The professional sports industry will see the continuation and evolution of opposing forces following a year in which disruption, a sometimes-overused term is finally living up to its billing. The rise of novelty formats, the shifting goalposts of commercial partnerships, and the emergence of deeper immersion within virtual and augmented reality environments for fans will permeate throughout the industry in 2023.
Legacy versus novelty: The battle for fan attention
Novelty is defined as having three potential characteristics – new, original, or unusual. In 2022, sports saw formats, leagues, and events emerged which ticked some or all of these boxes and captured the imagination of fans. While the European Super League football concept remains dormant, LIV Golf bulldozed its way through the gates of professional golf, attracting top players and creating a team-based format in what was previously an almost entirely individual sport.
In combat sports, YouTube influencers such as Jake Paul or KSI furthered their professional boxing careers with events that commercially outperformed those of established champions. KSI’s wins over rapper Swarms and pro-boxer Luis Pineda was one of the top five boxing events on broadcaster DAZN in terms of watch time. Reports show the event viewed more times than the historic sold-out bout between Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano at Madison Square Garden, a watershed moment for women’s boxing in 2022. Jake Paul won a decision against retired UFC legend Anderson Silva and continues to make headlines in the world of boxing, calling for a future fight against Nate Diaz and Canelo Alvarez.
Novelty formats form part of a leaning in towards pure entertainment value to specific segments of fans. Traditional, purist fanbases might baulk at these and similar events in 2023, however 2022 has shown that the appetite for novelty is here to stay.
Exposure versus purpose: The shifting priorities for sponsorship activation
In 2023 brands will ask for more impact from sponsorship and sports marketing. The rise of purpose driven marketing isn’t new, yet the frequency with which corporate social responsibility is now baked into agreements highlights the industry embracing a more holistic view of return on investment. Leveraging these partnerships to increase consumer synergy and highlight brand or company values will leave a notable imprint on the shape of sponsorship strategies in 2023.
In 2022, business services, manufacturing, and finance/insurance industries continued to see value in professional sports and collectively accounted for 22% of all commercial partnerships. Many companies within these (and other) spaces now leverage partnerships to create and illustrate their values to prospective clients in their own respective fields.
All else being equal, rightsholders that can carve out a unique persona rooted in ethics and social responsibly whilst maintaining or improving on-field performance will be best positioned to secure new and renew existing partnerships throughout 2023.
Real versus virtual: Where will fans experience sports?
Unrelenting technological advances are offering fresh solutions to how sports is experienced by fans. This statement wouldn’t be out of place in any other year, yet in 2023 it’s taken on a new veneer in a number of ways.
For fans following the action from beyond the physical confines of the stadium, there is much vaunted discussion around all things metaverse – and at this nascent stage in proceedings much of the hype is centred around digital twins of venues and spaces for fan communities to convene and watch live broadcast of games.
In 2022, around 23% of Gen Z’s were “extremely interested” in exploring holistic, immersive virtual worlds. This willingness will have major implications for various stakeholders in sports, particularly rightsholders, sponsors and broadcasters. 2023 will be a pivotal year in which some of these big ideas surrounding the sports metaverse become more tangible and less conceptual.
2023 as convergence of novelty, ethics, and immersion
2022 was a year of fragmentation, turbulence, and opportunity in sports. 2023 is likely to continue in the same vein albeit at an even greater velocity. Novelty formats will carve out greater portions of fan attention, (some) fans will flock to immersive environments to experience sports in new ways and brands will have their work cut out for them in maximising ROI in an increasingly complex landscape that considers ethics and social responsibility and views a “good” performance as something that doesn’t end at the final whistle.