The spectacle of elite sports being played in the eerie silence of empty stadiums was among the most graphic indicators of how the world was changed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the relationship between fans and sports organisations has altered through the decades, the one unbreakable link was always that regular meeting of athlete and spectator, team and supporter.
From early 2020, that bond was broken.
Thankfully, fans are now returning to stadiums to enjoy live sport once again. However, it would be foolhardy to consign the lessons learned at the height of the pandemic to the dustbin, particularly as the industry has witnessed how seemingly settled assumptions about fan behaviour can be dismantled.
Noting this transformed landscape, London-headquartered WePlay has sought to redefine its relationship with clients who have adjusted their requirements.
Luca Massaro, formerly of English Premier League football club Chelsea, founded WePlay as a performance-based sports marketing agency in July 2012.
The company is approaching its 10th anniversary this summer, having delivered over $300m (£229m/€273m) in incremental revenues for its clients over the last five years. However, despite that success, it is pivoting from its role as a traditional agency to growth partner – a term it believes to be more aligned with the revenue-generating needs of sports organisations in 2022 and beyond.
Massaro said: “In making this change, the first factor we considered was the impact of the pandemic on what we should consider to be outdated business models. Lucrative as they may be, they give sports organisations limited control over their financial destiny.
“The second factor is the huge changes in consumer behaviour, including a switch to mobile commerce. We have seen the traditional engagement between fans and sports organisations completely altered.”
He added: “For our partners in the sports industry, a more holistic approach is required, not driven by any particular service provision and not driven by assumptions as to who the fan is. The fan or individual we are trying to connect with has changed considerably over the last two years.”
The term ‘growth partner’ is a reflection of how WePlay’s relationship with clients has developed in recent years, and accelerated since the impact of the pandemic.
In particular, as Massaro explained, clients no longer require a performance marketing expert simply focused on directing awareness towards conversion. In these uncertain times, sports organisations instead need a partner that can help to achieve high-growth outcomes.
“We have had a fantastic response from our partners related to our new positioning,” said Massaro, whose company has worked with the likes of FIFA, the UFC and golf’s European Tour. “We had to think about how we diversify ourselves away from the live event and we had to think about other ways we could generate business growth for our partners.
“So, over the last two years we have gone on that journey, providing growth outside where you have traditionally seen it, such as ticketing, retail or subscription video. Instead, we have created a new model around key pillars which include those traditional elements, but also things like content to generate revenue from advertising, creating revenue through audience development, data and data exchanges.
“With that focus on revenue generation, even before we had defined what our new positioning looked like – and the term ‘growth partner’ – we were already acting in that principle.”
WePlay was mindful that the typical time-based fee model put an overwhelming burden of risk on its sport organisation clients whose finances have been stretched by the events of the last two years.
WePlay now works on three commercial and operating models. These include a traditional time-based fee approach, a hybrid model whereby a certain percentage of partner fees will be billed as a retainer and the remaining fees based on campaign performance and a growth partner option based on a revenue-share approach.
This bespoke growth partner offering is essentially a joint-venture approach, with both WePlay and the client investing resources and capital. According to Massaro, this model has been received enthusiastically by current and potential partners who have welcomed the prospect of WePlay having a vested interest in performance and “skin in the game”.
WePlay and its growth partner clients can now combine to work on identifying and solving problems with a focus on revenue generation through multiple services across the business, rather than simply collaborating on a narrow brief. WePlay is also able to work at a higher level within its partner’s business, conversing with CFOs and other executives, rather than just with marketing teams.
“It’s a much higher risk for us, but we are happy with that, because we are very aware of what we have delivered and what we are capable of,” Massaro said. “We are happy to absorb more risk – we have even discussed taking up-front costs down to £0 on some projects.
“We acknowledge that our partners have always absorbed risk themselves when they pay a fixed fee. The game now needs a partner-led approach where the risk is shared.”
To facilitate its new growth partner proposition, WePlay has altered its organisational design to better assist its clients through the launch of a range of PR and communications services beyond its traditional performance marketing scope. In focusing on outcomes rather than outputs, WePlay and its partners seek to look beyond individual processes and instead pursue an integrated approach.
“Essentially this breaking down of silos enables us to communicate authentic stories that put our partners out into the world in the best possible light,” Massaro said. “We can reach a much wider audience across multiple different mediums. Combined with our growth marketing service provision, which includes paid media and SEO, we are going to be able to drive even more growth for our partners.
“We are seeing a greater crossover between sport and other ‘passion platforms’ such as music and gaming. It is important for sports organisations at this time to work with partners such as ourselves who not only understand growth and the full spectrum of marketing services, but also have the ability to reach new audiences by bringing other adjacent sectors into play.”