can provide opportunities for global growth for brands. Sports like cricket and rugby have started to broaden their geographies using condensed versions of their traditional game in the form of T20 and Rugby 7s. The England an Wales Cricket Board, buoyed by the success of their previous efforts, have another condensed format on the horizon in the form of The Hundred.

Mike Fordham, Head of The Hundred, says their continuing efforts  are all about trying to broaden the consumption of cricket. “Research shows that the biggest barriers for cricket amongst those not interested in the sport are time, complexity, and perception. The new format will allow us to present cricket a bit differently, make it a bit quicker, and drive reappraisal of the game. That said, we believe it will excite existing cricket fans as well - it will still be high performance cricket with top players from England and overseas with some of the world’s best coaches”.

These short, dynamic, revitalised formats of traditional sports provide a plethora of opportunity. The fan first focus, continuous adaptation to consumption habits, and the ability to provide a gateway for geographical expansion, makes them both exciting and enticing to brands. And it’s only just getting started. Brands need to start paying attention – short form is here for the long term.

Photo: © Getty Images