NorthStar Insight | Analysing the 2021 SportsPro 50 Most Marketable Properties list

Frank Gregory, social media intelligence practice lead at NorthStar Solutions Group, deep dives into this year's 50 Most Marketable Properties list to identify what these properties are doing beyond the field of play to make them so marketable.

The third and final SportsPro list is out, and the 50 Most Marketable Properties list was worth the wait.  

SponsorPulse has put together a unique survey-based methodology that gives us a different view of fan perception, based on its scorecard of engagement, intensity, momentum, excitement, passion, purchase consideration and favourability.  This gives a property or brand a wealth of knowledge on how to find a mutual partnership fit, based on a true look at the general population’s perceptions as opposed to the subset who are active on social media.

While the top five on the list haven’t changed from last year, there are many new entries, and some properties which have dropped a bit.  

But that’s not what we at NorthStar focused on. Similar to the first two lists, our team of objective social media analysts stepped back from the list to look at broader global trends that speak to why these properties are so marketable. By analysing every social media post from these properties over the last six months, then focusing on posts about anything outside of just their sport (meaning, filtering out the gameday content, etc), we were able to identify patterns, such as common global causes and marketing tactics these properties are embracing to keep them so culturally relevant.

Some patterns were very different from the athletes and brands lists, while others had clear correlations. Let’s dive in.

A key difference: Some properties are more likely to stay in their swim lane

While the 50 Most Marketable Athletes were likely to provide a window into their personal lives outside of sports, including what causes they are passionate about, and the 50 Most Marketable Brands were likely to talk about many global causes outside of their products/services and sponsorships, some sports properties stick to the gameday content. For the top 50 brands, the most popular global causes were being supported on social media by over 50 per cent of the list.  With the top 50 properties, even the most-supported causes were only mentioned by roughly one-third (34 per cent) or less of the list.   

There were some innovative properties in the top 50 that used their social media platforms to communicate support for a cause, but in general this wasn’t at the level we saw from the athletes and brands.

Diving in further, the league-wide properties were acting more like consumer brands, using social media to communicate their support for causes that affect our world, while team-specific properties were more likely to stick to sports. 

This speaks to an overall hesitation in the sports industry. Teams are seeing their athletes speak out on global causes they are passionate about, and seeing the league following suit. This provides a natural buffer for the team’s social accounts to stay focused on sports-specific content, instead of wading into cause-based messaging.  

Why have some teams decided – consciously or subconsciously – that they need this buffer? 

Because they are more dependent on one local market buying tickets and tuning in.  

Supporting a particular cause could be seen as financially risky for an individual team, if a contingent of the local market disagrees with that cause. An athlete can speak their mind because their personal brand is most important regardless of what the local market thinks. The league has the financial stability that comes with a national (or international) fanbase, meaning that they can follow the lead of the athletes in their cause-based messaging to show support, with only a small risk of alienating a minority.

But if a local market starts pushing back against a team, boycotting buying tickets or tuning in due to the team posting about a cause some local fans disagree with, it could be financially devastating.  

However, many of the top properties are thriving by diving into cause-based messaging

Sure, it may come with risk, but there are plenty of examples of sports properties using their social platforms to support causes. This includes some individual teams that are bucking the trend, including:

  • Manchester City: The Premier League champions backed six causes on their social media channels over the last six months, from safe water efforts and youth community projects to supporting the LGBTQ community and victims of racism or online abuse.
  • FC Barcelona: The Spanish soccer giants supported five causes including anti-bullying, anti-racism, women in sports, LGBTQ rights and animal rights.
  • Los Angeles Lakers: The National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise promoted five causes, from support for the LGBTQ community, military and healthcare workers, to fighting social injustices and supporting the Basketball Africa League (BAL).
  • Juventus: The Serie A side has supported five causes including environmental initiatives, women in sports and the LGBTQ community.

These forward-thinking teams are joined by leagues and other sports organisations that are using their platforms to support global causes their fans care about, the most prominent being the NBA (nine different causes supported over six months), the Olympic Games, Formula One, Mercedes Racing and the National Football League (each supporting six causes over six months).

