Fans see over 3,000 sponsorship ads on game day. Here’s why that is a problem.

Close your eyes and think back to the last sports game you attended as a fan. What is the first thing you see?

Maybe it is the field/court/ice? Maybe the concession stand of your favorite food item? Or the players looking to win the game?

Now, how many times did a brand logo from a sign come into your memory?

As we all know, sports sponsorships are a pivotal pillar of revenue for sports teams. They literally pay for you to remember their brand from the game.

Well, we are seeing an overwhelming amount of sponsorship ads at sports games. It led me to start to think “How many ads do we get exposed to at a sporting event?”

Well, luckily at SQWAD we work with 49 sports teams and sponsors. We go to A LOT of sporting events. So we decided to run a small study.

The results…a fan is exposed to over 3,000 sponsorship ads every time they walk into our stadiums & arenas.

Today I’ll run through our methods, results, and the impacts it has on sponsorship.

We attended 45 sports games over the last 6 months to count the ads.

When we started this study we knew that we wanted a large array of games to visit. It had to be a mix of minor league and major league games to really get a good average.

So we headed to what would end up being 45 sports games over the last 5 months.

Here is a breakdown of the league games we attended:

NBA – 12

WHL – 10

NCAA Football – 3

NCAA Basketball – 3

NFL – 2

NHL – 7

MLS – 4

MLB – 3

USL – 1

Some of these were repeat games with the same team. For example, for NBA the 12 games were broken down across 3 NBA teams. We did this to ensure that we could take into account any variation that may happen game to game (more sponsorship promotion for a throwback game, etc.).

At each game, with a counter, we would count the number of ads we were exposed to throughout our journey in the stadium.

We had a process that we followed pretty religiously across all the games:

  • We would count the same ad twice if it came into our eye line. For example, if a replay caused me to look at the scoreboard, the scoreboard brands would be counted. Each time I looked back at the scoreboard they would be counted again as we were looking to the total number of ads as opposed to the unique ads. This obviously is the goal of a sponsor who puts their ad on the scoreboard, they are looking for maximum exposure as they know fans will look multiple times at the board throughout the game.
  • We also tried to emulate the journey as a fan as much as possible. Concourse ads were only counted through my normal walks to my seats, to the restroom, and for buying food. We tried very hard not to overthink your fan journey, but we came as close as possible to matching what we would normally do on game day.
  • One caveat, we did not count the number of ads exposed when on our phones. As I checked social media feeds throughout the game some branded sponsorship items popped up on the team accounts of the game we were attending. We wanted to really stick with the physical ads in the stadium as we went through the game.

The Results: on average, we see over 3,000 ads throughout the game at sporting events.

Ya, this number surprised me a bit when doing the final calculation at each game. How could it be this high? How could I have never noticed this onslaught of ads while I enjoyed the beautiful events of sports?

Well, we do. We averaged the results from all 45 games and we saw 3,007 sponsorship ads per game.

I will dive into the specifics of why this seems so high to us later. But first, let’s look at the breakdown of where most of the ads were placed.

To clarify what each category consisted of, here is a breakdown:

  1. Stadium Signage: the signs in the stadium that were not associated with the scoreboard reads or concourse signs. Think rink boards, dasher boards, scoreboard static signs, on-field signs, etc.
  2. Concourse signs: The promotions seen while walking through the concourse. These were ones seen while on the way to my seats, restroom, and for food.
  3. Scoreboard Promotion: The promotions seen on the actual scoreboard that were active. This would be your scoreboard reads, commercial videos played, etc.
  4. Participation Assets: The promotional activities that pulled the fan in to participate. Your halfcourt shot contests, Dunkin’ Race, etc.

I think it is important to understand where these ads came from so we can really understand where the overcrowding comes from. Sometimes we sell an asset as a line item but don’t realize how we are diversifying them on gameday.

As we can see in the breakdown, stadium signage was the number one ad exposure vessel at these games. On average 78% of the 3,000 ads we were exposed to came from the stadium signage.

You may think, how can this be so high!?! Surely there are not over 1,500 ads that come in the form of stadium signage. We would notice this and be overwhelmed.

I thought the same thing until I ran this study and saw the #1 & #2 culprits in this section.

The #1 was the rotating boards that litter our stadiums today.

For one pregame in our study, the team was rotating 3 sponsor promotions at 5-second intervals for over an hour on the tunnel LED boards. That rotation continued throughout the game.

The other culprit came with the rink and dasher boards during live play. As I watched the hockey game, my eye was exposed multiple times to the rink board ads while watching the back & forth of the players flying down the ice.

These ads made up the majority of the sponsorship promotion during the game. And it makes sense. 

During a sporting event, we spend the majority of the game in a place where we are watching the plays. This is where we are exposed to the majority of the stadium signage in the arena.

The other two segments of concourse and scoreboard promotions came at very specific times in the game. Concourse signs obviously came into play as I was walking through and navigating the stadium.

