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The current state of attention in Australian sport

EssenceMediacom’s Dan Collier-Hill explores the current state of attention in sport, what is contributing to its biggest challenges and how to overcome them.


The desire to measure sport sponsorship against other traditional media channels has created a generation of awareness-led logo placements instead of effective brand integrations. As clutter continues to increase, the effectiveness of sponsorships will decline. This article explores the current state of attention in sport, what is contributing to its biggest challenges, and how we overcome them.

Key takeaways

Clutter in Australian sport is growing at 14% year-on-year

Brand recall in sponsorship is at an all-time low at an average of just 29%

Rights holders need to revolutionise commercial models around shapes of attention in order for sponsorships to be more effective

Historically, sport in Australia has been an incredible reach driver. Its ability to consistently provide access to passionate audiences at scale has provided a rich playground for marketers to execute awareness-based strategies for many years.

As the primary media tactic within sport, sponsorship across broadcast, leagues, teams, athletes, social platforms, and fan engagement technology has created a new, exciting wave of sports marketing that offers options beyond traditional media.

However, our constant need to isolate the reach of a sponsorship and measure it against other traditional media channels has inadvertently elevated the role of a logo over understanding the impact of contributing to a fan’s experience.

Consequently, many marketers have landed in the dangerous trap of prioritising cost efficiencies over effectiveness. When considering annual media and marketing budgets, achieving maximum reach of sports fans for the lowest possible cost has become more important than exploring bigger picture outcomes.

It’s not panic station just yet.

Amplified Intelligence, a leader in attention-based marketing research, have helped validate that attention is now considered a much stronger predictor of effectiveness than viewability or reach.

As a result, we are beginning to see a new era of fan-first marketing that teases out exploring the role of branded messages within sport and the formats they are distributed in to ensure activity is contextually relevant and not interrupting the overall experience.

The current state of sport

According to OzTAM, eight out of the top 10 biggest free-to-air audiences in Australia in the past 12 months were built around sports programming. Whilst events such as the Australian Open, State of Origin, Australian Football League (AFL), and National Rugby League (NRL) finals series have consistently dominated TV screens throughout the year, OzTAM has again indicated that recent results around the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand have reported domestic records for total viewership, solidifying the importance of sport in capturing share of attention and interest.

However, recent analysis of clutter in Australian sport by EssenceMediacom highlights that fragmented viewing experiences across broadcast and social, outdated commercial models, and third-party sponsorship deals mean that viewers will see an average of 45 brands per game.

Think on that for a moment, how many brands can you remember from the last sports game you watched?

As a result of new sponsorship categories and innovative activation tactics, annual reviews from Nielsen suggest we are inadvertently increasing clutter within Tier 1 sport at a staggering 14% year-on-year.

So, if the current state of attention in sport is an uphill battle, how did we get here, and what is driving it all?

A total imbalance between the ideas of reach and value

The compounding impact of growing clutter and fragmented viewing is that we are no longer improving mental availability in sport when using a mass awareness strategy.

Recent research from Nielsen and Turnstile indicates that whilst the number of marketable assets in a right holder’s inventory has almost tripled, only 40% of value from team, league or stadium sponsorship deals actually comes from exposure-based assets.

In YouGov’s most recent survey results, at an average of only 29% across all sport sponsorships in Australia, brand recall is now at an all-time low, suggesting that we currently plan and buy sponsorship for reach, not attention.

On the surface level, we can tinker with tactics and improve results. However, when considering the costs associated with sponsorships, creative, production, management, and everything in between, the biggest problem with this imbalance is that the cost of generating attention in sport is increasing whilst its effectiveness is decreasing.

Being seen is easier to measure than understanding how we contribute to the experience

Arguably, the biggest catalyst for the current state of attention in sport, is that we have created an over-reliance on using logos within a game to drive outcomes.

As an industry, we say we do not, but deep down, we still love the traditional logo slap - simply because we can easily measure it.

To accommodate this, rights holders in Australia have built sponsorships and wider commercial models around a measurable share of voice within a sport.

However, we are forgetting something incredibly important - fans do not actually care about seeing our logo.

Using a heat-mapping feature within EssenceMediacom’s creative analytics tool, we begin to understand the challenge this has created.

Whilst there are more opportunities to be visible, we are beginning to dilute the effectiveness of memory retention and brand choice uplift by giving people too many things to look at in short spaces of time.

Heat map of 2023 National Rugby League game using EssenceMediacom’s creative analytics tool

The growing lack of contextual placements continues to grow

The desire to measure visibility has also begun to place a greater importance on assets that drive reach. When considering the shape of attention around these assets, the longer an asset allows a logo to be on screen, the better chance of driving outcomes.

