Richard Swain

April 2024

The Growth of a Trillion Dollar Industry

The dollars speak for themselves: From 2014 to 2023, media rights revenues for the top 15 sports leagues more than doubled to reach $43.8 billion; in 2022, FC Barcelona finalized a $300 million deal to rename their iconic stadium the Spotify Nou Camp — currently the most lucrative naming rights deal in Europe; and last July, a consortium including Magic Johnson picked up the Washington Commandos for a record $6.05 billion, making them most expensive sports team in the world.

The Rise of Global Sports Fandom

Over the last decade, the emergence of new platforms and content consumption models has given rise to new global fandoms that have skyrocketed the growth in the value of sports to unprecedented levels. Today, allegiances form not only through local pride and generational affinities, but also through social discovery and passionate online communities. This amounts to far more opportunities for building fandoms, and with it, the potential for new commercial deals. At DesignStudio, we’ve helped countless clubs and leagues over the past decade adapt their brands in consideration of these new audiences. Yet, there’s a question that keeps surfacing: ‘How did we get here?’

To truly understand the rise of global sports fandoms, we have to look back to the latter half of the 20th Century and the rise of cable television, which ushered in a new era of globalization and fan engagement, allowing whole seasons of live sports to be broadcast into living rooms anywhere in the world. No country benefited more from this than the U.S., and no single individual benefited more than Michael Jordan, whose infamous 1984 sneaker deal with Nike helped propel the commercial age of sports. It’s no coincidence that Jordan’s inaugural NBA season was one of the first to be widely broadcast internationally, under the then-Commissioner David Stern’s efforts to build new fan bases abroad.

Building Global Connections

For the first time ever, leagues and clubs were starting to actively prioritize building connections with fans, not just in their own backyards, but all over the world. Take as an example, Italian soccer club, F.C. Fossombrone: an obscure lower-league team purchased in 2005 by fashion designer Dirk Bikkembergs. Bikkembergs was looking to capitalize on the now global nature of viewership and the increasing overlap of sports and fashion. He aimed to grow the club by building a new fan base built on the reputation of being the most stylish team in the world. He reportedly hired players not just for their soccer skills but for their looks and ability to walk down a runway. Bikkembergs had a proven track record as a fashion designer, with his debut collection ‘Sport-Couture’ being showcased at some of the biggest soccer grounds in Europe.

The second major technological breakthrough came with the emergence of social media and global streaming. Previously, to follow an international league or team required a significant commitment in both time and effort. Despite the emergence of some globally-adored superstars like Jordan and David Beckham — whose 2003 signing to Real Madid’s roster of Galacticos reportedly led to more than 1 million t-shirt sales in his inaugural season, due to his popularity in South East Asia — most sports fandom at this point was still driven primarily by family ties and were limited by time zones and geography. These dynamics capped the potential for fandoms to grow beyond their locales, which in turn put a cap on ad dollars, and kept global recognition to the realm of a small handful of internationally acclaimed players.

However, It was streaming and the ability to follow players and clubs via social media that skyrocketed the value of these assets towards the stratosphere that they occupy today with fans able to follow their favorite clubs and players, both on and off the field. This watershed moment welcomed a whole new generation of fans into these sports spanning a whole world of commercial opportunities. Our team at DesignStudio began working with the Premier League in 2015 immediately following their landmark $8 billion TV rights deal, which gave the league the ability to walk away from their previous title sponsorship agreement with Barclays. Our shared goal was to help them modernize their identity and make the league’s expression more accessible and representative of the diversity of its growing global fanbase, while still staying true to the DNA of the league. 

Innovations in Sports Marketing

Some leagues, like the NBA, have gone one step further, introducing collaborations with the likes of Louis Vuitton in order to generate more immediate relevance. Others, like Major League Soccer, have appointed fashion designers such as Guillermo Andrade to Creative Director roles, recognizing the opportunity to build fandom of sports leagues through culture, regardless of pre-existing affinities, or even performances on the field.

Perhaps the most prominent tactic has come from producing high-end unscripted content. In 2018, Netflix commissioned Box-to-Box films to document one full Formula 1 season in its now-landmark series Drive to Survive. This led to huge growth in the viewership and fandom of Formula 1, particularly in the US. Today, more than half of American Formula 1 fans attribute their fandom to the show. What differentiated it from previous sports documentaries, such as those from ESPN and NFL Films, was that instead of targeting existing fans, it targeted more mass audiences with human-centered narratives that would broadly appeal to anyone regardless of their prior knowledge of the sport. Similar attempts have since been made in soccer, tennis, golf and cycling — all looking to emphasize the global nature of their sports to maximize fan appeal.

But none have been more interesting to witness than 'Welcome to Wrexham’, a sports docu-series by FX about the world's third-oldest professional soccer team based in an old working-class town in North Wales that was purchased by Ryan Reynolds and Rob Mcalheney in 2020. Much like Bikkembergs 15 years prior, the celebrity duo purchased the club because they believed they could take advantage of the pyramid that is the European football system. Unlike with the majority of US sports, the major leagues aren’t ring-fenced, so any club has a chance to make its way to the very top. They planned to fund this rise by maximizing their celebrity status to grow a new fan base in the US, encouraging people to discover the club through social media and building their own affinities to the team.

The growth of soccer in the US is a perfect example of the types of fandom ushered in by social media and the potential offered from global streaming deals. In its recent watershed deal, Apple launched the first-ever global rights broadcast for the MLS (a rumored test run for the NBA) that includes a unique part-royalty split with the world's best soccer player, Leonel Messi. Considering what cable television did in the 90s for the likes of Jordan, it’s clear why MLS and Messi are excited about the prospect of this partnership. In just 7 days, Inter Miami’s Instagram account went from 1 to 10 million followers and, at the point of writing this, they now sit at over 16 million. For context, that’s almost 7 million more than their namesake Inter Milan, who have been around for over 110 years longer and have won three UEFA Champions Leagues.

This strategy for growing new sports through offering unique streaming opportunities isn’t limited to men’s sports. In 2021, Amazon announced its own landmark deal for exclusive global streaming rights to the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association). In 2023, the WNBA reported revenues of around $200 million, a 100% increase from 2019, demonstrating the potential for this strategy as well as the staggering growth of women’s sports as a whole. This has led to significant change in how the leagues market themselves in order to engage fans in a way that speaks inclusively and authentically to new growing fan bases. 

In 2020, DesignStudio worked alongside World Rugby to create ‘Women In Rugby’, a global campaign that would inspire participation in the women’s game, which was the fastest growing team sport in the world at the time. Since then, we’ve helped World Rugby build a new annual women's international competition, WXV, where 18 teams from around the world compete across three tiers. The inaugural 2023 tournament was held simultaneously across three host countries in New Zealand, South Africa and the UAE, with the largest viewership coming from South Africa, UK and the US along with large audiences from non-traditional rugby interest nations as Greece, South Korea and Hungary.

Looking to the Future

It’s hard to predict exactly where the limit is for the number of professional sports leagues and clubs that will be able to sustainably operate in the future. After all, with increased access also comes increased competition, and there is a limit to the amount of attention and support fans have to give. That said, with the increasing budgetary pressures on the production of scripted entertainment and platforms giving fans seemingly infinite ways to gain access to sports content, the growth seems poised to continue for some time. One thing is for certain, however; these fandoms will continue to grow more global and diverse, and it will be the job of brand managers everywhere to ensure their clubs and leagues are continuing to keep up. 

This piece formed the basis of a talk entitled: ‘Winning Hearts & Screens: The Evolution of Sports Fandom’, presented at Paradigms, Lisbon in September 2023.