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How Canadian Advertising Can Better Adapt to Tomorrow’s Sports Viewership Trends

Starcom’s Stephany Sousa discusses the company’s latest report on the evolution of sports, and how the industry can adapt, writes LBB’s Josh Neufeldt

The demographic of Canada is changing, and so too is sports viewership. Factors like the Canadian population becoming more diverse, new generations of watchers growing up, and the rise of virtual watching have, and will continue to leave a lasting impression on the landscape as it is known today. And for this reason, Starcom Canada released ‘The Evolution of Sport’, a report intended to explain what these changes are, and the impacts they will have on the media and advertising industries. 

Featuring everything from analysis on who is watching to critical insight on the ways in which audience ethnicity need to be considered by brands, the report provides a comprehensive look at the future of advertising and sports - from those played on the field, to those enjoyed from the metaverse. 

LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with Starcom Canada’s VP of experience planning, Stephany Sousa, discussing what embarking into a new age of sports advertising will look like, and why Canada is only at the starting line of this exciting journey. 

LBB> The data behind this initiative is essential! Who was involved in this process, and how did you go about executing the research? 

Stephany> At Starcom, we have a strategy council made up of senior strategists and media planners. For the last two years, the strategy council has been developing POVs and research pieces for our planning teams to use and share as a means of educating themselves and clients on audience behaviour and subject matter that impacts our industry. So, you can say that we’ve gotten into somewhat of a groove in terms of our development process. 

For this POV in particular, there were four of us working on it, and we started by engaging our in-house research team for what we already had available to us (as we do with most POVs). As a team, we then discussed the different questions we wanted to address, and from there, we engaged the different people within our organisation that could help us answer these questions (our digital, broadcast and research leads). 

This POV also aligned with GWI releasing its sports specific audience research survey, so we were able to leverage this to drill into very specific sports viewing queries across different Canadian demographics. We spent a good six to eight weeks just going through the research, and the different studies we had available to us. Whether it was GWI, Vividata, Infosys, social tools, or eMarketer, we dug into the platform and sorted data points that helped us develop our narrative. As such, the POV itself is really based on a collection of these different studies. 

LBB> Did you have any preconceived expectations for what the research would tell you? If so, what were they, and why? 

Stephany> When we start our POV process, we always have a few assumptions of what the data will tell us. That said, we do try to go into it with an unbiased opinion, as it makes it easier to be open to what the data will tell us in the discovery stage. 

Two years ago, we worked on a POV titled ‘Is TV Dead?’, and through that development process we knew that, overall, linear TV was transitioning to digital for audiences under 35. Because of this, we knew sports viewing would follow a similar trend in terms of younger audiences favouring digital platforms for all video content. We also were aware that the global subscription services have been scooping up the rights for sports games, so we knew that would be something we wanted to highlight, as it impacts clients with multi-year sports sponsorships, and where they can align with game-viewing content.   

LBB> The headlining news is that advertisers need to consider the ethnicity and culture of their target audience when choosing which sports to sponsor. Which sports are rising to popularity, which ones are falling, and why? 

Stephany> Ethnicity and culture playing a role in what and how people watch was actually something that organically came out of the data in our research phase. This wasn’t a preconceived expectation when we started the process, but as we started to look at data in different ways, it did make a lot of sense. 

To this end, I don’t know if we can necessarily say that there are certain sports that are rising to the top, as instead, it’s more a function of sports viewing becoming increasingly fragmented. If we were to put a stake in the ground about certain sports though, I would say that sports with stronger BIPOC representation, more diverse teams and players, and a strong tie to culture - like soccer and basketball - are the sports that are appealing to our next generation of fans.

If we think about Canada’s make-up in the next 10 to 20 years, we can assume that these sports will start to move up the ladder in terms of Canadian fans and viewership. I also think that sports that make an effort to appeal to a broader audience through culture are also ones that will see success in bringing in new fans. F1 is a perfect example of this! The Netflix ‘Drive to Survive’ series brought in a whole new group of fans - including women - due to the fact that they found an interesting angle with content that increased relevancy for viewers. Leagues that also use their platforms to engage fans 365 days of the year (versus only during their season) also increase their chances of bringing in new supporters, as they need to engage fans beyond just the game. 

LBB> In particular, baseball is lacking popularity with gen z and BIPOC audiences. Why is this, and how should brands with investments in the sport proceed going into 2023? 

Stephany> Without being an expert on the MLB, I think the reason baseball doesn’t have the same traction with BIPOC and gen z demographics is because of the effort they put into engaging these fans outside of the games. Specifically, if you were to compare the social channels and cultural relevance of the MLB and its players to that of the NBA, you would see a difference in how they try to engage their fans. Now, this doesn’t mean that the MLB is not a good sport to align with - it just comes down to who your target is. If a high proportion of a brand’s target is watching MLB, then the brand should still consider it as an effective way to engage their audience. 

The main point, as simple as it may sound, is to really do your research to understand what sports your target is watching  There could be leagues that, while they don’t have mass appeal, are more effective in connecting with your target at a lower cost of entry, which can absolutely be more effective than just defaulting to the ‘big four’ (hockey, football, baseball, basketball). 

LBB> Another key result is the fact that fewer white Canadians watch online sports, compared to other demographics. What factors are driving this, and does this mean brands with traditionally large BIPOC and minority followings might do well to invest in this space? 

