Sports partnerships will never be the same — and that’s a good thing, say industry leaders

What does the future of sports partnerships look like? That was the question posed to industry thought leaders earlier this month, when they met for a special online panel at World Football Summit. The Summit, organized by footballing legend Ronaldo Nazário, brought together executives from clubs, leagues, federations, broadcasters, agencies and sponsorship brands for a series of digital discussions set to lay the foundation for the future global growth of football in a new, post-pandemic era.

Rahul Kadavakolu, who oversees Rakuten’s global sports partnerships, including the likes of FC Barcelona, Golden State Warriors and the Davis Cup by Rakuten, joined Cisco’s Brian Eaton, AB InBev’s Eelco van der Noll and Roc Nation Sports’ Michael Yormark for an insightful and wide-ranging discussion.

How have sports partnerships been affected by COVID-19?

Despite the difficulty of predicting a new paradigm that is still in its early stages, the panel offered unique insights into how brands and sports clubs can make the most out of their partnerships in the weeks and months ahead.

Panelists agreed that the pandemic can be a catalyzing event, with Yormark highlighting a shift toward altruistic outcomes. “Purpose-driven campaigns are what brands are looking for: the impact on communities, the impact on individuals and consumers.” On the other hand, van der Noll suggested that “this pandemic, if anything, has probably just accelerated changes that were already in the making… things like virtual, streaming and other programs.”

Rahul’s main message to rights holders, teams and clubs: “This is a shape up or shake out situation.” If a partnership has been value-driven since the beginning, and both parties are truly aligned, it should be able to withstand a crisis situation like the one we are currently facing. If not, they will likely face testing times. Now is the moment for partners on both sides to honestly take stock of the relationship.

How will sports partnerships change in the future?

As the sports landscape continues to evolve, Rahul believes the ability for companies to create new business models around their sports partnerships will be crucial to maximizing their value. “We’ve always had an ability to build new businesses around our partnerships,” he commented. “I can see several new evolving business models that will emerge, be it going into a new market together or even co-investing in a technology that makes sense for the brand and the rights holder. It could be new revenue streams for both parties. But the most important thing is you need to keep the fans at the heart of everything you’re doing.”

With the documentary series Matchday, Rakuten and its partner FC Barcelona have already worked together on offering fans a unique window into their favorite club. The partners are also investing in innovative ways to bring fans new and immersive experiences. From Rakuten employing a Ferris wheel in the outfield at baseball games to cashless stadiums to FC Barcelona launching its own Innovation Hub, fan experiences that leverage 5G, smart garments and virtual reality, among other exciting technology, are likely just around the corner.

Released in October 2019, “Matchday – Inside FC Barcelona” is a documentary series that invites fans to take a never-before-seen look at the inner world of FC Barcelona.
Released in October 2019, “Matchday – Inside FC Barcelona” is a documentary series that invites fans to take a never-before-seen look at the inner world of FC Barcelona.

The importance of sustainability, community and social change

Social issues have been thrust to the forefront of public discourse in recent months, with sports often finding itself at the center of the conversation. So how do brand partners fit in?

Yormack pointed out that brands and athletes will face a much more intensive vetting process moving forward: “Never before has there been such a heightened sensitivity to some of the issues we’ve talked about today. Whereby we went through a certain checklist on who could potentially be a good partner in the past, that checklist has changed today.”

Van der Noll shared that his organization is building sustainability provisions into every contract moving forward. “At Budweiser, we have a goal to operate on 100% renewable energy by 2025 and we need our partners to promote that.”

Brian Eaton acknowledged the emerging dynamic but suggested that in order to connect with audiences, brands must remain true to who they are: “A brand shouldn’t have to change its mission statement just because of the current crisis situation. Those clubs and brands’ true colors are really showing during this time of crisis. Leaders step forward, that’s how we look at it.”

Rahul also stressed the importance of taking real action and staying true to one’s values. “Sports has a larger purpose. It’s not just about teams playing on the field and competing for a title. It’s got a massive community aspect to it. Sharing some of these values with brands and ensuring that they’re not just something on paper — but instead reflect real actions — will become critical going forward.”

A more powerful product

While panelists acknowledged the challenges facing the sports industry, they were united by a shared optimism that sports and sports partnerships will become more value-driven, socially conscious, community-centered and, ultimately, result in a more authentic and powerful product.

Perhaps van der Noll summed up the current state of affairs best when he closed out the panel with his self-professed favorite expression: “In the end, everything will be fine. And if it’s not fine, it just means it’s not the end yet.”

To view the entire panel, visit World Football Summit.

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