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Helping sports to cross the Atlantic

WPP agencies are at the forefront of guiding sports organisations and brands to bridge the gap between Europe and North America

Europe and North America form the two largest and most established sporting markets in the world. Research has shown that, of the estimated $756 billion global sports market, these two regions account for over 75% of the investment that changes hands annually.

Retail is an important factor in this total market, but so too is professional sport. Of the top ten sports leagues by revenue, nine are based in Europe or North America, as are all of the top 50 most valuable sports teams and clubs. Off the field of play itself, these regions have become the established bases of most international sport. Of the 40 Olympic Federations, for example, only one is based outside of Europe and North America.

While the combined strength of Europe and North America in the international sporting landscape is clear, it must also be recognised that these regions are highly distinct. Historically, there has been relatively little crossover between these markets. In North America, the sports landscape has largely been dominated by the ‘Big Four’ leagues – the MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL. In Europe, football-centric sports leagues and events have typically been dominant, such as the UEFA Champions League, English Premier League, La Liga, as well as EuroLeague Basketball and Europe-based cycling and tennis events, such as Wimbledon and the Tour de France.

Now more than ever, we see major sports organisations and brands reach out in either direction across the Atlantic to grow their value in a new sporting market. The NBA, NFL and MLB have all played regular season games in Europe, and the NHL is soon to join them. The former three organisations also operate full-time offices in Europe. For European sports organisations, attempts have been made to play competitive matches in the US and – similar to their North American counterparts – many offices of leading teams and leagues have been set up in the US. The FIFA World Cup 2026, and Los Angeles Olympic Games in 2028, are only likely to further this trend.

Governance and ownership structures similarly reflect the closening of sporting worlds between Europe and North America. Fifty-four football clubs across Europe are currently controlled by American investors – including AC Milan, Liverpool FC and Olympique Marseille. More than half of these 54 investments have been made in the past two years alone. On the brand side, participation in the European market by apparel brands such as Nike, Adidas and Puma has been long-established – but we are now seeing more frequent partnership efforts by companies in other industries such as automobile, technology and luxury goods.

For such investments to make a true impact, the rights-holders and brands must have a comprehensive understanding of the sporting market on the other side of the Atlantic. The good news is that these regions have many aspects in common. Societal developments, such as increased multiculturalism, gender equality (including the growth of women’s sports) and the prevalence of technology and impact of Gen Z fan behaviour, make it fertile ground for sports rights-holders and brands to grow their audience and public perception. In many cases, the skills and expertise that drive growth in one market, are highly-relevant for similar growth in the other.

There are, however, important differences that require specialist knowledge and targeted strategies. In partnering with rights-holders and brands alike, WPP agencies have played a leading role in understanding and executing such strategies on both sides of the Atlantic, ensuring that they get the right message to the right people at the right time. BCW and VMLY&R are two such agencies, both working alongside some of the largest sports organisations and brands in the world. Lars Haue-Pedersen, Managing Director of BCW Sports, and Jon Goynshor, VMLY&R Commerce’s Global Head of Partnerships, believe the sports markets of Europe and North America offer several key differences, which must be carefully considered:

  • Tone and Style – In North America, the sports and entertainment markets are much more integrated than Europe, with differing expectations of how sports should be fun and exciting. FIFA’s recent Host City announcement for the FIFA World Cup 2026, live on television and featuring celebrities and entertainers from across Canada, Mexico and the US was a fine example of a European-based organisation adapting its tone and style to a different type of audience.
  • Timing – The popularity of sports differs wildly across the Atlantic. Sports organisations must accurately understand their ‘new’ competition, both in real terms and perception. Understanding how various sports and events fit into the sporting DNA of Europe and North America is crucial to lasting impact. This includes not only the calendar, but also the start time of events and activations. The NBA’s clear effort to increase European primetime games is a good example of increasing accessibility without needing to travel directly.
  • Subject Matter – In spite of similar cultural bases, regional social issues remain divergent between Europe and North America. Having an opinion on such issues is no longer optional for brands and organisations that truly want to connect, and these organisations must further their knowledge of localised issues as a result. The recent work of German-based Adidas in partnering with female American student-athletes on the 50th anniversary of Title IX is a strong example of the power of capturing events for positive change across the Atlantic.

The landscape of sports is in a constant evolution. New, emerging markets in international sport, such as the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, are more prominently on the radar for leading sports organisations and brands than previously, and shouldn’t be forgotten or dismissed. With that said, the existence of two major, well-established sports markets with comparable values offers unique advantages that, with careful preparation and execution, can be capitalised on efficiently.

Notably, the coming years will see many typically European sports seek to further their foothold in North America - including, for example, the ICC T20 Men’s World Cup 2024, the FIFA World Cup 2026 and the Rugby World Cup 2031. Events such as these offer tremendous opportunities for the rights-holders themselves and associated brands to grow, if they acknowledge and act around the market differences. With the steps that some have already taken, and the increasingly globalised competition of sports, it may soon be a case of now or never.

Dominic Grainger

WPP Sports Practice

published on

30 September 2022


Communications Commerce

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