Stephany> Where fans watch and consume sports content comes down to where the content is available. Think of the ‘big four’ as the most popular products in the grocery store. They get the prime shelf space, which in this case, is linear TV prime air-time. However, we know - just based on generational viewing preferences - that linear TV won’t continue to be what draws in large audiences, because linear TV is no longer the ‘holy grail’ of drawing audiences, and sports content is just late to the transitioning party. By the looks of it, sports is moving to advertising video on demand (AVOD) and subscription video on demand (SVOD) platforms, and with many of the rights up in the next ten years, we might see a higher migration of sports to these other viewing platforms. As for this means for brands, they need to be open and understand these other emerging channels, as that will be where sports is moving to. 

LBB> Shorter attention spans are also impacting the way in which viewers watch. As such, do you think there’ll be changes in the ways sports are broadcasted, to reflect this? And are there certain time periods in a game where brands would particularly benefit from placing their advertisements? 

Stephany> I definitely think that the way people consume content now will drive new opportunities for sports content, but I don’t know if we’re at a place where it will completely transform the broadcast - at least not in the short term. 

I think the challenge is how to make the content more engaging, and to this end, the metaverse and the ability to watch the game through a VR headset is a perfect example of how fans can be fully immersed and engaged throughout the broadcast. Viewers want more dynamic content, they want to have more behind the scenes content, they want more angles, and they want the ability to have virtual watch parties. What this means is that all of these new and exciting opportunities open up the ability for brands to engage with fans in new ways. In-game opportunities for brands have always been the ideal placement for leaning into an audience. However, if brands work with the media and creative partners to identify these new opportunities and bring this content to the fans, it can help to create that relevancy between the brand and sport in the eyes of the consumers - regardless of if it’s in-game or not.  

LBB> Building on this, the idea of sports teams entering the metaverse is a big one, and one that’s been seen around the world. What value do Canadian teams get out of doing something like this, versus teams from other parts of the world? 

Stephany> The metaverse is still in its early days in terms of adoption in Canada. So, while there isn’t necessarily an obvious benefit today, I think within the next 10 years we will see that adoption and value for teams increase exponentially. Now would be a time for brands to really educate themselves on what the metaverse is in Canada, the limitations, who’s really in the space, and how it works. The metaverse isn’t going anywhere, so it would be beneficial to first become a user to understand the mechanics of the space, before going all in as a brand or sport. After all, there are definitely other countries that are much more advanced in this space, so we should be looking to these countries and teams to gain learnings on what works and what doesn’t. 

LBB> In particular, are there certain sports that would benefit more from metaverse exposure? And what should metaverse enjoyers be looking for from teams and brands entering the space?

Stephany> Sports that have an international appeal are ones that will benefit (in the early days) from the metaverse. Sports like soccer are a good example, as they have fans all across the world.  

The appeal of the metaverse is really the ability to explore virtual experiences in a way that makes them feel like real life experiences. People want to be fully immersed in the environment, and that is no different for sports. Sports fans want to feel like they’re right there at the game, so brands should think about the metaverse the same way they think about real life experiential; what value can a brand bring to fans at the games?

LBB> The cost of investing in building NFT/metaverse space infrastructure can be quite expensive. Do you think this is a worthwhile investment for Canadian brands to pursue? 

Stephany> Like I said, this is an area you don’t need to rush into, because it isn’t going anywhere. That said, I think deciding on whether or not to invest requires an understanding of the value you can bring to consumers within the space. For some brands, it definitely does make sense to start to test and learn now, and for others, it’s more of a function of continuing to educate themselves and watching what other brands do. 

It’s also about ensuring that you are setting your expectations when you do decide to start testing and learning in this space, because with adoption still being low, the return (at this point) isn’t going to be significant. As such, I think any brand getting into this space now will really be engaging a small audience, but it’s a great test audience to learn from. 

As far as NFTs go, they don’t just have to be digital art - they can serve as digital tokens that grant access to exclusive online/offline events, special offers, and metaverse experiences. They can also be given as rewards for consumer participation.

LBB> Personally, what were the most interesting things you learned from the study? 

Stephany> Firstly, just being a Torontonian, I had a skewed perception of what sports had national popularity and viewership. I was actually surprised to see that the CFL draws in a larger audience than the NBA, but as you think about it, it does make sense just based on the fact that we only have one NBA team. I also did not expect the impact of ethnicity on the sports we watch, because I didn’t realise that culture and the sports you grow up with played that big of a role on the sports you watch today. 

However, I think the most surprising takeaway is that we really are at the beginning of a transition period for sports. Technology and sports are really starting to intersect when historically, they have lived in parallel worlds. We're starting to see the impact of tech on sports, whether that be through how fans consume the sports, or how they engage with the sport. And, I think our increasingly diverse population and gen z entering adulthood all point to an exciting time for how sports viewing is transitioning, and a great opportunity in terms of the new ways we can engage fans. 

LBB> What should Canadian brands and agencies be taking away from this study? 

Stephany> I think the biggest takeaway for brands is that we can’t continue to do the traditional cookie cutter sponsorships that we’ve done year over year. We really need to think beyond that traditional game viewing experience and push ourselves to bring more meaningful value to fans through other touchpoints: where fans are engaging with the games, teams, and players. We need to keep our finger on the pulse of how technology continues to transform the game experience for fans, so that we are prepared to enter these environments when the time comes.

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