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Sports fans are ready to return but brands will need to be aware their expectations have changed

64% of UK sports fans agree that for brands who sponsor the teams and individuals they love, ‘brand purpose’ is more important now that it was pre-COVID.

At last sport is returning.

Albeit behind closed doors for now, but that void that has been ever-present during lockdown is now being filled by the return of the Premier League, Formula 1, Test Cricket and we hope Premiership Rugby from next month.

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, what this means for society and how brands can tap into the positivity and excitement.

Dedicated to analysing and uncovering insights, our ‘Lab’ consists of a tight-knit community of expert neuroscientists, research practitioners, trend analysts, data scientists and behavioural scientists. By blending data with modern research methods, they evaluate how humans interpret, perceive and feel the world around them, to deliver actionable and measurable insights rooted in human behaviour at the heart of our strategies.


So, what does the Lab say about sport and sports marketing?


As brands look to get their businesses back on course, sport and its audiences are a good place to start.

Most (81%) of the nation agree there is desire to return to their previous ‘normal’ life. From a behavioural science standpoint, it is in our human nature to want to keep things as they are and how we have always done them. This taps into the human need for certainty and autonomy. We need to feel we have control and can influence our lives. Any change, and particularly on a large scale like the current situation, can leave us feeling uncertain and out of control. When this happens, we can no longer easily rely on patterns and routines that we have created over the years.

The absence of previous patterns provokes a massive use of our energy. We feel drained, exhausted; our brains need to make sense of everything again. On top of this extra effort we’re collectively expending, there is a general uncertainty among people in the UK, with only 27% positive about the country’s future and 37% positive about their work, which is significantly lower than this time last year. So, this means the bar is pretty low for brands to start impacting people positively.


Sport has the power to restore a sense of normality.

For many, sport returning provides not just the return of a passion, but also much needed signifiers of normality. It’s no surprise then that our insights recorded sports fans as significantly happier right now than non-sports fans, and that’s balanced across the level of fandom. Whether a season ticket holder or a casual viewer, sports fans feel significantly happier in general about their lives than those that don’t follow.

This happiness translates into opportunity: sports fans feel 50% more positive about the general mood and future certainty of the country, and twice as positive about the country’s economic well-being. In fact, sports fans are three times more likely to have visited a pub or restaurant since lockdown has eased; with those with the highest level of fandom – season ticket holders – being the happiest to do so.


Capitalise on the positivity that sports are bringing right now.

It’s arguable that sports have never provided such a huge opportunity for positive brand equity, given our current context and our collective desire for normality.

Brands using their sponsorships to associate themselves with positive news (sports returning safely, sports keeping us entertained, sports bringing us together) in turn means associating themselves with this positivity that has and will continue to grow across the nation.

The current period 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. And it is these positive emotions that will build strong memories, this is what behavioural scientists call the Rosy Retrospection Effect, which dictates that our brains tend to see the past in a more favourable light. As such, 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.


How should brands then be talking to these audiences as they return to, or venture into, sports sponsorship?

This is where we can help provide end to end sponsorship strategy and activation based on these insights. Using the Human Understanding Lab, we put behavioural science and insights relevant to your sector, your audiences, your sponsorships and their fanbases right at the heart of a full, tailored activation strategy. In turn, this ensures your sponsorship investment drives incremental growth.


Sports fans are clear on what they want to see from sponsors

Our study showed that 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.

Unsurprisingly 91% of the nations 18-24 year olds felt this way, but so did 75% of all under 44’s. Gen Z have always been more passionate about brands that support the causes or organizations important to them, but it may be more relevant now when communicating to older generations.

Consider now those that love sport, and 64% of all UK sports fan agree that for brands who sponsor the teams and individuals they love, ‘brand purpose’ is more important now that it was pre-COVID.


What is cause sponsorship activation in a pandemic?

Our study showed that 73% of sports fans agree that sponsors should promote a healthier lifestyle and take the strain off the NHS, and 63% agree that they should use their contractual inventory to get that message across.

Looking more locally, 61% agree that sponsors should support the institutions intrinsically linked to their sport or club (i.e. local pubs, takeaways etc.)

However its done, the majority (56%) agree that sponsors should address the general shock or grief felt by the nation when they activate their sponsorships and address how we’re adapting to a new normal.

This is not a short-term tactical activation either. Sports fans also want to see this trend continue for up to 12 months, significantly longer than non-sports fans and into next summer when the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 and Euro 2020 will create the busiest calendar of sport we’ve ever experienced.


And uncertainty around the live experience remains key

The fact sport is still behind closed doors is front of mind.  74% agree that sponsors should focus on the live experience, addressing ways to make the return of sport the best experience possible, while fans still can’t attend in person.


What next?

Want to know more about your sport, your fans or your sector?

Want to know how to translate these insights and more into as actionable strategy?


This article was written by Lee Gibbons, Managing Director, Sport UNLIMITED

lee.gibbons@unlimitedgroup.com