In this guest post, Barry O’Brien (lead image), Atomic 212° chairman, says its never been a better time to be in sports marketing and, he adds, that should make traditional sports like the AFL and NRL a little nervous…

The NRL and AFL seasons are back on our screens and in our stadiums for 2022 after a wild few seasons for both competitions.

Over the past two years, both competitions have been postponed, relocated and undergone re-evaluation with their broadcast partners.

Yet throughout this tremendous period of upheaval, our sporting organisations have been something of a shining light for Australians.

Not withstanding the behaviour of some of the players – and let’s be honest, that’s an issue that’s always existed – our major sporting leagues have come out of a hard, intense two years in a robust state.

However, these traditional, big-ticket sporting competitions are now in a new battle, as the sleeping giants of Australian sport are waking up and offering brands more options in the sports-marketing space.

The likes of para sports and women’s sport have come thundering into the national conscious like a thoroughbred down the straight at Flemington, and brands are starting to realise these dark horses are well worth a punt.

Building a national brand, one ball at a time

COVID has been good for ratings, good for eyeballs but also good for the companies that have got on board.

Kia is the classic example.

I had a small role in the Korean manufacturer signing on as the major sponsor for the Australian Open in 2002, at which point they had only been in the Australian market for five years.

The car brand and the Open’s relationship celebrated 20 years this year, during which time I’ve watched with great interest as Kia went from barely rating in national sales to becoming the fifth-highest selling car brand in Australia.

While there have obviously been many factors at play, sporting sponsorship has played a significant role in gaining Kia brand recognition in this market – as evidenced by the manufacturer’s expanded portfolio of partner organisations, including the GWS Giants in the AFL, the Hurricanes in Super Rugby and, arguably the biggest of them all, the Brisbane Broncos in the NRL, who may be struggling on the field but still boast over a million supporters.

Kia are obviously not trailblazers in this regard, with many well-known brands seeing their logo up in lights on the jerseys and balls of sporting clubs.

ANZ are famous for it. Bunnings built a brand on it.

Where we’re starting to see things diverge from ‘the way they were’ into our post-COVID new normal with sporting sponsorships is in the people and teams that are now the faces of these major brands.

A new breed of sporting star

The Commonwealth Bank are putting the likes of football star Sam Kerr and cricket all-rounder Ellyse Perry forward for their marketing. ANZ have a well-known deal with wheelchair tennis champion and newly minted Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott. And, with Katie Page at the helm as CEO, Harvey Norman have got a long history of getting behind a broad range of women’s sport.

It’s obviously being fuelled by genuine stars such as Kerr, Perry and Alcott having national recognition, but there’s also an understanding the value of sporting sponsorships goes beyond financial ROI.

A British study found that companies sponsoring the Olympics saw an uptick in “pride and employee assessments of their employer’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) credentials” as a result of this partnership.

People like working for companies that sponsor athletes and sport in general.

Obviously this can cut both ways – how do you think employees of companies that sponsor, say, the St George Illawarra Dragons felt after so many of their players had that infamous barbecue in breach of COVID restrictions – but that’s why we’re now seeing a new breed of sporting star come to the fore in a marketing sense.

A guy like Dylan Alcott is a slam dunk: he’s successful on the court but he’s also charming, funny, and a genuinely good person, who’s used his platform to make Australia a better place through his foundation and the creation of an event like Ability Fest (which, by the way, was sponsored by both Kia and ANZ).

So when Alcott won the Golden Slam last year, the first Australian tennis player to do it, how good do you think the employees at ANZ felt, thinking to themselves, “That’s our guy up there!”

The interest has genuine real-world results as well, with the Australian Paralympic Team ranked No.3 in terms of level of interest in all national teams, only narrowly behind the Australian Olympic team and Australian cricket team.

Tokyo 2020 was the most watched Paralympic Games in Australian history, while PA was the fastest growing digital presence among national sporting organisations on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

It’s not only athletes on our screens

Sports marketing goes beyond the athletes on the field and we’ve seen a significant rise in the number of high-profile women presenting, commentating and offering expert insight into sports, which has been a huge breath of fresh air.

Francesca Cumani has horse racing in her blood, which is evident by the poise and insight she shows when presenting for Channel Ten; Mel Mclaughlin is Seven’s go-to presenter for just about all sports, heading up the network’s cricket and Olympic coverage; Allana Ferguson’s analysis on Nine and Stan Sport is the kind you can only gain from years of playing both rugby league and rugby union at the highest level; and Erin Molan has leveraged the profile she built as a Nine rugby league presenter into roles in the cut-throat (and well-paid) world of Sydney breakfast radio with 2DayFM and as a Primetime Contributor with Sky News.

As for concerns there is a finite amount of money for sporting sponsorships and with the rise of women’s sport and other athletes, competition is getting tighter at the top end, well, good.

There’s a new game in town

With smart, articulate and frankly just different athletes now providing clear value for money in a marketing sense, not only is there greater choice and clearer value propositions for a range of audiences, the competition for dollars means the established players need to pull their socks up.

The NRL and AFL were a precious light in dark times these past two years and they’re reaping rewards as a result – fair enough.

But for the first time, they’re starting to get brought back to pack when it comes to attracting sponsorship dollars.

The likes of the AFL, NRL and men’s cricket may not be under any immediate threat, but they can’t afford to remain complacent about their place at the top.

Article originally published on B&T.