However, in an industry first, a recent study conducted by the Institute of Sport Economics and Management in Cologne, Germany revealed that historically we may have gone too far down the wrong path and forgotten about context.

When exploring the impact of in-game outcomes and gameplay on the effectiveness of attention on sponsored assets, the study highlighted that whilst assets in high-interest areas (such as on a goalpost or near the try line) can capture high levels of exposure, they fail to consider the context of its placement from a fan’s perspective.

Despite generating incredibly positive reach-based results, brands were less likely to receive active attention when a fan’s favourite team was attacking the opposition.

With overall sentiment from the study indicating that fans are more concerned with the outcome of the play than the branding that surrounds it, we may need to reconsider how and where we commercialise in-game integrations.

Future-proofing attention in sport

Rights holders continue to unbundle their media and marketing rights in order to meet the growing demands of live and non-live content production.

And whilst there is no magic formula to guarantee outcomes, there are two key considerations we can give to future-proof not only the role of attention in sport, but also the effectiveness of sport sponsorship.

1 - Definitions of sponsorship value need a reality check

Redefining the key value drivers of a sport sponsorship will not only help reduce clutter, but help plan for more effective fan-first experiences instead of ubiquitous reach-first placements.

A significant contributor to the volume of clutter impacting the current state of attention in sport is our industry’s obsession with reach over relevance.

A simple, yet provocative, question that will have significant ramifications on clutter that brands can ask themselves is whether they actually need to drive awareness through their sponsorship. If they have traditional media existing outside of the sponsorship, they are better placed addressing different challenges, such as improving brand preference, overall modernity or perhaps relevance to a new target audience.

To put into context, if a brand is losing overall preference to a competitor, the outcome should not be to create more measurable share of voice, but rather understand how to improve or enhance a fans experience, so that it increases positive memory retention instead of just being seen.

Many brands assess the value of sport sponsorships solely on their ability to generate cost-efficient reach, and whilst contextual reach will always be important, we need to stop prioritising media equivalency as the pinnacle of sponsorship value.

When we do this, awareness-led sponsorships will always drive the most value and continue to negatively impact attention and effectiveness.

Not only does this approach fail to consider the profound impact of leveraging intellect property and brand association with a sport or team, but also value derived from two-way engagement with fans - it is a complete lack of understanding and acceptance that the intangibles can drive value for a brand.

Modern media and evolutions to measurement shed light on the fact that we should not be treating sponsorships simply as a mass-reaching media buy, but rather a communications tactic that drives value across the entire customer journey.

As a follow-up step, brands need to understand where the job to be done sits in the customer journey and have a clear point-of-view on how to connect to desired outcomes. Sponsorship assets cannot do everything, to everyone at the same time, so we need to be selective about building an asset mix that connects with fans throughout their journey. In doing so, we are able to define how it will drive value back to the business.

Shifting away from generic awareness-based objectives to more targeted outcomes that are connected with fan journeys will dramatically improve how brands show up in sport, and how we measure value across our paid, owned, and earned ecosystem.

2 - Commercial guidelines in sport need a revolution, not just an evolution

Saving the most dramatic for last.

The current state of attention in sport is a direct result of minimal innovation surrounding how brands consider their role in sport.

Whilst there have been some truly fantastic evolutions to fan engagement tactics and streaming capabilities, the majority of sponsorship opportunities are finding places to put logos.

In effect, we have created a sea of sameness. Coloured rectangles forced into a court or field, shiny heat-pressed logos, and a dedicated share of voice across virtual and digital have become ubiquitous and largely unappealing to the average sports fan.

Inspiration from codes overseas, such as the English Premier League (EPL) in the UK and National Basketball Association (NBA) league in North America, has proven that creating an ecosystem around intellectual property and social-led behaviours can create genuine roles for brands within the context of the experience around their sport.

The key lesson to learn in the context of revolutionising commercial guidelines is that sport is much more than the live game. The stories and personalities that create conversation amongst fans during the week are not only playgrounds of opportunity for brands but also rivers of revenue growth for rights holders.

If TikTok revolutionised the creator economy, it is now time for sport to find its own version that helps build commercial models around shapes of attention.

Moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a fit-for-platform commercial strategy allows brands to extend their role in-game, capture a fan’s full experience, and improve overall memory retention.

Longer term, innovations to real-time creative across LED, virtual signage or broadcast offer food-for-thought options.

Dan Collier-Hill is Head of Strategy, Creative Futures, Australia at EssenceMediacom, GroupM’s newest and largest agency that is committed to delivering marketing breakthroughs for brands.

This article was written by Dan Collier-Hill, Head of Strategy, EssenceMediacom Creative Futures. It was first published as an exclusive on WARC in November 2023.