Op-Ed: Why 2020 was a good year to start a new sport agency

25 Aug 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

After overseeing the launch of Unlimited Group's new sport proposition just before lockdown, Sport Unlimited Managing Director Lee Gibbons takes a look at the challenges of setting up a new agency during a pandemic and asks whether this is actually a good time to rethink the brand relationship with sport fans.


Sport Unlimited, the new sport offering from the Unlimited Group, launched on 2nd March this year. By 14th March most of the world’s major sporting events had been cancelled or postponed. Two days later lockdown had begun. After nearly 20 years in the sport industry across agencies, brands and rights holders, had agreeing to lead this new venture been the worst decision yet?

History would say not; successful brands like AirBnB, WhatsApp and EA being just a few to have launched in to or off the back of recessionary conditions. And so too now: online learning platforms are seeing unprecedented interest, sales of bikes are up with significant stock shortages, and streaming services have added 4.6m new subscribers. 

The common trend? Tapping into a fundamental human need. Which is why I believe we actually launched at the right time. 

At the heart of Sport Unlimited is the Human Understanding Lab. The Lab evaluates how sports fans interpret, perceive and feel the world around them, to deliver actionable and measurable insights rooted in human behaviour. Sport returning is not only bringing back one of the nation’s passions, but it signifies the start of a return to ‘normality’, tapping into the human need for certainty and autonomy; we need to feel we have control and can influence our lives. So, no surprise sports fans feel 50% more positive about the general mood and future certainty of the country than non-sports fans, and twice as positive about the country’s economic well-being. There is an immediate opportunity for those willing to invest in sport. 

But investment at this time is challenging, those choosing to seize the opportunity need to be sure they will see a return on their investment. Sponsorship is an effective tool; no other spend in the marketing mix gives you an audience to talk to, but also the inventory and content to fuel all other disciplines. You just need to understand your audiences, internal and external, what makes them tick, and how to motivate them into an action.

When you consider any sponsorship proposal you’ve seen, whether that be from a rights holder, an agency or an internal document I’ve no doubt the words ‘emotion’, ‘passion’ and ‘inspiration’ will be prevalent. Nobody believes that sport has the power to change lives more than I do. But when every single one of us is unique in our own way, why do we assume that the drivers behind the emotions are shared?

Two lifelong season ticket holders may share common demographics and interactions with their club, but it may be completely different set of emotional levers that drive their fandom. 

Why is understanding emotional drivers important? Each day 95% of the decisions the human brain makes are made by the automatic part which is led by our emotions. If we’re honest with ourselves we’re prone to the odd irrational decision, and that is because we lack insight into our own thought processes and biases. Faced with the thousands of daily decisions or judgements modern life requires we use heuristics; mental shortcuts or ‘rules of thumb’ that help us keep on top of the demands placed on us.

So, basing your strategic sponsorship choices or activation decisions only on what your audience ‘says’ or, using standard data, what it ‘does’, means you’re missing the cues that inform the majority of their decision making – to set yourself up for success in sport you need to understand how your audience feels.

At a time of such uncertainty, when understanding changing customer attitudes and behaviours has become critically important, our Human Understanding Lab set about exploring the return of sport.

We’ve already seen that sport fan are ‘happier’ than non-sports fans, but how have their expectations changed in lockdown?

  • 74% of the nation feel positive toward brands that have made a contribution to the national cause, whether that be donations, supporting key workers or making relevant products or services free during lockdown.
  • 64% of all UK sport fan agree that for brands who sponsor the teams and individuals they love, ‘brand purpose’ is more important now that it was pre-COVID.
  • 61% agree that sponsors should support the institutions intrinsically linked to their sport or club (i.e. local pubs, takeaways etc)
  • The most supported cause by sport fans (74%) was to see sponsors promote a healthier lifestyle and take the strain off the NHS.
  • Sports fans also want to see this trend continue for up to 12 months, significantly longer than non-sports fans

There is an opportunity for brands to forge positive emotional connections that will bring benefits in the long term. Over time, our brains will begin to filter the endless negative news feeds we associate with coronavirus and positive emotions will more easily cut through the clutter. In Behavioural Science this is the Rosy Retrospection Effect, which dictates that our brains tend to see the past in a more favourable light. If a brand can positively affect consumers lives in a dark time, this could build a foundation of strong brand equity when they look back upon this period: sport has the power to do just that.

We’ve already seen examples albeit from the brands you would expect or those that have a heritage in purpose-led marketing.

P&G cited a “purpose inspired growth strategy” on becoming an Olympic Partner in 2010, and they went a step further in the recent renewal stating the next eight years would be “both a force for growth and a force for good”. With the renewal came the launch of its ‘Measure of Greatness’ campaign as well as its 'Athletes for Good' initiative issuing grants over the next year to assist with the COVID-19 recovery in communities, environmental sustainability, and equality and inclusion.

Cadbury has had emotion at its heart since it was the ‘Official Treat’ of London 2012, but has shown a real targeted understanding of fan expectations in the recent foray in to Premier League clubs with the ‘Donate Your Words’ activation with Manchester United in February, and the support of the Little Wonder Café as part of its official partnership with Arsenal.

These two brands clearly demonstrate a consideration of how their consumer audience feels. This needs to become the norm, and not just for consumers, but also customers, colleagues and communities. The sooner brands and rights holders consider a level of emotional segmentation then strategies and activation can reach a new level of effectiveness.

And this is why I think launching Sport Unlimited in 2020 will have been a good decision. An agency that starts with the view that sponsorship should drive business advantage across all areas of a company, internally and externally, and goes that extra mile to understand how those different audiences feel as it delivers a full service offering to clients.