The Elephant Outside the Arena: Three Ways Brands Can Engage With Global Sporting Events in Troubled Circumstances

2022 is shaping up to be a big year for global events, especially for the sports industry. This month, over two thousand athletes from 91 nations are competing in Beijing Winter Olympic Games. In November, 32 teams will travel to Qatar to compete in the FIFA World Cup.

These sporting events will garner the attention of billions of people around the globe. In 2018, over 3.5 billion viewers watched the FIFA World Cup, with 1.12 billion viewers tuning in for the final match between France and Croatia. In 2021 the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo garnered 3.05 billion viewers globally.

Major events like the Olympics and World Cup rarely take place in a perfect setting, but the 2022 iterations have the potential to be more complex than usual for global brands. The Beijing Olympic games and the upcoming World Cup in Qatar both face various areas of concern, including human rights issues and COVID-19 restrictions, among others.

Even this year’s Super Bowl—the biggest annual event in the U.S. sports landscape—between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals isn’t without criticism. The game is being played at SoFi Stadium—a state of the art venue, opened in 2020, with an estimated price tag of over $5 billion. SoFi Stadium is located in Inglewood, California In Los Angeles County—home to over at least 63,000 homeless people—and prior to the Super Bowl, County officials reportedly conducted “sweeps” clearing out homeless encampments near the stadium, a common practice ahead of major American sporting events, like the Super Bowl.

All of these events are taking place two years into the global COVID-19 pandemic, under much different circumstances than previous competitions. This year, we’ve already seen these concerns cause some brands to take a step back and reevaluate their engagement efforts.

Despite the challenges, many brands still see sporting events like the Olympics, World Cup and Super Bowl as “can’t miss” opportunities, purely based on the global attention they garner. As host cities and countries leverage these events for soft power, companies can do the same. Here are three principles brands should keep in mind when looking to engage around these events:

1) Focus on values

With all of the considerations and sticking points around this year’s major sporting events, brands should stay rooted and use the events as an opportunity to reinforce their values. Victories—individual, and in team sports—require determination, boldness and sacrifice. These themes are often directly related to the corporate values of many of the brands that engage around major sporting events.

Brands should focus their messaging, communications and advertising on their values and use the major events as an opportunity to highlight what they stand for. Failing to do so can result in their engagement efforts coming off as inauthentic.

2) Stay in your lane, but be prepared

When engaging around these major events, brands may feel pressured to weigh-in or at least acknowledge the geopolitical issues around the events. Instead of trying to navigate complex global issues from the get-go, brands should narrow their focus to the actual competitions and athletes. Messaging around teamwork and athletes overcoming adversity are timeless themes that resonate with most audiences despite the geopolitical circumstances around the specific event.

That said, if an athlete speaks out about a particular issue, brands must be prepared to take a stand and respond. By entering the conversation and engaging around these major events, companies open themselves up to potential criticism, something they must actively anticipate and prepare for.

3) Be present in the moment

The unscripted nature of sports is a major reason why so many people tune into such events year after year. It also presents opportunities for brands to react and engage in real-time.

A classic example of a real-time opportunity and brand engagement came in 2013, when a power outage at the New Orleans Superdome delayed Super Bowl XLVII for 34 minutes. Oreos’ social media team jumped on the opportunity, tweeting an ad with a starkly-lit image of an Oreo cookie and the caption, “You can still dunk in the dark.” The ad went viral immediately, receiving over 13,000 retweets and more than 20,000 likes on Facebook during the game, causing media outlets to proclaim that the brand, not the Baltimore Ravens, “won the Super Bowl.”

Oreos had a long-established active social media presence, and the message was consistent with the brand’s voice, which made the ad feel authentic in the moment. Oreos had a social media team monitoring the Super Bowl and used the blackout as a way to engage with the cultural event.

Brands—whether they’re advertising directly with the sporting events or engaging from the sidelines—should be present in the moment, and ready to authentically react to opportunities the unscripted nature of sports offer.

Brand EngagementSports