From Olympics to the World Cup, How COVID-19 Is Reshaping Sports Marketing

By Jay Hodgkins

With the Olympic and Paralympic Games, men’s and women’s FIFA World Cup and NFL in its roster of sponsorships, Visa is one of the world’s most prominent corporate partners of global sporting events. The company’s leading position made Visa Chief Brand and Innovation Marketing Officer Chris Curtin a natural to share insights with University of Virginia Darden School of Business students on how the coronavirus pandemic has forced event sponsors and organizers to innovate in the face of unprecedented disruption to live sporting events.

During a November virtual event for Darden students not long before Curtin’s final day with Visa, the departing chief marketer said the company had “over 700 days to plan for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and 21 days to pivot” when the spread of COVID-19 forced organizers and the host country Japan to delay the event.

“We rewrote our book on sponsorships as we went,” Curtin said, noting that Visa’s position as a lead sponsor gave the company a seat at the table in the discussion on what to do. Ultimately, Japan announced the games would be postponed to summer 2021, a decision Visa advocated for.

Curtin acknowledged that COVID-19 restrictions have created “some dilution of brand equity” for live sporting events due to the fact fans can’t go to games nor crowd around a TV with family and friends at home or a bar. However, he said sports leagues and sponsors are learning and innovating.

For example, Curtin argued that the NFL’s virtual draft was in many ways better than the live version. Feel-good moments of players celebrating with their families at home were incredibly popular, and Curtin predicted those scenes will remain a part of the NFL Draft broadcast, even after the pandemic is over.

On the sponsorship innovation front, Curtin said empty stadiums and arenas have created new opportunities for in-venue signage. He predicted this will drive a trend toward “more compelling ways for advertisers to come to life in stadiums than in the past.” He also foresees leagues and sponsors coming together to create more experiences and content for fans outside of the actual games; think streaming video content from locker rooms, the team airplane or other behind-the-scenes locations.

In addition to online streaming, Curtin said augmented reality and virtual reality technology could soon offer new ways for fans to unlock experiences, with ample opportunities for advertisers to benefit.

Curtin named several top challenges and opportunities in sports marketing, including:

  • “Exporting” the experience takes priority over “importing” the audience.
  • Streaming continues to change the game (e.g., instead of only being able to watch Olympic events of the greatest significance to the general domestic audience on NBC, a Chinese-American viewer living in the U.S. could stream any event featuring Chinese competitors on Peacock).
  • “Ancillary” content will emerge that’s equally important as the games and just as valuable to monetize.
  • Gambling on sporting events will continue to expand globally with more betting in real time within contests.
  • Online video gaming will allow sports leagues and franchises to branch out from their core sport to other sports that bear their name.

Despite the shifting landscape, Visa has historically locked into long-term sponsorship agreements. It recently signed a 12-year extension with the Olympics through 2032 and with the NFL through 2025.

Curtin said the company has made sponsorship choices with a strategic focus on global reach because Visa has wanted to be the global payments provider accepted anywhere customers want to go.

“Sports is the most expensive and complicated category to sponsor. At times, it’s very regional or national. Some of the properties we support are a mutual fund of sports in order to be global,” Curtin said. “Sports can also over index you to one type of consumer, but there’s nothing like sports in terms of audience and appointment viewing.”

Beyond global reach, the next frontier for sponsors is to become a part of the sporting events themselves.

“In the Olympics, there are no sponsor logos anywhere, unless the logo is endemic to the competition,” Curtin said. “What does it mean to be endemic? How do you become so endemic that you’re not just an advertiser, you’re part of the event?”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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