With an immeasurable impact on sports marketing, emerging social media trends are reshaping the nature in which brands, teams, athletes and fans are able to connect. Due to an ever-changing, competitive landscape, each player in the game is determined to stay relevant. Here we take a look at the various digital sports trends that emerged as a result in 2023.
From online fan engagement and the dramatic climb of influencer marketing to the transformation of women’s sports marketing and the recent gambling controversy, 2023 has been a transformational year for advertising on and off the field.
As we dive deeper into these emerging trends, we’ll also focus on some of the campaigns that garnered attention and plaudits this past year.
The Online Stadium
Over recent times, fan engagement has revolutionised to allow fans to connect with sportspeople and teams through social media. This has resulted in huge followings on platforms such as Facebook, X (Twitter) and Instagram.
Boasting over 149 million followers, the Real Madrid Instagram account clearly surpasses the Madrid population of over 3.2 million people. This demonstrates how sports teams can use social media to capitalise on success and translate this to commercial gain. According to goal.com, Real Madrid were the second richest football team based on 2021-22 revenue with over £600 million.
Now in 2023, teams are using social media as a way to develop a fan base and prosper commercially as a result. Back in 2020, Wrexham A.F.C were taken over by Hollywood superstars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. With new found attention, the team were part of a popular FX documentary, “Welcome to Wrexham”. Wrexham AFC now have surpassed 1.1 million Instagram followers, more than seven Premier League teams, demonstrating that online attention can surpass traditional success. With all of the added visibility, alongside the 2022/23 season resulting in promotion, ticket sales are flourishing alongside merchandise and sponsorships.
Fans aren’t just engaging with teams. The easy accessibility of social media allows them to now also connect with athletes. Top athletes are some of the most followed across platforms, with Cristiano Ronaldo the most followed individual on Instagram with over 600 million followers.
Social media has bridged the gap between sports fans and celebrities. Professional athletes often use social media to humanise their image and share behind-the-scenes content, demonstrating to fans the hard work that goes into their lifestyle. They also use their online audience to help stand for a cause and amplify social issues.
Unfortunately, there is another side to social media for many high-profile athletes, as they become the target for online trolls, who send abusive messages to athletes and their families. Bridging the gap between athletes and fans can result in fans feeling entitled. In 2022-23, reports of online abuse in football increased 279%, according to kick it out. Much of this abuse is racist, sexist and faith-based. This anonymity of social media has created a platform for abuse to exist without punishment for many years.
Spotlight on Women’s Sports
2023 was a transformative year for women’s sports, including the intensifying of marketing strategies for brands.
A stand out moment for the year from August was Nebraska University Women's Volleyball Team breaking a world record by filling the Memorial stadium with 92,003 fans. The tickets were in demand, originally ranging from $5 to $25, prices reached up to $400 on the secondary market.
Nebraska’s Athletic Director Trev Alberts said, “[We’ve] significantly invested in women’s athletics, and you’re seeing the result of that by seeing the success of the volleyball program and the fan base surrounding it.”
The event garnered significant media attention, featuring on ESPN. The Nebraska Volleyball Instagram page boasts over 250,000 followers with an outstanding 8.26% engagement rate. The account features a mix of high quality video content alongside sleek professional photos.
One of the biggest events of the year, the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup set new benchmarks across social media for investment, reach and engagement. According to Comscore, there were 185.6 million engagements surrounding the event in comparison to 55.9 million for the 2019 tournament. These engagements centred on content produced by brands, publishers and influencers. TikTok was leading the way for engagement around the tournament. SportsPro Media also reported that the ‘fifawwc’ hashtag totalled over 3.9 billion video views and FIFA’s official account amassed 1.5 million new followers. To help generate content, TikTok and FIFA collaborated with creators from around the globe creating behind-the-scenes content, pre-match videos and highlights.
Social Media was also key in discussing some of the larger issues. England goalkeeper Mary Earps shared that Nike were not going to issue her shirt for public sale, along with all of the outfield players. Fans responded online sharing there disappointment and encouraging Nike to change their minds. They even shared photos of themselves wearing custom goalkeeper shirts to support Earps. Nike eventually responded to the pressure and announced that the shirt would be released as a limited edition.
Heading over to the US Open, the tennis tournament also went big on TikTok, making it highly visible for those who may not have tuned in to watch live. America’s new sweetheart Coco Gauff won the women’s tournament and was using TikTok herself to promote the tournament and her own brand, reaching a new, younger audience online.
TikTok has been a keen supporter of women’s sports throughout this year and further demonstrated this by becoming the Title Partner of the TikTok Women’s Six Nations. Keen to be visibly involved in women's sports, TikTok’s partnership is set to last until 2025.
