Sports Industry Outlook 2014: Opportunities for Branded Video Content

A multi-billion dollar industry that boasts millions of fans worldwide, sports are an integral part of the American lifestyle. Whether or not people consider themselves sports fans, it’s difficult to avoid the constant onslaught of sports related content and events. From the NFL to the NBA to the NHL, MLB and NASCAR, sports culture seems to dominate television and the Web.

Though we may not see free live streaming of all major sports games online anytime soon, consumers are shifting attention to digital and sports brands are doing their best to reach and engage these fans through their preferred channel. In fact, according to eMarketer, worldwide digital ad spending is expected to reach $137.53 billion in 2014 and increase to $204 billion by 2018.

Mobile is another hotspot for sports brands and marketers. A 2012 survey from Burst Media found that 43% of sports fans use a mobile device to access online sports content/video. In Q3 2013, Millennial Media reported that sports advertisers increased mobile ad spending by 411%.

eMarketer Sports Mobile Ad Spend
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and NASCAR, to determine exactly how these brands are using digital media, specifically online video, to engage and interact with online consumers. We’ll also provide our sports industry outlook for the rest of 2014.

National Football League

According to a poll from AP-GfK, 49% of Americans say they are fans of professional football. Last year, the industry’s revenue climbed above $9 billion and Super Bowl XLVIII attracted 111.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched TV show in U.S. history. Last season alone, NFL games comprised 34 of the 35 most-watched television shows, and more than 70 million Americans watched at least one game during the season.

To maintain this momentum and drive additional engagement online, the NFL is beefing up its digital strategy. One of the most recent updates to the NFL Mobile app included increased video and social sharing capabilities:

– Integration of NFL Now national and personalized video feeds
– Live stream of “Fantasy Live” now available for all users
– Ability to share articles and VOD via Facebook and Twitter
– Additional social content added to News section
– Access to NFL Network Schedule

NFL Mobile App

The official NFL website also includes a healthy dose of video content. Though most of the videos are free to watch, “NFL Now” will offer previously unavailable footage and documentaries for $1.99 a month. The NFL is also in talks with Google over streaming rights.

According to the NFL’s executive vice president of media Brian Rolapp, selling the rights to stream games to an online company is a matter of “when, not if.” The NFL is fully aware of consumers’ viewing habits, and is making moves to cater to this behavior slowly, but surely.

Another way the NFL is utilizing online video is by partnering with USA Football to bring viewers its “Heads Up” campaign. Funded entirely by the NFL, the Heads Up Football program launched in 2012—it’s promoted by a number of former NFL players who act as “ambassadors” to the 2,700+ youth leagues that have adopted the program.

When it comes to NFL online video marketing materials, there is still room for improvement. With no YouTube channel to speak of, the NFL seems to be clinging to its own distribution channels, which may be detrimental to video discovery.

National Basketball Association

With an official YouTube channel housing more than 15,000 videos, the NBA is cognizant of which sites viewers are turning to to consume sports-related content. Earlier this year, the NBA Finals averaged 14.9 million viewers, up 4% over 2013—and this is due, in part, to an increase in the NBA’s digital marketing efforts.

The NBA maintains a strong presence across social media sites including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. Leading up to the Final series, Facebook fans had access to the Live Video platform, on which they could ask players questions during media availability. On Twitter, the NBA offered in game video highlights, utilizing the hashtag #NBARapidReplay.

NBA Rapid Replay Twitter

Instagram Video has also proved effective at driving engagement online. Check out the stats on this video that landed the number one spot on the Instagram Brand Video Ranking chart during the week of May 19, 2014.

NBA Instagram Video

The NBA is presenting social media users with a consistent stream of exciting content. When you consider the fact that 35% of 18 to 35-year-olds regularly use social media to comment on, tweet/retweet, share or link to online sports content and 45% of this age group follow athletes or sports teams on social media, it makes sense that the NBA would invest so much time, money and energy into this marketing channel.

National Hockey League

The NHL cites data from Scarborough and Simmons/PMB and claims that its fanbase is 58 million strong in the United States plus another 12 million in Canada. The NHL’s official YouTube channel houses more than 24,000 videos, including YouTube exclusives, game highlights, TV spots, player safety clips and culture videos. With more than 486,000 subscribers and 247 million total views, the NHL keeps viewers entertained with an abundance of video content.

The NHL has also embraced the behavior of mobile-dependent consumers. In October 2013, it started to roll out team-specific mobile apps that include real-time game data, post-game video highlights and additional content before and after the game. The NHL has also invested heavily in mobile video and live streaming.

As part of its mobile video strategy, the NHL has developed a strong presence on Vine and Instagram. The NHL has more than 132,000 followers on Vine and 6.6 million total loops.

On Instagram, the NHL has attracted more than 562,000 followers. As of late May 2014, the league boasted a 20% engaged audience with 96,000+ interactions. This video placed sixth on the Instagram Brand Video Ranking chart.

NHL Instagram Video

The NHL understands that fans and game attendees want a more engaging, personalized experience. Through mobile apps and digital video, the National Hockey League is boosting participation and interest nationwide.

Major League Baseball

According to a January 2014 survey from the Harris Poll, 14% of fans named baseball as their favorite sport. Though this may not seem like a significant percentage, baseball is ranked second only behind the NFL, that drew 35% of the votes. Baseball is an American pastime that has grown with the country and even to this day, millions of people attend U.S. baseball games each year.

As consumers’ lifestyles and habits have evolved, so too has the MLB (i.e. both have moved online). In fact, Burst Media found that 22% of men and 13% of women go online for sports content a few times a week. Though its overall digital presence is solid, the MLB excels at driving engagement through online video and social media.

