Deep Dive: Changing tactics to win the sports PR game

As the exorbitant amount of money invested in the Asian sports industry continues to soar, sports properties and brands are looking for the whole package when it comes to entering, activating and promoting their products. As such, PR agencies are having to throw out the old playbook and change their game plans to stay relevant

The Beijing 2008 summer Olympics. The city will be the first ever to also host the winter games in 2022
The Beijing 2008 summer Olympics. The city will be the first ever to also host the winter games in 2022

Asia is in a period of turmoil at the moment, it seems. Economically, markets are plummeting, commodities are crashing, and investors are losing confidence.

Politically, talk of human rights abuses and corruption is never far from the front pages. Environmentally the region has had a wake-up call from events such as the Indonesian haze, food safety scares in Taiwan and many other such issues.

Confidence is down; optimism, it appears, is low. And yet, there is one area which, taken in isolation, would suggest a completely different picture of Asia, one full of joy and promise for all: people, governments, and brands.

That area, of course, is sport.

The rise and rise of sport in Asia, both domestic and international, has been unbridled over the past decade, no matter what else has come crashing down around it.

From football to golf, tennis to motorsport, athletics to mixed martial arts, the Asian consumer’s appetite for sport just keeps growing, and in tandem with that, spending on sport across Asia is skyrocketing.

According to figures from Repucom in 2014, 39 percent of all global sovereign wealth investments in the sports industry came from Asia. Consultancy AT Kearney found that China’s sports market grew at a faster pace than global GDP between 2000 and 2012.

Over the next few years some of the biggest global sports products are coming to Asia: Beijing will be the first city ever to host both a winter and summer Olympic Games, while Japan will host the Rugby World Cup in 2019.

English Premier League football and NBA basketball have also recently made heavy investments in the region.

Along with these huge projects and investments comes a glut of marketing, sponsorship, investment and activation opportunities for brands, the likes of which didn’t exist in Asia 15 years ago.

As such, the work of PR agencies is increasingly in demand, but with a strong caveat: more than perhaps in other industries, you have to adapt to survive. 

Getting the most for your money

"The true scale of the opportunity in this region is something that international sporting brands are really beginning to understand," says Toby Doman (pictured), senior manager of corporate and government affairs at Edelman APACMEA.

"Agencies, sponsors, rights holders and broadcasters are all working hard to ensure that they deliver relevant products and experiences to an increasingly demanding consumer base."

More figures back up this statement. PricewaterhouseCoopers forecast that sports sponsorship in Asia-Pacific would hit more than US$12 billion by 2015, representing almost a third of global spend in the sector.

Shanghai alone hosted more than 30 international sporting events last year, Singapore more than 10.

It has become something of a gold rush for sporting brands and properties to boost their presence in the Asian markets, says Ross Collett, managing director at Roco Communications.

"As Europe and the US in particular become increasingly saturated with sporting events, brands and rights holders want to open up the lucrative markets in Asia," he tells PRWeek Asia.

"Golf, tennis and football have been particularly successful at tapping into these emerging markets."

Football is the most popular sport in Asia, and the English Premier League and its clubs have been making serious headway in promoting their brands in the region.

City Football Group, owner of Manchester City FC, New York City FC, Melbourne City FC and a minor stake in Yokohama F Marinos in Japan, opened its Southeast Asia hub in Singapore last October.

Omar Berrada (pictured), CFG group commercial director, said the move indicated a "long-term commitment to the region" for fans, but also highlighted the group’s desire to take advantage of significant commercial opportunities through tie-ups with local brands.

With more than 10 brand partners in the region, plus the selling of a 13 percent stake in CFG to a Chinese consortium for US$400 million, it’s clear a global football property like CFG is not short of admirers with deep pockets.

"We offer very attractive opportunities for Asian brands seeking to increase their footprint around the world," Berrada says.

It’s not just English football that’s cashing in. Peter Draper (pictured), commercial and marketing director at Spanish La Liga football club Valencia, says all sports properties are definitely taking a more sophisticated approach to PR and marketing in Asia.

