The business of sport: using content to play up your strengths

Here’s how five companies are showcasing their knowledge and expertise in front of sport’s decision-makers

The global sports market is worth an estimated $512.1bn and growing at around 5 per cent a year. The audience for the most popular sports, led by football, runs into billions. So it’s no surprise that more and more governments and investors are seeking to harness sport’s widespread positive appeal.

A number of governments in the Middle East have made investment in sport a priority as they seek to diversity their economies away from oil revenue. Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest spender to date, including a $1bn investment in the new professional golf tour created by the merger of the PGA tour and Saudi-backed LIV Golf in July, while other active countries include the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. A survey from consultants PwC of more than 500 senior figures in sport in 43 countries, meanwhile, found that more than 83 per cent expect institutional investment in the sports sector to increase in the next three to five years.

But the money and emotion attached to sport also bring a considerable degree of risk, as the noisy controversy surrounding a range of human rights issues in Qatar before and during last year’s soccer World Cup made very clear. Expert advisers in sports financing, marketing and public affairs exist to help brands, investors and governments navigate the many potential pitfalls and pull off successful and profitable deals and competitions. And they are increasingly using content to show that they know how to navigate the lows and capture the highs, helping differentiate themselves as well as proving they understand how to safeguard reputations.

Below, we explore how five organisations have created different styles of content to successfully start conversations with their audience, make themselves heard and establish their credentials in a crowded field.

  • The authoritative reportdemonstrate the depth of your knowledge in a digestible way

Deloitte’s 2023 global sports industry outlook report covered the possible impact of five key trends for the year ahead (at the time it was published): virtual sports; risks in the sports betting market; private-equity investment; the outlook for women’s professional sport; and opportunities arising from college athletics in the US becoming professional.

A single page is devoted to each subject, quantifying the situation as it stands, what the year ahead might bring and strategic questions to ask. For example, it considers how women’s sports bodies can leverage the swell of popular support for national sides in events such as the World Cup to secure consistent funding for club sides and leagues year-round.

Of course, very few organisations have the staff or global reach that Deloitte has to create thought leadership. Nevertheless, its report stands out because its insights are clear and the execution concise. Smaller companies can aim to present their insight into the subjects they know well using the same principles of clarity and brevity.

  • The roundtablelet the experienced people in your network do the talking

The sports practice of London law firm Farrer & Co published a paper titled ‘How do we get more women on sports boards?’ The content was gathered from a roundtable discussion the firm hosted with female board members from two football clubs (Brentford and Lewes), the CEOs of Women in Sport and Women in Football, along with senior executives from other sports governance bodies and four partners from the firm, three of whom were female.

The report publishes the answers given by the attendees to eight questions including ‘What is the link between women on boards and greater female participation in sports – which should take the lead?’ Rather than distilling their answers into a single line of argument, the views and experience of each participant are given individually.

In terms of communicating with its intended audience, the format of the content presents Farrer as well-connected in the sports industry, and able to bring together influential voices and give them all space to shine. The paper offers depth and a variety of opinions, which can be difficult to pull off in important but well-rehearsed subjects such as the lack of women in leadership roles.

  • The “wisdom of the crowd”turned into influential Instagram posts

Transfermarkt is a website that crowd-sources values for footballers, clubs and leagues. It was set up in Germany in 2000 and has become a trusted source for fans and the industry, despite its slightly unorthodox approach. Users discuss valuations on forums and put forward prices they think are reasonable, then the website’s 80 staff, plus more than 1,000 volunteers, pull together the “wisdom of the crowd” and add in their own research to come up with a figure. The more hotly debated a valuation is, the more data available to gather.

According to Christian Schwarz, Transfermarkt’s coordinator of market values, there is no more scientific or automated way of coming up with a figure, because of the range of variables (such as how wealthy a particular league is) and the impact of sentiment on football valuations. In an interview with The Athletic, he defined the approach with the following analogy:

“You have a pint of beer and you have 100 people, and everyone should say how much they should pay for it, [and] you end up with a good median price.”

Transfermarkt’s model is to make user-generated content the basis of its own – more valuable – content, which now influences the very top of the game. An Instagram post listing the value of 10 players aged 33 and above, for example, attracted the attention of Christiano Ronaldo, who was at the top of the list. He got in touch with Transfermarkt’s social media team to say he was worth a lot more than the figure they had come up with. They explained how they arrived at the number, but Ronaldo wasn’t convinced, according to Schwarz, who said the footballer replied by “sending some smilies, and then he blocked us”.

What else can others in the sports business learn from Transfermarkt? Sport stirs up strong feelings and engaging content is unlikely to meet with 100 per cent agreement.

  • The newspaper op-eddon’t rule out traditional media

Copa90 makes a range of video content about football for brands including Nike, Sports Direct and EA Sports, from short formats for TikTok and Snapchat, to video profiles of the presenters of the Player of the Match awards during the women’s Euros last year. However, to advocate for better financial support for the women’s game by harnessing the enthusiasm generated by the England team winning the Euros, the company’s managing director Kate McGregor wrote an opinion column for The Independent.

“If, in the belief that women’s football is on the crest of something huge, you have tried to enrol your daughter in a local club – or tried to buy some kit in the aftermath of said triumph – you’ll have seen there is still a long way to go,” she opined.

Knowing the audience you want to talk to and the way they prefer to consume information is the vital first step for any successful content campaign. It’s a fair assumption that the heads of governing bodies and associations are still not going to Snapchat as their first port of call, and an established news outlet is likely to carry more weight. But to successfully place an op-ed, it’s essential to have a clear and distinct point of view, one which offers a new lens on a topic and makes readers think – or even feel uncomfortable. (Read our eight rules for bagging a slot here.)

  • The data-driven brand insighthow not to lose your reputation

Brands and celebrities with prominent links to the World Cup in Qatar last year found themselves answering questions about the country’s stance on gay rights, the treatment of migrant workers, sustainability and human rights overall, for years before the tournament happened. Scrutiny peaked in the immediate run-up to the competition and during it. To help brands and teams navigate the growing reputational risk involved with sponsorship, InsightX, a research agency focused on brand sentiment, has carried out a risk analysis of the Premier League’s shirt sponsorship for the past two years.

The report measures a number of factors including the degree to which each sponsor posed a reputational risk to the club, as well as how the sponsorship was viewed on social media, and compares the performance of shirt sponsors across the league. The report is an opportunity for InsightX to demonstrate to prospective clients the data it can generate and the analysis it can produce, by measuring a type of risk that potential sponsors and clubs may not routinely quantify. Both sides can then make an informed choice about how much scrutiny they are prepared to live with.