Data & Tech

Sports marketing is dropping the ball on data, some execs say. That could soon change

There is an increasing willingness to use fan data to personalize campaigns, marketers said at CES.
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· 5 min read

In 2016, the San Francisco 49ers partnered with a biotech company to encourage fans to pick up free DNA tests at Levi’s Stadium and donate blood samples to a human genome research project in exchange for comparing their genes to those of pro football players.

That sparked an investigation from the California Department of Public Health, but the fact remains: Some sports fans were willing to literally hand over DNA samples to see how similar they were to their favorite players.

While the everyday marketer won’t (and probably shouldn’t) get their hands on that kind of fan data, there’s plenty of other types of data available on sports fans for marketers to use. Despite that, some leaders in the sports industry say sports marketers are still fumbling when it comes to using the data they have access to.

“Despite all the sex and the glitter and the speed and all the things that people think about sports, it’s kind of behind most other industries when it comes to data,” Josh Walker, CEO of Sports Innovation Lab, said on a panel at CES.

There are a number of reasons why that may be the case; there’s also evidence that some brands and teams are increasingly embracing data in order to better target and personalize their marketing campaigns, several execs said at CES.


Stephanie Rogers, VP of marketing for the Vegas Golden Knights, said on a panel that part of sports marketing’s data problem is that teams largely use external platforms to sell tickets, meaning that purchase data doesn’t go straight to them. And, due in part to privacy restrictions, some of the information from ticket sales can’t be shared with the team at all, she said during a panel.

Teams are able to gather first-party data from fans through surveys, and there’s census data to leverage, but that “seems way outdated to be using in 2024,” Rogers said, and can leave sports marketers feeling like “we’re trying to piece together a puzzle.”

There can also be a lack of interest for teams to share data with one another, Christine Wylie, senior director of sports sponsorships and partnerships at Verizon, said onstage.

“The Vegas Knights don’t necessarily want to share their fan data with the San Jose Sharks because there’s a risk there that [Knights fans] could then become San Jose Sharks fans,” Wylie said. It’s “a backwards way of thinking, because let’s all grow the game, but that’s the way I think it’s been traditionally looked at.”

While media companies often share the data they gather on sports fans as a way to help clients with their ad campaigns, brands haven’t always used it to its full potential, especially if they have used sports campaigns for reach over precision, Wendell Scott, SVP of Disney Advertising Sales, told us.

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“There’s a lot of sports data, I just don’t think people have leveraged it to create insights,” Scott said during a panel. “Sports has been the best reach vehicle that there is. When a client is actually investing in sports, at first, they’re not really looking for targetability. They’re looking for that to create as much brand love and as much broad awareness as possible, so you haven’t necessarily had to leverage it in the past.”

Change of direction

Some brands are starting to think differently, according to Kate Johnson, director of global sports, media, and entertainment marketing at Google, and that could change the way sponsorships and marketing partnerships are evaluated and executed.

“I think sponsorships are dead as far as how we traditionally think about them,” she said onstage. “When I say ‘integrated marketing partnership,’ what I mean is…looking at the data across the various opportunities that exist in the sports landscape and trying to figure out the right intersection to hit their core audience.”

Johnson said she looks at consumer insights, data from partners like ESPN, and search trends to uncover “secondary conversations” that sports fans are having around games, which allows Google to “be in that conversation with our fans and…engage with that fan in a way that’s meaningful.” When Google Pixel was looking to target women’s sports fans in the UK, she said the company found that demographic was looking for information about players beyond the game, so it partnered with the Football Association to generate more content around women’s soccer.

Some teams also seem to recognize that they can use data to improve the fan experience and personalize marketing messages across platforms—including their own venues. The Seattle Mariners have “really robust ticketing data” that the team uses to “create hyper-targeted marketing messages and graphics,” President of Business Operations Catie Griggs told us.

Andy Hook, market strategy lead of sports and entertainment for Oracle, which works with sports venues on point-of-sale tech, said personalized experiences can help teams incentivize fans to return.

“If you know that I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t want to see an advertisement for Bud Light,” Hook said. “Is there something else that you can serve me that makes it feel that the team cares about me and my behavior in the venue? It’s all about increasing that personalization to make sure that that experience is stickier.”

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