"Think WTA tennis, NBA basketball, F1 racing or EPL football. It’s clear they are ‘blue chip’ brands and are behaving much more like the client brands they work with or are constantly chasing," he says.

"Our own La Liga organisation is also spending much more time and effort thinking about and then activating initiatives that will generate more interest in La Liga and its teams across Asia."

It’s here where the PR agencies come in, but the remit is now far beyond simple media relations or basic brand activation.

Firms are increasingly becoming full-service conduits between sports properties and brands, which brings together several different comms strands – sponsorship, marketing, property evaluation, digital – under one roof.

Darren Burns, president of Weber Shandwick China, says sports properties in particular "almost always take an integrated approach", and PR firms must be able to match this.

It was a key part of Weber’s strategy in being retained as the international comms agency of record for the successful Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games bid, having also advised on the 2008 games. 

"In recent years, we have been getting more leads for partnerships with sports teams and events, both regionally and locally. I definitely think this is an emerging trend," he explains.

"Agencies can look forward to more of such work as teams and events seek expert help in navigating new environments."

Specialist skills required to win

Sports brands want to make the right connections in Asia both commercially and with consumers, or fans, to make their brand a success.

Draper at Valencia says: "I don’t like to separate in my mind PR or sports and event marketing from traditional advertising or digital communications.

"An integrated approach is by far the best."

While sponsorships teams and marketing units can deliver the money, Burns says sophisticated PR agencies can knit the whole strategy together as they are crucial to achieving high consumer engagement and targeted brand activation. 

"It’s about owning a sport – or an element of that sport – and really activating deeply, building a relationship with those fans," he says.

"Successful sports communications also involves clever engagement with key opinion leaders including government officials, athletes and celebrities to cement institutional support, gain sponsorship and generate local interest."

This notion of the all-rounder agency, together with deep comms knowledge, is the model PR firms must strive for in the sports space, says Collett (pictured).

"There will always be a role for external agencies who can bring value through specialist knowledge of varied content areas; sound strategic evaluation, planning and measurement processes; and creative communication and activation ideas."

Content delivery is also a fundamental tenet of successful sports comms, especially given the dominance of mobile and digital platforms.

"We want to be present in different social media platforms and specifically the ones that are relevant in different territories," says Berrada at CFG.

This service alone makes PR agencies "more relevant than ever", says Doman at Edelman, and together with the other facets that make up a full-service offering, sports brands are generating evermore work for agencies that stay relevant by increasing their capabilities.

"Being able to develop smart, shareable and impactful content for use on these channels will be fundamental to any successful campaign," he explains.

"We see sports clients asking for local knowledge and counsel relating to their wider business strategies as well as the more traditional disciplines such as media relations."

Agencies are ideally placed to illustrate to sports properties the benefits of long-term investment in Asian markets, Doman says, because they have key local understanding of how to activate most effectively in each market.

"We have to be culturally sensitive with the product and carefully understand each market before activating," he said.

Through their own development, PR agencies have also learned to spot the pitfalls of the sports industry, says Burns (pictured).

Particularly in China, there have been cases of poorly planned market entries that did not see the riches anticipated.

"The challenge for those brands going into sports is to resource activation to get cut through with fans and optimise investment," he says. "Previously sports marketing in China has been typically heavy on ‘deals’ but light on sophisticated substance.

"This means many of the deals were not maximised. Putting a logo on an event and trusting the property owner to promote you just doesn’t cut it."

It’s about long-term investment, says Doman, and "developing a legacy of sport by opening access".

"As the sports entertainment sector naturally matures, we are likely to see a move towards longer-term commitment to our markets and a greater sophistication of engagement," he says.

"This will increasingly become the rule rather than the exception."

With the various threads of effective sports marketing and sponsorship falling under the purview of PR agencies, the challenges in adapting to survive are clear to see.

But the rewards for expanding their offerings to become all-court business and comms strategists for their clients, whether sports properties or commercial brands looking for sports tie-ups, are massive.

Just as sports stars are fitter, stronger and faster than ever before, so sports PR seems to have entered the next phase of its development. The game is far from over. 

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