Sponsorship is of huge importance within women’s sport, with generally less financial reward available for female athletes. A study from SportsPro Media found that 16% of the public said they are more likely to purchase from companies partnering with female sport compared to 13% involved with men’s sport. Adobe have also recently signed a deal to become the Title Partner of the women’s FA Cup after becoming the Official Creativity Partner for the NWSL, showcasing their clear interest in the market.
All Bets Are Off
One of the more concerning trends of 2023 has been the ongoing sports betting scandals. A continuation of themes in years gone by, 2023 saw the consequences begin to emerge, with several high profile footballers banned for substantial periods of time.
For years, gambling advertising has been inextricably linked to sport. It’s impossible to tune into a sporting event without being inundated with a variety of different adverts for betting brands. In 2021 the Gambling Commission found that 34% of people asked were prompted to gamble by advertising.
As social media use around sporting events has increased, so has the opportunity to advertise betting sites. In a study, the University of Bristol found that over a single weekend 1,902 gambling adverts appeared on social media generating a total of 34 million impressions.
In May 2023 England striker Ivan Toney was banned from the game for eight months as a result of betting offences. He later shared that he had been diagnosed with a gambling addiction. Similarly in October, Newcastle and Italy Midfielder Sandro Tonali was banned for a 10 months period as a result of illegal betting activity. Almost ironically whilst ongoing investigations, players played in football stadiums surrounded by betting advertising.
As of the 2023-24 Premier League season, nine clubs are currently displaying gambling logos on the front of shirts as a result of sponsorship deals. This has a significant impact on social media, with many images from match day being shared live, resulting in a high number of images and videos visible with this gambling logos. It is impossible to assess the direct link between this and gambling from fans, however it is another way in which gambling and sports has become inextricably linked.
With players and fans continuously surrounded by this type of advertising, the problem is set to get worst unless change happens. Such high profile cases may ultimately cause a change in rules and regulations surrounding the advertising of sports gambling.
Earlier this year the Premier League and its 20 clubs collectively announced that gambling sponsorship will no longer be permitted on the front of match day shirts following the end of the 2025-26 season. Further offences will surely encourage officials to continue to review gambling legislation in sport.
The sport industry is advantageous for marketers as one of the only segments with ready-made influencers, so it’s clear to see why brands are keen to collaborate with sports stars when promoting their products. This naturally works well within the health and fitness sector, with athletes often promoting sportswear, health supplements and food products.
Tennis champion, Novak Djokovic has a lucrative sponsorship with French clothing company Lacoste, with Djokovic heavily featured across the brand’s social media channels. A recent Instagram post congratulating Djokovic’s World Number 1 ranking received over 100,000 likes, in comparison to an average of 9,800 likes across other posts for Lacoste.
It’s possible for smaller brands to participate with influencer marketing, due to the rise of lower level athletes and amateurs using social media platforms to share sporting journeys.
Multiple big brands are choosing to forgo traditional sponsorship with athletes for amateurs who are popular on TikTok. @thatnewbierunner has amounted over 86,000 followers with his running and cycling videos aimed at beginners. He’s worked with multiple brands including Sports Direct and New Balance. Brands are realising that these content creators are often more relatable to everyday people who are the main target audience for their products.
Now we’re about to make a bold claim, so brace yourself. The biggest sports influencer of 2023 is… Taylor Swift! Yes, that sounds crazy but there’s evidence to support this claim. Kansas City Chiefs have seen their Tight End, Travis Kelce’s jersey sales go through the roof in recent months and they probably have the superstar singer to thank for it. According to sportswear and fan merchandise company Fanatics, Kelce’s shirt sales jumped nearly 400% following Swift’s appearance at Arrowhead Stadium in September after news of their relationship first emerged.
One of the interesting aspects is that so far Swift doesn’t promote Kelce, their relationship or the Chiefs on her social media. Although there are thousands of fans and photographers present at each of the games, keen to snap a photo of Taylor proudly wearing her Chiefs jersey. The NFL even jumped on the bandwagon and changed their Twitter banner to a photo of the singer celebrating at a game. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodall commented that the romance “is great for the league”. The Kansas City Chiefs seem to have hit the jackpot here and really they haven’t had to do anything to get there, proving that sometimes letting things happen naturally is for the best.
Coming up in 2024…
Sports is changing and so is social media. Together they are transforming the way in which we consume, engage with and react to sports around the world. Many of the themes from 2023, positive and negative, will likely evolve and expand. But what can we expect from 2024? Here’s some of our predictions for the year ahead:
e-Sports and AI begin to gain momentum
TikTok is king of video and will start to rise up the table for sports
Environmental concern surrounding the ways we consume sports
More and more upcoming athletes will use social media to track fitness progression
It’s exciting to look at all of the positive developments within digital for sports and we can’t wait to see what 2024 brings!