How Brands Got Back in the Game: Lessons Learned By A Sports-Obsessed Marketer

October 14, 2020
Pedro Gonzalez

October began and basketball fans found themselves rejoicing over the start of the NBA Finals —a statement that nobody would’ve expected to read six months ago. But here we are. Normally, the world’s most popular basketball league would wrap their season in June and by this time we would already be starting a new one. Instead, COVID side-lined all sports in March. After the first couple of months of quarantine, sports came back, but in reimagined and precautionary forms, and the Los Angeles Lakers were finally crowned champions this past Sunday.

The NBA, alongside the MLS, WNBA and the NWSL, decided their teams would be living, practicing and competing in their own isolated locations, behind closed doors, for the duration of their tournaments. Inside these “bubbles,” games were played with no crowds and enforced social distancing among teams’ personnel and the few journalists allowed in. Commentators were even separated by plexiglass in their booths.

As a fan, I was excited to see my favorite players back in action (as well as being able to hear them drop f-bombs on live TV). As a marketer, I was curious about how brand sponsors would pivot from tried-and-tested in-person experiential programs. How would athletic apparel and beer brands engage consumers in a much more solemn environment than the energetic atmosphere of attending a sports game —or watching live with friends? Like the games themselves, U.S. sports have seen a few fun, galvanizing brand activations—but others have left much to be desired.

Bottling Kick-Off

After the MLS pulled off a herculean effort to set-up their bubble in the Walt Disney World Resort in Bay Lake, Florida, they sought to creatively incorporate sponsors’ signage into the matches. However, even in a sport where it can feel like there are more logos than players, Adidas and the league took branding too far.

As soon as the first game got underway, social media was flooded with boos from fans, showing their displeasure at the huge, digitally superimposed Adidas logo found in the middle of the pitch. This was likely a violation of international soccer rules, but viewers were mostly fuming at the audacity of defacing the playing field. You might think it’s a bit cynical for soccer fans, known to have jerseys with more billboards on them than the Dan Ryan Expressway, to call this stunt by Adidas egregious; but it demonstrates the importance of understanding your audience and their limits.

Virtually Courtside

On the flip side, once the National Basketball Association restarted their season in their own secluded complex in Orlando, Florida, Michelob ULTRA was able to tap into fans’ need for an in-game atmosphere by bringing them virtually courtside.

With help from Microsoft Teams, the Michelob ULTRA Courtside campaign connected hundreds of fans to “attend” each game, projecting their faces across the 10-foot video boards surrounding the court. While the superimposed Adidas logo made the MLS’ tournament feel inauthentic, this virtual community-viewing experience got close to replicating the energy of a live game for folks watching at home and made the presentation look like a futuristic broadcast. AdWeek reported the ULTRA Courtside experience has received “10,000 average web visits a day and has earned more than 680 million impressions since July 30.”

A Gameplan for the Future

Like Michelob ULTRA, brands that already had established digital experiences were able to leverage their creativity to come up with new and nimble campaigns that adapted to our new normal. Balancing their digital team’s agility with the public’s craving for a feel-good story, Nike took some of their athletes’ best comeback feats back out for a spin to provide hope without seeming opportunistic. Without viable in-person appearances, Verizon used Periscope to bridge the gap between fans and NBA stars, innovating exclusive interviews. And players themselves cemented their own personal brands by using Twitch to stream themselves playing video games for thousands of viewers and create more intimate connections. As the future of sports marketing continues to demand change, those who are able to grasp the moment faster will create work that’s able to resonate with people, but they must match that with a granular understanding of how fans interact with each respective sport.