Opinion: Matt Vandrau on sport's new communities

22 Jan 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

In this exclusive column for Sport Industry Group, Matt Vandrau, Group CEO, CSM Sport & Entertainment, argues that understanding emerging communities will be key to brands’ and rightsholders' success in sport in 2019.

'Sport is creating new communities. It’s time to join in'


We all have an intrinsic need for community. Few instincts are more human, and we have always sought to build them with the people around us.  

Today, as our lives drift further apart, more and more people find their communities through the things they care about

Sport has always been able to meet that need and the lesson of 2018, as we enter a new year, is that it’s doing so in new and powerful ways. Understanding what those communities mean and how they work will help anyone reach fans on their own terms, adding value to their experience.

2018: The return of the fan community

The Fifa World Cup, of course, will be what most of us carry with us from the year gone by. Along with the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, it proved beyond question that the biggest events still really matter. Both were followed worldwide by massive digital audiences while huge ratings on linear TV, particularly for the World Cup, showed how important it is to people to enjoy these moments together.

Nowhere was this more true than in England. Football didn’t quite come home but the national team returned to the affections of fans across the country. It helped, naturally, that the team outperformed expectations on the pitch but the connection they made with supporters owed just as much to their preparation and humility.

After a series of tournaments in which an icon-led strategy made the players seem distant and even aloof, the FA laid the groundwork for Russia with a more open approach. Relations between the squad and the media were thoughtfully managed, and fans were put front and centre of the communications campaign with a vibrant squad announcement video that used young supporters calling out the names of their local heroes.

Just as importantly, as the excitement and momentum gathered through the summer, fans were allowed to own the moment. Rather than smothering the mood with triumphalism or overt control, the FA stepped back to allow ‘Three Lions’ and the explosion of memes to dominate. All the while, a grounded, well-mannered team were clearly aware of their importance to the public, with open access to them and manager Gareth Southgate maintained on official channels.

Around the tournament, meanwhile, attention was building on the experience of supporters and the Russian hosts, through user-generated content, in the mainstream media and on emerging fan culture platforms. It was a trend that continued through the year.  

The smartest rightsholders are recognising that this is the new age of the fan. Formula One began 2018 with a marketing campaign which put the thrill of watching the sport at its core and brought partners like Johnnie Walker closer to its events by creating a festival feel at its circuits.

Savvy brands also showed that by understanding your fans, you have a greater chance of becoming a part of their lifestyle in a more authentic way. It also means you can take bigger risks in your marketing. Nike relaunched its ‘Just Do It’ campaign with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who ‘took a knee’ during the National Anthem before NFL games to raise awareness of Black Lives Matter. The decision was met with hostility in some quarters yet resonated powerfully with Nike’s core customer base.

2019: Challenging convention, rethinking communities

The signs are that in 2019, experiences and communities will become even more integral to the success of the sports industry. These are times of flux in mass media. The OTT age could move from a proliferation of platforms to consolidation and aggregation in the next few years. For now, sports must grasp an opportunity to establish an identity and build support while there is still such openness to change.

It will be another year of big events. CSM is working with Major League Baseball (MLB) to bring America’s pastime to London, where our global headquarters are based, and we were very excited to see that tickets for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees games at London Stadium sold incredibly well. The appetite for being ‘at the game’ grows unabated.

MLB’s double-header will bring the sport to a new audience, and the League will explore opportunities to harness the enthusiasm of other communities to help establish a presence.

Three of the biggest competitions of the year will drive interest in unfamiliar communities, all in different ways. The Cricket World Cup will be played in England and Wales in June and July, with the ECB reaching out to potential supporters among young families, embracing fervour for the game among South Asians, building a fresh constituency for a sport on the cusp of daunting change.

Next year will see the launch of The Hundred, a bold attempt to reimagine the cricket experience by offering compelling sport and entertainment in an environment that helps new and younger fans feel at home. It is hoped that the energy of this summer, with the Australians coming to defend the Ashes later in the year, will be transmitted into the era dawning in 2020 when that new competition arrives, and live matches return to free-to-air TV. 

The FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 will be another massive landmark in the development of the world’s most popular game. Anticipated rises in viewing figures, digital engagement among young women and girls, and brand interest should provide further evidence that the football community of tomorrow will be different than yesterday’s – even more diverse than hoped. And the Rugby World Cup will not only mark another step in Rugby Union’s commercial growth, it will take the sport to the home of a rising power: Japan. Rugby’s traditional values will blend with Japanese culture in compelling fashion, creating something unique in which players, fans and brands can share.

Throughout all of this, we will see how communities are becoming richer and more participative, reframing the challenge for brands who want to tell their story in a meaningful way. As Athletics debates its evolution ahead of the world championships in Doha, initiatives like Parkrun are bringing people into the sport in a powerful fashion. The opportunities there are inspiring.

Working with our colleagues at Greenroom Digital we have created CSM Engage and deployed it to great effect in a pilot scheme with health insurance provider Vitality around its sponsorship of Parkrun. Through a combination of properly curated data and an appropriate setting, Vitality was able to greatly increase the effectiveness of its sales to participants and prove true ROI on its sponsorship investment. The growing popularity of these kinds of mass participation communities will continue to provide a space for brands to demonstrate support for healthy activity and positive goals, with the adidas City Runs another example.  

Inevitably, we will hear more about esports. And as exciting as all of the investment in competitive video gaming may be, what is of as much interest to brands is how it is changing our conception of what a community can look like. Fans from across the world can get together and play, hang out in the virtual world of Fortnite, or watch together on Twitch. Gaming is even bringing this young and committed group closer to some of the stars of traditional sports through online competition. But this is their space; it is broad, divergent and fast-moving. Brands must be sensitive to that if they hope to forge a lasting connection.

Realising the potential of these emerging communities will require careful judgement. It will also take some bravery. Yet the rewards available to those willing to challenge convention will be quite something.