How AI Powers Sports Sponsorship

New technology is giving brands a clearer ROI


As with any new technology, analytics-driven artificial intelligence (AI) is going through a period of almost unchecked hype. Commentators from every industry are musing about how AI might improve their products, speed up working practices, and change the way their customers interact with them. Compared to the likes of healthcare or gaming, for example, sports marketing might not be the most immediately inspiring application of the technology, but it’s set to be revolutionized in the coming years, as AI develops at pace.

Companies like IdenTV are changing the way brands measure their video marketing efforts. Drawing video from sources like TV, live streams and online archives, the company’s technology uses automated content recognition (ACR) to build a big data index around the video. The ACR system is capable of facial and object recognition, and is able to track in-video movement of people, brands, logos, or targets. It’s technology like this that is giving marketers a new depth of insight into their campaigns. Quantifying how many times a brand logo appears over a season’s worth of NBA footage, for example, would take far too long if done manually, and having hours of video analyzed in real-time can be invaluable.

Speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Chris Granger, President of Sacramento Basketball Holdings, said: ‘We spend a great deal of time working with our partners to try and find out what exactly are you trying to achieve from this partnership. And then, we’re lucky enough to have this host of wonderful assets, whether it’s television or live events, in-arena programming or digital. We can use all of those things in concert to help drive the partner’s objectives.’ This then means developing metrics with the brand to ensure that it gets exactly what it wants out of the partnership.

In the world of sports sponsorship, companies like Block Six Analytics are helping sponsors develop their campaigns in real-time. One example featured on the company’s website is of a partnership between the Dallas Cowboys and Pepsico. The drinks company had secured signage rights for an LED tunnel cover at the AT&T Stadium, for which it wanted real-time analytics rather than an end-of-season report to make creative yet data-driven decisions as the season progressed. Block Six’s promise was to, a few days after any given game, provide Pepsico with a value report and suggest ways in which they could improve that value. An example of how this affected Pepsico’s strategy is when the company’s senior leadership suggested the sign included an actual image of the bottle, at the expense of logo size. When it came back from Block Six Analytics that this change actually negatively affected the value of the sponsorship, the team were able to quickly change the design back to the optimized logo size.

According to Gallup, some 60% of Americans would actively describe themselves as sports fans, with 76% of upper-income men reporting that they follow at least one team. These figures have been relatively consistent since the turn of the century, and they represent a huge market. It’s interesting that both income level and time of year affects an American’s likelihood to describe themselves as a sports fan, and marketers will be well aware of these metrics before they put together expensive campaigns. Sports sponsorship is, naturally, huge business, with the simple goal of putting a brand at the intersection of passion and connection, and sports fans are some of the most passionate customers there are.

And sponsorship in sports varies greatly. TV is one thing, but in-stadium sponsorship partnerships can be just as effective when done right. A food store might offer free nachos, for example, if a certain amount of three-pointers are made, or if a player breaks a certain record. It’s been a technique that’s largely been difficult to quantify until now, with new methods emerging to accurately track the efficacy of a campaign.

Chris Granger used the example of Orlando Magic’s partnership with Tijuana Flats: ‘What was unique about the Magic in this relationship is the way in which they can track that. So, when the Magic would make their tenth three-pointer, that was then broadcast in an arena, ‘go to Tijuana Flats for your free taco’ was then broadcast over social media, it was announced on the broadcast, it was sent out to the Magic database, so whether you’re at the game or not you could go to Tijuana Flats and celebrate with them. But then when you went there you’d have your ticket scanned, so they’d know who was scanning the ticket, so they know how many people are coming. They also know, when you got the free taco, how much money was being spent in addition to the free taco, so now they can quantify how many people are coming to the store, both in terms of number and in terms of the amount of additional spend.’ Tijuana Flats, in this example, could then weigh up the spend and generate an accurate ROI.

For people outside of the marketing community, it can be difficult to understand why brands will spend incredible amounts of money on shirt sponsorship deals or on a stadium sign. When your attention is focused on the action itself, it can be easy to forget just how prominent brands can be on screen and in the stadium, and the associations created as less immediately obvious that a television advert, for example. New technology is helping to determine the actual value of on-screen time, from length of time, to prominence in the frame, and the real ROI on these expensive campaigns can be properly, and clearly calculated. 

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