Brand Strategy

The 5 trends that will shape sports marketing in 2024

2024 is an Olympic year, but savvy sports marketers will have more on their calendars than that.
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7 min read

We’re only a few days in, and 2024 is already shaping up to be a big year for sports marketing.

It’s an Olympic year, for one, and execs in the sports space predict that brand interest—especially individual athletes—will continue to grow beyond that. Women’s leagues and niche sports seem primed for brand investment, execs said, and there are some noteworthy developments in men’s leagues for marketers to keep an eye on, too.

If marketers could see the future, all their fantasy football teams would be doing much better, and they’d have sponsored at least one of the Kelce brothers a year ago. We asked some to give it a shot, anyway. Here are five of the trends that 15 of them predicted would shape sports marketing this year.

Olympic dreams: Marketers, if you’re not thinking about the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris yet, time to get a move on. Even brands that aren’t in the Olympic Partner Programme have an opportunity to get in on the games by working directly with athletes, though Jeff Ehrenkranz, COO at sports marketing agency Allied Sports, said it’s wise not to wait until the last minute.

“The brands that do the best with the Olympics are the brands that don’t see it as a 17-day event,” Ehrenkranz told Marketing Brew. “They start their campaigns and their engagement of fans well in advance. One of the ways to do that is [through] athletes, because the athletes’ stories are the long-term, engaging thing.”

Andres Cardenas, CMO of Minute Media, the digital content company behind sports publications including The Players’ Tribune and 90min, also advised brands to “focus on the athlete,” especially if they’re trying to connect with younger audiences.

Since a lot of the media consumption of the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics happened on digital platforms, “we will likely see brands build their strategies around platforms like Instagram, X, TikTok, and YouTube” this summer, said Tuck Burch, head of brand marketing at Excel Sports Management.

Superstars like Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, and Sha’Carri Richardson will no doubt garner attention. Biles’s comeback in particular “will lead to more media coverage and sponsorship dollars for gymnastics,” Claire Watkins, a writer for the newsletter Just Women’s Sports, said. But Cardenas and other execs said brands shouldn’t overlook less well-known athletes.

Which athletes will have a breakout Olympics is anybody’s guess, but “my approach would be to allocate my budget on some of the currently lesser-known athletes or teams in the hopes of striking it big,” Lou DePaoli, president of executive search and team consulting at sports marketing and management firm General Sports Worldwide, said.

Everybody’s business: Even outside of the Olympics, sports execs predict that brands will invest more in individual athletes as opposed to more traditional team- and league-level sponsorships.

As brand interest in athletes grows, so does athletes’ ability to ask for more from those partnerships. Athletes are increasingly business people in their own rights, according to Seb Tomich, CCO of The Athletic, a trend that doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. For marketers, that means athlete deals could get more expensive, he said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean brands with smaller budgets will be cut out of the space.

“My sense from looking around the industry is that athletes want to have a piece in the business success of the products that they represent in a way that maybe was reserved for the select few before, and now is becoming more commonplace,” Tomich said. “I would imagine that is going to create a lot of opportunity for upstart brands who are willing to give up equity to the athletes they work with.”

It also wouldn’t hurt brands, athletes, or audiences if marketers continued giving athletes creative say in campaigns, as that can lead to content that audiences may find “more interesting and relatable,” Gilad Haas, co-founder of Tom Brady’s creative studio Shadow Lion, said.

Girl dinner winner: Sports industry pros have high hopes for women athletes, teams, and leagues in 2024. Last year was record-breaking in more ways than one, and last month, Deloitte predicted that annual revenue for elite women’s sports around the world will surpass $1 billion before 2024 is out. Sara Gotfredson, founder of sports media agency Trailblazing Sports Group, said she anticipates marketers will up their spend on women’s sports by 10% YoY across the board this year.

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“You don’t need a real crystal ball to predict the continued growth of audiences for women’s sports, both in-arena and on television,” Erin Kane, VP of women’s sports at Excel Sports Management, told us.

Women’s soccer had a particularly strong year in 2023, between the Women’s World Cup and an NWSL media rights deal that the league called the largest ever in women’s sports. That deal, which puts the NWSL on ESPN, plus the Summer Olympics, which feature soccer, “will just help accelerate that growth,” Matt Hochberg, founder of Hochberg Sports Marketing, said.

Following that deal, Jacie deHoop, co-founder of sports media brand The Gist, said she’s keeping a close eye on the NCAA Women’s March Madness rights in 2024. The media rights to the WNBA are also up for grabs in 2025, and deHoop said that deal is likely to top even the NWSL’s.

For the boys: Sports are for men, too! Headed into 2024, some marketers have their eyes on the NBA’s new in-season tournament.

Jacqueline Dobies, VP of revenue and yield management at Disney Advertising, said the tournament already helped drive advertiser interest in the Christmas Day NBA games. Even though Dobies said there’s no title sponsor of the in-season tournament yet, Ehrenkranz noted that the NBA G League was around for many years before Gatorade came on as its title sponsor, so that’s not exactly shocking considering the newness of the in-season tournament.

“They definitely commercially underplayed it,” he said. “But I think commercially, it will become a big deal, especially with the impending media rights negotiations.” (The NBA’s current nine-year deal is set to expire after the 2024–2025 season.)

US men’s soccer is also on track to become of more interest to brands, according to Jas Dhami, VP of sports and streaming at creative agency We Are Social. Leo Messi already brought “explosive growth” to MLS during his first season with Inter Miami, and there’s a World Cup coming up in 2026, so “for North America specifically, it’s going to be an interesting time for brands who haven’t really played in that space to want to start getting a piece of the action,” she said.

Niche interests: While MLS isn’t known as one of the biggest leagues in the US, it’s not exactly niche, either. Sports like flag football, beach volleyball, and even cornhole fall into that category, but several sports execs expect those and more will see increased interest in 2024 and beyond.

One of Roku’s five predictions for streaming in 2024 is that “a niche sport will break through to the mainstream,” according to the company’s 2024 outlook. That prediction is partially based on advertising trends, Kristina Shepard, Roku’s VP of global advertising sales and partnerships, told us. Tentpole events like “the Olympics or the World Cup have long been quintessential advertising opportunities,” she said, but they can be expensive and sell out fast.

“The sports viewer is still just as coveted as it ever has been, but advertisers need to find new and unique ways in which to reach them,” Shepard said.

The rise of niche sports could also bring about more opportunities for sports that are popular outside the US to build fan bases stateside, marketers said.

“Following F1’s surge in popularity across the US this year, I anticipate more consumers will be curious about and develop obsessions for other international sports like cricket, rugby, and padel,” Edward Horne, president of global creative agency 160over90, said, “creating new opportunities for brands and their marketing efforts.”

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Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.