Navigating New Waters: A Blue Ocean Sponsorship Strategy for Sports Organizations

In the vast sea of sports sponsorship, rights holders have traditionally sailed towards one beacon: reach. The assumption has been straightforward—more eyes equate to more value, making sports an attractive vessel for mass-market consumer brands aiming to ship their message far and wide. However, as the currents of our economy shift towards digitization and consequently, consumer viewing habits evolve, the winds favor a new direction. Today, many companies, particularly those in the digital and direct-to-consumer sectors, are beginning to prioritize deeper metrics beyond reach or volume, valuing performance marketing and engagement to drive conversions. This evolution presents both a challenge and an opportunity for sports organizations, especially for tier 2 and tier 3 rights holders and those newly created ones that cater to younger, digitally native audiences.

The Concept of Blue Ocean Strategy

Before delving into the sports sponsorship context, let me briefly introduce you to the concept of Blue Ocean Strategy. Coined by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, this strategy advocates for creating new market spaces or “blue oceans,” where competition is irrelevant. Unlike the “red oceans,” crowded with competitors fighting over a diminishing profit pool, blue oceans represent untapped market potential. By focusing on value innovation, organizations can unlock new demand and redefine market boundaries.


The Red Ocean of Sports Sponsorship

The competitive battleground of sports sponsorship has long been a “Red Ocean”—a market space where organizations vie for the attention of a finite number of mass-market sponsors, competing on the same metric: reach. In this crowded space, only a few, such as the NFL, NBA, Premier League, or top football clubs command vast audiences that justify sponsorship deals based on reach alone (and even those struggle sometimes). For the rest, this battle becomes increasingly unsustainable, as the competition intensifies and the differentiation diminishes. Thus, tier two and tier three rights holders need to compete in creative ways.

The Shift in Sponsorship Values

The digitization of our economy has ushered in a paradigm shift in sponsorship values. Performance marketing, with its emphasis on measurable outcomes and conversions, is becoming the priority for a growing number of brands. Even the largest brands, traditionally the most avid seekers of reach, are turning their attention toward engagement as a meaningful measure of sponsorship success. This shift underscores a fundamental change: sponsors are not just seeking visibility; they are seeking connectivity and tangible results. 

The following quote from pwc’s report The evolution of sponsorships: Data innovation helps drives value summarizes it perfectly:

“The sports industry derives most of its revenue not from ticket sales but from media rights and advertising: capturing and then selling the attention of a highly engaged audience to sponsors. The sports-sponsorship market is expected to grow from $63.1 billion in 2021 to $109.1 billion by 2030 as a host of new sponsors — such as sports betting and streaming giants — buy in. However, in exchange for their sizable investment, those technology-driven companies expect teams to be able to prove that they can get a meaningful return.” 

Finding a Blue Ocean in Sports Sponsorship

Enter the Blue Ocean Strategy for sports sponsorship. This strategy encourages rights holders to move beyond the bloody waters of reach-based competition to create new value propositions centered on conversion, performance, and engagement. By focusing on these areas, organizations can open up new sponsorship opportunities that are both relevant and attractive to modern brands, particularly those interested in direct outcomes from their investment.

A critical element in executing this strategy is the creation and utilization of digital properties and platforms. They are owned destinations to which fans can be converted, where engagement happens in an owned digital ecosystem that generates valuable first-party data. This data becomes the cornerstone of crafting tailored, results-driven sponsorship opportunities that resonate with performance-minded sponsors.

Implementing a Blue Ocean Strategy: A Step-by-Step Action Plan

1. Assess Current State with the ERRC Grid

Begin by applying the Eliminate-Reduce-Raise-Create (ERRC) Grid to your current sponsorship offerings. Identify aspects of your sponsorship model that can be eliminated or reduced (e.g., less emphasis on sheer reach), and determine what can be raised or created (e.g., engagement-driven sponsorship packages, unique digital experiences).

2. Explore the Six Paths Framework

Use the Six Paths Framework to look beyond traditional industry boundaries and discover new sponsorship opportunities. This could involve exploring alternative industries for sponsorship, redefining the target audience, or offering innovative digital content and experiences that break the industry norm.

3. Engage the Three Tiers of Noncustomers

Identify and target the three tiers of noncustomers to expand your sponsorship opportunities. This includes those who are currently indifferent to your offerings, those who consciously choose against your offerings, and those who have never been considered as potential sponsors due to industry norms

4. Leverage Digital Platforms

Create your own digital properties, such as apps or online communities, that offer a direct channel to engage with fans beyond the game day. These platforms allow for innovative sponsor activations that can be closely measured for engagement and conversion, making sponsorship opportunities more attractive to brands focused on performance marketing – think targeted conversion campaigns or native integrations that drive app downloads – and engagement, e.g. activations with community votes, loyalty events or special content.

5. Prioritize Engagement and Conversion

Prioritize creating deep, meaningful engagement with fans through personalized content, interactive experiences, and rewards for participation. This approach not only enriches the fan experience but also provides sponsors with more impactful opportunities for connection, far beyond the limitations of traditional advertising reach.

6. Innovate with Partnership Models

Develop sponsorship packages that integrate directly with your digital platforms, offering sponsors clear paths to conversion—be it through exclusive offers, co-branded content, or interactive, gamified sponsor activations. These packages should be designed to deliver measurable outcomes, aligning with the marketing goals of modern sponsors. Moreover, you may consider creating partnership levels that are more flexible and readily accessible for advertisers who are not looking for long-term engagements (yet). And you might even work performance-based components into your deals, such as affiliate fees, pay-per-click, or app installs.

7. Utilize First- and Zero-Party Data 

The strategic collection and analysis of first- and zero-party data through your digital properties enable you to offer sponsors precise targeting options and detailed insights into fan behaviors. This data-driven approach allows for highly effective, result-oriented sponsorship activations that are mutually beneficial. If you can’t get your partners in front of all the eyeballs, connect them with exactly the right audience in meaningful ways. 

Implementing your Blue Ocean Sponsorship Strategy

For sports rights holders ready to embark on this journey, the first step is embracing digital transformation. Building your digital infrastructure is crucial for engaging directly with fans and collecting the first-party data that is so valuable to sponsors. From there, focus on creating engaging, interactive fan experiences that can be monetized through innovative sponsorship models designed for the digital age.

One easy way to do this is by using Unyfy, our community and platform builder made for sports brands and designed to fit the needs of sports rights holders. With zero- and first-party data collection tools like fan profiles or your own like button, fan-centric digital inventory, and gamification elements like login streaks or collectibles, Unyfy gives you all the tools you need to steer your sponsorship strategy into bluer oceans.


As the landscape of sports sponsorship evolves, rights holders have a unique opportunity to redefine their value propositions. By adopting a Blue Ocean Strategy that focuses on conversion, performance, and engagement, and by leveraging the power of digital platforms and first-party data, organizations can attract a new breed of sponsors looking for measurable results and deeper fan engagement. In doing so, they not only navigate away from the Red Ocean of reach-based competition but also sail towards a future of sustainable, mutually beneficial partnerships.The digital transformation of sports sponsorship is not just on the horizon; it’s here. As we navigate these new waters, the opportunities for innovative, engagement-driven sponsorship are boundless. Utilize the Blue Ocean Strategy to redefine your value proposition, leverage the capabilities of platform builders like Unyfy to engage your fans and collect first-party data, and set sail towards a future of sponsorship that transcends traditional boundaries.

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