Not only has the NBA been overwhelmingly successful in building international marketability on the court, it is head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to off-the-court support of causes its athletes and fans care about.

One cause shared with brands and athletes, and one unique to properties

As we mentioned in the athletes and brands analysis, support for the LGBTQ community has become a driving force in the sports industry. Many of the top 50 athletes are a part of the community, while many others used their social platforms to give support. LGBTQ equity was also in the top three causes that the top 50 brands supported.

Properties are no different. The LGBTQ community is the top cause, with 34 per cent of the top 50 properties using their social channels to show support. This makes sense, given that properties are intrinsically linked with their most popular athletes. As more and more athletes feel confident to be publicly open about themselves, more and more properties will follow suit in support of their bravery.

However, one very important cause was unique to the 50 Most Marketable Properties: fighting against online abuse. Given the amount of negativity that athletes have to endure when they make a mistake on the court or field, especially when the player happens to be a minority, it makes complete sense that online abuse has become front and centre for properties to use their social platforms to fight against.  

At the end of the day, these properties are there to support and protect their players, who don’t deserve the vitriol that is often spewed at them via social media after making a mistake. Not only is it upsetting, but it can damage the athletes’ mental health, making it priority number one for many sports properties.  

The sports industry has an opportunity to become an even larger champion for fighting online abuse, taking on the social media giants and forcing them to more strongly address the problem.

Leading properties are acting like brands by tapping into influencer marketing

On the surface, it’s easy to think about the rise of influencer marketing as something less relevant to the sports industry. The athletes are the influencers, so we don’t need to worry about working with separate influencers, right?

Not necessarily. Besides the causes that the top 50 properties posted about, we also analysed the influencers outside of their sport that each posted about over the last six months, which showed yet another example of how some organisations are developing their marketing efforts. 36 per cent of these properties are partnering with famous athletes from other sports (examples include the Olympics posting about Tom Brady, Liverpool posting about LeBron James, and many others), while 34 per cent are partnering with musicians (such as the WWE partnering with Machine Gun Kelly and Wale) and 30 per cent are partnering with actors and actresses (examples include the NBA partnering with Michael B Jordan and the UFC partnering with Mark Wahlberg, Chris Pratt and others).  

The marketing powerhouses of the UFC and the NBA lead the way in this category. The UFC has partnered with 17 influencers outside of its own athletes over the last six months, followed by the NBA (16 influencer partnerships), the NFL (11), Formula One (ten), the Women’s Tennis Association (ten), the World Table Tennis Championships (eight), the WWE (seven) and Wimbledon (seven). These properties are in lockstep with the ever-growing importance of influencer marketing in today’s social media landscape.

So, what does this all mean?

When it comes to increasing future marketability, sports properties need to think like consumer brands.  

If your property made the top 50 this year, fantastic, but don’t rest on your laurels. Continue connecting with your fans by conducting the research on what they want, not just on the field and in the arena, but off the field as well. Continue to push the envelope with cause-related messaging that your fans are telling you they want, and that will hopefully drive change – especially regarding the online abuse your athletes are dealing with. Continue to leverage influencers outside the sports space to connect and broaden your fanbase. In other words, continue to innovate.

If your property didn’t make the top 50, not to worry, there is plenty of opportunity out there. Double down on your internal research efforts to understand what your fanbase is passionate about (hint: ask SponsorPulse about how the top four most important causes for global sports fans all relate to climate change), what they want to see from their favourite teams, and which influencers they follow. This will unlock actionable insights that will lead to new types of marketing content that can authentically connect with your audience, increasing fan loyalty and passion for your property. If you do this consistently over time, you may just end up in the top 50 soon.

SponsorPulse and SportsPro have given us a lot to think about with the 2021 50 Most Marketable Properties list. So, don’t just scroll through the list and move on with your day. Think deeper about the global fan perception trends driving this list and what this means for the future of your property and the industry. That way, you aren’t caught off-guard as the world continues to rapidly shift around you.