Sport has arguably never been more culturally dominant. It is the content most prized by media companies, hugely popular with advertisers, and is even used to promote such lofty principles as international peace and solidarity.
Some of us remember when that wasn’t the case. Sport was something that happened away from everything else. Which was part of the attraction. It wasn’t really that important. That is what eventually made it so important.
The cable TV revolution has been spearheaded by sport. Sky TV’s UK empire is built on football, and BT has identified sport as the means by which it will make its £2.5bn investment in high-speed UK broadband pay off. For both companies, Premier League football, itself some of the most prized sporting content in the world, is the means by which a wider offer is pushed.
Sport is unpredictable, a spectacle, aspirational; it promotes connection and conversation. And so it should be no surprise that it is so dominant as content. In her 2007 book The Television Will Be Revolutionized, Amanda D Lotz observed that: “The formats of most contests naturally allow for action-breaks, which has made sports programming resistant to the commercial-skipping and illegal downloading technologies that have imperilled the economics of other programming forms.”
And she goes on: “Sports and contests thus remain optimal for the traditional mechanisms of television advertising and the economics that support it, and also offer seemingly endless opportunities for sponsorship and branding, further expanding their economic value.”
Few brands have exploited the power of sport the Red Bull has. In fact, this brand’s approach to content has turned quite a few established methods on their head. As journalist James O’Brien wrote on the website Mashable: “Red Bull is a publishing empire that happens to sell a beverage.” It’s done this, he says, because: “The idea central to content marketing is that a brand must give something valuable to get something valuable in return. Instead of the commercial, be the show. Instead of the banner ad, be the feature story.”
Red Bull Media House now encompasses print, television, online and feature film production – generating huge coverage of the action sports that are central to the drink’s brand identity. And it does so by utilising the kind of approach I wrote about on this site last year – that the best way of pushing the brand is by not pushing the brand. So, as writer Nick Amies told O’Brien: “I’ve never been asked to crowbar Red Bull into any story I’ve done with them. The promotion of the brand comes through the activities I cover”.
Red Bull is now a brand recognised on a par with the likes of Starbucks, but not yet Coca-Cola – a brand that has not only benefitted from a long association with sport, particularly football, but one which demonstrated both the power brands wield over sport and the importance they place on it when it played a decisive role in securing the suspension of the head of FIFA, world football’s governing body.
That perhaps raises the question of whether sport needs to do more to ensure it does not become subsidiary to the brands, because if it allows that to happen it risks eroding the value the brands see. But for now, try finding a more potent example of a popular source of content than sport.