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With 2018 set to be a big year for sporting events, BBDO New York’s Crystal Rix and Yin Chung share two trends that should shape your sports marketing strategy.

For sports fans, 2018 will be one for the history books. The Winter Olympics are underway and another quadrennial moment—the World Cup—is fast approaching. With other annual events like March Madness, the Stanley Cup Finals, and the World Series coming up, there's something for just about everyone.

As athletes step into the spotlight in this socially and politically charged era, there’s an undeniable opportunity to drive conversations off the field. The default approach for too many marketers is a glorified tribute film, or using an athlete with no acting experience as a brand spokesperson. However, today's landscape allows for a more disruptive and authentic approach.

At BBDO, we strive to better understand what audiences want to hear from athletes, so that our clients’ campaigns grab an unfair share of people’s attention. Culture can help shape how we do it, and this year there are two key trends guiding our approach.

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Trend #1: People have more access to athletes than ever before

The proximity of fans to their favorite athletes has drastically increased in recent years. For decades, people depended on traditional media outlets to read or watch the latest sports news, and athletes relied on those same outlets as a platform to reach fans.

Those days are gone. Today’s athletes can grab their phones, upload a photo or video, or start a livestream to directly reach supporters. And fans can grab their own phones and catch it all in real time. Constant—even intimate—access to sports heroes is the new normal.  

What does this mean for brands? It means they have to ensure their approach is “of the moment” and reflective of the cultural context.

Trend #2: Access sparks interest in athletes as people

Increased access has unleashed a new wave of interest in athletes as people, not just players. While fans remain completely engaged in athletes’ performances on game day, they’re equally as engaged when these stars buckle up for Carpool Karaoke.

Fans crave a deeper understanding of the person behind the jersey.

And as athletes get used to this age of accessibility, they’re using it as a way to draw attention to the causes they care about and to expose their own personal struggles. In the past year alone, we saw hockey stars take on the gender pay gap, NFL teams join in peaceful protests for racial inequality, and a WNBA team rally in support of women’s reproductive rights.

As a result, today’s fans crave a deeper understanding of the person behind the jersey.  

What these sports trends mean for your next marketing plan

Now that fans can get instant access to their sports idols, it’s not enough to simply feature these stars in your campaigns. You need a plan that considers athletes as people first, and not just as brand spokespeople. The most impactful work taps into an athlete’s authentic self and shares aspects of her or him that are most relatable, entertaining, human, and real. We’ve had the chance to see the power of this approach in a recent client campaign.

Last spring, we launched Foot Locker’s “Father’s Day.” The campaign featured several NBA draft picks reflecting on the role their fathers have played in their careers. While many brands look to leverage the context of a calendar moment, we felt we needed to go deeper, highlighting players' real, personal truths rather than going for the typical holiday tropes.

One of the players in the video, Lonzo Ball, is well-known not just for his basketball skills, but for his larger-than-life manager who also happens to be his father.

The campaign gave Ball a platform to share childhood memories and gently joke about his father’s not-so-secret outspoken tendencies. Fans went wild for the self-aware humor because it brought them in on the joke. As a result, “Father’s Day” received millions of views on YouTube and generated thousands of likes and shares on social media.

So here’s our advice for winning the hearts and minds of your audiences. People respond to people, and people move businesses. When the next sports marketing campaign brief materializes, think people, not players. Build a story that honors this. Give fans an opportunity to connect with the person wearing the jersey.