Scoreboard promotions came during breaks in the game normally with a quick scoreboard read. The same with participation assets, they were built into key moments during breaks in the game.

Overall, most of the assets that fans see when they visit a stadium are focused on just “being seen”. Most of them come with a brand logo put on a sign that rotates throughout the game.

This seems high because our brains block out most ads due to pattern-matching.

When I was done with the study I shared the with a fellow sports fan who is not in the sponsorship or sports industry to test the reaction.

Her initial reaction: disbelief.

While she admitted that there were a lot of ad promotions in stadiums, how could it be 3,007 per game on average?

Honestly, I thought the same thing at first. How could I have not noticed the overwhelming amounts of ad promotions being hurled at me on game day? How has this not become bothersome to my gameday experience?

As with most things in advertising, a big part of understanding why things happen the way they do comes back to human psychology and this is the result of our brain’s pattern matching.

Human brains are pattern-seeking machines. Most of the time we don’t notice it, but our brains are automatically seeking patterns in our world as we navigate through it.

It comes from our primal instincts to be able to quickly identify danger and safety.

Let’s take for example the trees that line your walk to work. You rarely are taken aback by a normal tree on your walk. If asked, you couldn’t describe, say, the 7th tree you saw in detail.

Why? It’s because our brains have pattern-matched a tree planted on a sidewalk to be safe.

This phenomenon is called anchoring. Patterns create expectations, which act as anchors. As we begin to see enough trees without risk, we begin to anchor a tree as safe.

Learning these patterns helps save us time and energy as humans…but it wreaks havoc on our efforts to advertise.

We do the same thing with ads. Our brains start to pattern-match the signage we see in the stadium as an advertisement.

Normally, we don’t like ads…so our brains literally start to book them as patterns of something we don’t care about to save time & energy.

This is why it seems so high. When we go to a game, we (or really our brain) ignore most of the stadium ads we see without us noticing.

Before I go any further, this is not just a problem in sports sponsorship. Humans see around 10,000 ads PER DAY. Most of these ads we as humans categorize as an ad and ignore.

Now, going back to the tree analogy… what if that tree is cracked and falling down?

This would instantly break the pattern-matching in our brains and forces us to focus on whether to identify it as a threat to us or not.

This snaps our pattern-seeking. It forces us to pay attention.

This is the same in sponsorship, our goal should be to create broken trees

Once we understand the above phenomenon of our brain’s pattern-matching effect on sponsorship ads, it starts to show us which ones will be the most effective and valuable to brands.

The sponsorship ads we remember after a game are the ones that break this pattern-seeking behavior of our brains.

Fans will remember the ads and activations that break the patterns of traditional sponsorship ads. No matter how many ads we see in the stadium or arena through signs & scoreboard reads, they will be anchored by our brains and ignored.

If we want fans to remember our sponsors, we have to think of ways that violate expectations and break these patterns.

For example, an engaging activation like our 4Q Franks we launched with the Chicago Bulls that helps turn 2 missed free throws into over 100,000 hot dog offers sent to fans. An active engagement that breaks the pattern-seeking behavior of our brains.

If the sponsor just threw up their logo, it would be pattern-matched.

We as fans remember the half-court shots. We remember the car races. We remember the campaigns that don’t look or feel like ads because ….well…they don’t look or feel like ads for our brains to pattern-match them.

What does this mean for sponsorship?

It means that brands are paying us to reach fans with signage that most of the time our fan’s brain will ignore.

We have littered our stadiums with assets that are being ignored.

This is why we are seeing brands looking for more engagement. This is why they are gravitating away from signs and toward assets that break that pattern. This is why you are hearing words like ‘engagement’ more & more in your sponsorship meetings with brands.

As brands realize this, they will look to invest in less signage and more assets that break the pattern. The dollars will start to shift there.

With this, we are entering an age of participation sponsorship. The team that offers these items that grab attention and break patterns will win more deals.

We at SQWAD build assets to help break that pattern-seeking with digital activations that fans engage and participate with. It helps the brand stand out so they can see more value and ROI on their ad spend.

We ran this study because we wanted to understand the extent of the sponsorship clutter and what levels the ads that we saw had the properties and utility of just “being seen”.

We wanted to understand how many would fall into those pattern-seeking asset classes (signs etc.) that lead to fans totally tuning them out.

Overall…it is high. We are overleveraged in our arenas with assets that fans will subconsciously ignore. When partners start to realize this…they will shift their dollars.

Honestly, some already have.

The next step is understanding and shaping what the age of participation sponsorship looks like. But that is for another article. Today is for understanding where we are currently.

Fans see over 3,000 sponsorship ads every time they walk into a stadium. This is the start of understanding the problem that will come to light over the next decade in sports sponsorship…and really all of advertising.

The teams that realize this and adjust their assets and ad products accordingly will win more business and drive more revenue.

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