With more than 67,000 YouTube videos on its official channel, the MLB houses more video content than the rest of these leagues/associations combined! One of the league’s most successful projects is the MLB Fan Cave, a three-story, 15,000-square-foot multimedia production hub at the corner of Broadway and 4th Street in New York.

“Cave Dwellers,” aka the select few avid baseball fans chosen each season to live in the Fan Cave and watch every MLB game are responsible for capturing their experience via social media, blogs and videos, as well as hosting concerts, fan events, and celebrity guests.

Created in partnership with Boston-based agency Hill Holliday, the MLB Fan Cave saw impressive results—the 200+ (and counting) online videos, featuring MLB players and celebrities have earned millions of views. The initiative has generated over 1.4 million “likes” on Facebook, 280K+ Twitter followers, 1 billion+ media impressions to date, and a much-coveted Cannes Lion award. Additionally, 33% of MLB Fan Cave’s Facebook followers either liked or shared content. This is six times the typical level for sports pages.

The MLB has seen great success in driving engagement and fan participation through digital content. It should come as no surprise that already this year, the MLB has launched two new online video series—one in partnership with MTV and the other with MapQuest. The MLB also holds a captive audience on Vine and Instagram. The league boasts 160,000 Vine followers and 21.1 million total loops:

On Instagram, the MLB has attracted a staggering 1.1 million followers.

In terms of content, the MLB has an acute understanding of what young fans are looking for online. Perform sports media group found that 26% of Americans follow sports via social media, and the MLB is constantly uploading new content across all of its distribution channels to keep viewers tied to the sport, and ultimately to the league.


With an estimated 75 million U.S. fans and annual revenue of $3.1 billion, NASCAR maintains a prominent position in the world of American sporting events. However, attendance and ticket sales have fallen over the past few years. According to CMO Steve Phelps, NASCAR is using digital marketing to not only interact with existing fans, but also attract new fans to the sport:

“We view digital and social media as a tool to engage our passionate and loyal fan base and ultimately bring new fans to our sport. The reclamation of our digital rights, effective January 2013, and recently partnering with social and digital conglomerates, like Twitter, Google, and HP, on cutting-edge initiatives are just a few examples of how we are innovating in the digital world in an effort to be thought leaders who provide the best available experience to our fans. We strongly encourage those across the entire landscape of the sport to embrace digital and social media–from drivers and teams to tracks and corporate partners,” he said in a interview.

In 2012, NASCAR tapped SapientNitro to develop a new and improved digital website. According to the agency, “The platform is an omni-screen, responsively designed, socially connected platform, monetized but not overrun with advertising, and visually dynamic with large vivid imagery and a multitude of video experiences…”

Implemented in early 2013, the new platform saw significant engagement during the first (and biggest) race of the season: The Daytona 500. SapientNitro reported that the site received 15M+ page views and 1.4M video views over the weekend, and 35% of that traffic was mobile & tablet.

When it comes to online video, both NASCAR’s website and YouTube channel host a fair amount of content.

The association also utilizes Vine and Instagram Video to drive social engagement. NASCAR recently tested out Hyperlapse, a new time lapse app from Instagram, to create this clip:

On Vine, NASCAR entertains 38,000 followers with behind the scenes spots, fan and sponsor highlights and other racing footage.

As a testament to the importance of a bullet-proof digital strategy, in June 2014, NASCAR announced several personnel moves to position NASCAR Digital Media (NDM) for continued growth and success.

With these leadership tweaks, the association is “confident that NASCAR’s digital platform will continue to evolve and innovate, providing our fans with the most immersive online experience in all of sports.”

Taking into account the information above, below is our 2014 outlook for the sports industry:

Each one of these leagues is feeling out the digital space in different ways. According to Kantar Media, last year the NFL spent nearly $8.5 million on digital media. In that same time frame, the NBA spent $43 million, the NHL spent $1.3 million and NASCAR spent more than $5.2 million. With budgets all over the board, it’s clear that each sport values digital marketing a certain way.

While it may lie at the heart of the NBA’s efforts, it takes a backseat in the NFL where traditional television reigns supreme. As an all-encompassing outlook, here are a few general areas we believe the sports industry will focus on during the rest of 2014.

  • Personalization: This includes customizable mobile apps, websites, newsfeeds, etc. For years, these leagues have promoted sports at a league level. But now, they are honing in on localized interactions and personal connections. Giving fans the option (and opportunity) to engage before, after and even during the games through digital media will keep people invested in not only individual teams, but also the sport itself.
  • Cross-Channel Marketing: Integrated marketing campaigns with multiple touch points will become a staple of the sports industry. A big screen in the stadium may flash a call-to-action that drives participants to the mobile app or social media during the game prompting further engagement with the league, teams and players. We’ll see continuous innovation in this category as sports leagues look to close the gap between in-person participation and digital interactions.
  • Fan Participation: For example, the MLB Fan Cave. Recruiting sports fans for others to watch and interact with online proved to be a very successful endeavor for the league. Not only are they attracting attention around the recruiting process, but they are also drawing in fans throughout the season with exclusive content and events. We may see other leagues experiment with similar programs in the near future.

Sports will always play an integral role in the American lifestyle. As the American lifestyle changes, so too will sports leagues. Though they may cater to brands and advertisers, the fans and their behavior will come first when determining the best marketing plan of action.

Enjoy what you’ve read? Check out our industry outlooks for the fashionhealth & fitnessretailentertainment and automotive industries. 

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