From Cannes Lions, How Advertisers Can Keep Up with Sports Fans

by | Jun 27, 2024

Sports marketing was unavoidable at Cannes Lions this year, and not just because the Olympic torch was paraded down the Croisette on its way to Paris for the 2024 games. It’s no secret that the concept of a sports fan is evolving and expanding – and advertisers have no choice but to take notice. Over the past year, they’ve been doing everything from adapting to live sports’ move to streaming video to looking at once-niche sports and leagues (including long-neglected women’s sports) as prime destinations for their brands.

Infillion’s recent research report, “The New Sports Fan,” dug into the trends that are driving these changes, and brought its central themes to Cannes for an all-star panel moderated by Digiday editor-in-chief Jim Cooper. 

Lara Krug, chief marketing officer for the Kansas City Chiefs, said on the panel that the industry’s approach to sports fans is scrambling to catch up. “The understanding of who the fans are in the sports world has really changed, and there’s still a lot of maturity that needs to happen,” she explained. Coming from the CPG world before she joined the Chiefs, Krug was used to a marketing sector where brands knew just about everything about their consumers. In professional sports, broad classifications of fans meant that, for example, a diehard follower who spent thousands on merchandise every year who happened to live outside of a team’s media market would nevertheless be classified as a “casual” fan. 

The Chiefs, representing one of the NFL’s smaller media markets, nevertheless have their advertising scope limited to a region that only reaches fans in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. With national and international followings growing, Krug said that “media, content, [and] our own channels really become our media platform where we’re speaking to 20-plus million fans.”

And sports content channels increasingly include media beyond live games themselves. “From a media perspective, spending has been up for all sports,” said Grace Teng, partner and chief media officer at independent agency Zambezi, adding the apparent paradox that “when you’re looking at viewership, it’s a little bit smaller.” That’s because sports consumption is so much more spread out than it used to be. Particularly for Gen-Z audiences, sports content now includes viral clips on social media, recap videos, athlete-hosted podcasts, and more. 

Indeed, Infillion’s research this year found that 64% of Gen-Z sports fans prioritize access to sports commentary and analysis, compared to 48% of sports fans overall. Michael Colella, SVP and executive producer of Infillion’s Creative Studio, classified it as “sports-adjacent content.” Young fans also sometimes merge multiple pieces of sports media in real time. “They’re watching something [on TV] and on their phone at the same time,” Colella said on the Cannes panel.


The Athlete as Brand

The content on that phone may well be an athlete’s own Instagram or TikTok account. Part of the reason why the definition of a sports fan is expanding so much is because potential fans have so many more touchpoints with athletes, thanks to those athletes’ social media presences and personal brands. 

“Sports is culture,” said Shannon Pruitt, chief marketing officer of Brand Performance Network at Stagwell, the holding company behind Cannes’ second annual Sport Beach activation. “These people that are either up-and-coming heroes, or have been heroes for a long time, are diversifying their interests…A lot of the athletes [at Sport Beach] are here not to talk because they’re an athlete – they don’t really want to talk about that at all, they want to talk about their business investments, what they’re doing and what they’re interested in doing.”

This trend has also caused teams to broaden their storytelling, like the Chiefs’ investment in women’s flag football, a fast-growing sport that creates a key football touchpoint for female fans – and which will be headed to the Olympics in four years. “It’s definitely, at the league level, one of their main priorities,” Lara Krug said. “It totally changes the landscape in terms of when we talk about fandom and female fans.” (Which is impressive, considering that the rise of female football fans and how it relates to the Kansas City Chiefs usually references something else.)


The Role of Generative AI in Sports Media

Sports may seem like the pinnacle of human energy, effort, and emotion. But Cannes’ unavoidable topic of generative AI popped up on the panel as well, particularly when it comes to the ability to bring more sports to more people in a more efficient manner.

Samira Panah Bakhtiar, GM of sports and entertainment at Amazon Web Services, explained that generative AI tools can help harness massive amounts of sports data, as AWS did with its “Playbook Pass Rush” game that used several years’ worth of data to help fans learn about how football plays work. With Formula 1 car racing, a sport that’s rocketed to new popularity in the U.S., Bakhtiar explained that AWS is collecting 1.1 million data points from the cars. 

“We’re focused on how we can automate and bring to bear practical use cases that can really unlock the creative and the talent,” Bakhtiar said. “The future is firmly going to be interactive and immersive, and I think that’s going to extend fandom to new heights.”


Learn more about Infillion’s work in immersive sports advertising with this deep dive into our work with Netflix and the NHL.

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