Veteran Marketer Ponturo: Where Will the Sports Marketing Dollars Go?

“Some sports may feel old ahead of their time.”

That thought from veteran sports marketing expert Tony Ponturo is reflective not just of where return to play for all of the major leagues is today, but also of what a new environment for teams, leagues and brands will be in the coming months and years as an inevitable recalculation of spending, athletes, and engagement with consumers takes place.


For those looking back to where we were, the longtime former head of sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch has a warning…look forward and shift on the road, because you may get run over.

As the pandemic played out, many in the industry pointed to a September unlike no other in terms of major events and leagues in play, and if all holds true, the plethora of content will be playing out for networks, and screens big and small in the coming weeks.

MLB, NBA, MLS, the NFL, the WNBA, the Stanley Cup Finals, the US Opengolf and tennisNASCAR, PBR, IndyCar, The Masters, Roland Garros and the Kentucky Derby are just a sampling of the high shelf properties for fans, and brand, to choose from over the next 30 to 60 days.

As entertainment properties remain pretty much bereft of new content, sports to view will be king, over a country many thought would be screaming to watch.

Is that true? “I think sports properties in terms of audience size saw a spike as play came back, but at the same time we have a consumer who realized there may be other things he or she can do with their time away from sitting in front of a screen,” Ponturo tells TMR. “We have seen a leveling off of viewership, and brands are going to be watching those numbers, and their engagement, pretty closely. I don’t think the audience size will be growing, so we have to level set expectations for what numbers will be, even if the events are on a scale of what we have considered ‘major.”

In short, the pie for audience consumption, and consumer discretionary dollars, is not that much bigger, so brands will be cutting the pie—which they already own—into smaller pieces.

The key, according to Ponturo, will be in creative activation and engagement, especially around social interaction.

The days of looking for a big bang off a “traditional” buy are not just fading, they may be gone forever.

“We have a young consumer whose habits were driven towards multiple screens and differing choices of interests before, and now we factor in a slightly older audience who has enjoyed being out and about at a socially-distanced level. Asking either of these people to sit in front of a stagnant big screen for long periods of time is suddenly more outdated than many would have imagined,” he adds.

“So, where and how do you spend to find those people now? It’s going to be a challenge not just for the brands, but for the teams and the leagues to show their value. It is a seismic shift we have not seen before.”

Factor in the lack of any activation onsite for at least the rest of 2020, Ponturo points out, and brands are looking to find out how, and if, they can justify the massive spends for events that they had planned and executed off before.

“I don’t think we will see one brand going all in on a league or a major event,” he said. “What I think we will see are brands saying we need to spread a little wider and see if we can catch diehard fans, but also the casual consumer, who may be looking at a bunch of options versus being tied to one event. It’s a challenge that has no real answer yet.”

One thing we are seeing right now is a lack of overall campaigns tied to sports as return to play comes back.

Twenty fans will win a 16 square foot tailgating kit that includes an outdoor projector, custom cornhole sets, and of course, a cornucopia of Pepsi productsPepsi

We are now starting to see brands like Pepsi announce their NFL return to the field plan that includes taking the activation to fans with their “Tailgate in a Box” for “Homegating,” and several car companies have started to adapt, but uncertainty with regard to schedules, timing and reach have wreaked havoc on spending and campaign building.

“Normally, you would point to your tentpole events or your massive league deals and plan for a year, and even for smaller campaigns to be effective across all touchpoints, you need three to six months,” Ponturo added. “Brands have not had that time to adapt the way they have in the past, and while we are seeing some nimble social campaigns, unrolling a full blown and effective program takes time, and time is not something that has been a benefit to anyone as teams, properties and leagues work to get seasons done.”

Ponturo, who runs his own consulting business and advises students in Columbia’s graduate sports management program on sports business careers, remains bullish on the value of sport. However, he is cautious about the relationship between brands and properties going forward, as both adapt to a new and very fluid model.

“When the ultimate check writers are brands and brand spending is dictated by consumer engagement, where will the dollars go? Teams and leagues are working to figure out their value as the competition for that activation will be very strong for quite a while. Just having logo and marks now is not enough for what it was—even in March. If you were a ‘traditional’ buy as a property, I think that tradition, like most, is at an end.”

It will be a new game and it will be interesting to see how these very uneven pieces fit together.

Ponturo’s sage closing advice: “Look forward and reshape your plan, because what was is not what is going to be.”