Did you know lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in America? Did you know rugby is also the fastest growing sport in America? How about mixed martial arts? Maybe bull riding? Or wait, is it pickleball? Disc golf!?
Ah, the amazing things you can do with an ambiguous title, cherry-picked data, and an editor desperate for an exciting headline. While there can only be one fastest-growing sport in America, those headlines do at least suggest there are a lot of sports gaining popularity across our fair nation. And for brands looking for the next big sport to fund, there are plenty of options to choose from.
Companies like Red Bull and GoPro have long been riding the wave of extreme sports, helping to fund its infrastructure and sponsoring adrenaline junkies while reaping the benefits of positive brand association and building their own impressive content empires. Well, it’s about time that some of the less “x-treme” sports started getting their own special attention from brands as well. (Although, maybe not pickleball since it’s name is… pickleball.)
These emerging sports can grow with money from brands, while the brands can build their own content niche in whatever sport aligns best with their products and services. I’d call that a win-win. And if I’ve learned anything from cliched sports movie speeches, it’s all about winning.
Hell. Yes. If that doesn’t get you pumped to fund some up-and-coming sports, I don’t know what will. Let’s take a look at some of the best candidates.
While some may dispute this inclusion, let’s try not to get too caught up in what defines a sport. All I know is eSports, the term used for competitive video gaming, has “sport” right in the name.
And besides, brands should really, really want to get involved with eSports. The fast-rising phenomena is already attracting big names like Coke, Doritos, and Intel to back the massively popular championships of games like League of Legends, Dota 2, and South Korea’s “national sport,” Starcraft 2.
Dota 2 claimed a record $11-million-dollar pool of prize money at their recent international championship, and the cash infusion from brands doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Last August, Amazon acquired popular video game streaming service Twitch after Google failed to close a reportedly $1 billion deal due to antitrust concerns. When two tech giants like Amazon and Google are fighting over a service, that’s usually pretty good evidence there is serious revenue to be had.
But those that want a piece of the eSports pie have to act fast because the space is filling up, and, once again, Red Bull is ahead of the game. Their eSports publication already has quite the following, adding an extra challenge for brands trying to create the kind of content needed to take advantage of the sport’s meteoric rise.
Still, I’m going to be bullish here. Red Bull might currently be the top dog of eSports content, but there’s still room for another publication with a different voice ready to be loved by the ravenous gaming fan base. It’s not too hard to imagine a publication built by a brand that provides in-depth statistical articles or perhaps one that focuses on the unique subculture surrounding eSports instead of the games themselves.
And believe me when I say there’s plenty here to cover. eSports, like extreme sports, is a huge umbrella term: There are dozens of popular games that could each warrant their own trade pub. College eSports are also becoming increasingly popular, with some forward-thinking institutions beginning to provide scholarships to athletes with some of the fastest thumbs and pointer fingers in the land. Disney announced last month that they’re producing a show featuring the life of a 15-year old retired pro gamer. There are even fantasy sports leagues for games like League of Legends and Dota 2.
Then there’s the all-important fact that the biggest eSports championships are more popular than the NBA Finals or the World Series. This sport has such a diverse global audience, one that has little overlap with more traditional sports like basketball or baseball. Plus, as the Times reports, a majority of the audience consists of the increasingly elusive demographic of employed men between the ages of 18 and 34.
Traditional sports like baseball and basketball already have plenty of coverage from multiple media outlets—why shouldn’t eSports?
Confession before I begin: I’m a bit of a homer when it comes to ultimate frisbee. I played (sparingly) in high school, and I still light up when someone asks me to “go toss a disc, bro.” But take my word for it: Frisbee is tailor-made for some brand involvement.
Why? Because the sport is full of stunning athleticism. Don’t believe me? Check out some of these highlights .
There’s not much more exciting in sports than two dudes charging down a field chasing something. The disc’s natural inclination to hang in the air forever only makes deep throws that much better. Players also regularly “lay out,” diving to the point where their bodies are fully parallel to the ground while the disc hovers inches above the grass.
Like football, the game is built around short, tactical movements up-field, but is interspersed with exciting splash plays to get the crowd on their feet.
Ultimate has also started to prove it can produce charismatic stars, like YouTuber Brodie Smith, who has built a personal brand largely on the back of his ultimate frisbee skills, producing highlights and trick-shot videos galore that glorify his frisbee prowess. With almost one million subscribers, Smith has established a large fan base of millennials, and he’s a player brands could easily use to target younger demographics.
Thus far, only a few big name brands have gotten involved with the sport’s two professional leagues, the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) and Major League Ultimate (MLU). Puma recently signed on to sponsor MLU’s jerseys, and fantasy sports monster FanDuel also recently announced they’re getting in on the act. Fair warning: Red Bull has also sponsored MLU, although not to the extent of its other athletic investments.
So there’s a lot of room for growth, both for the sport and for potential branded content built around it. Maybe this time, someone other than Red Bull can layout first when it comes to content marketing.
Wait, isn’t soccer already massively popular? As in the most popular sport in the world? Well, not in America. And for the sake of this article, I’m sticking to my native country. Though the sport has long been extremely popular among youth leagues in the U.S., it’s taken generations to gain a foothold as a professional spectator sport.
And according to those who are much more informed than I am, American professional soccer may have finally arrived.
After years of tepid growth marked by extreme swings in attendance and revenue, which would, unsurprisingly, often coincide with the World Cup, Major League Soccer finally seems to be experiencing a consistent period of growth. Forbes‘ report on the the growth of MLS cites impressive numbers. Average franchise value is up 175 percent in the past five years, and 10 of the league’s 19 teams are currently turning a profit.
When you take into account last year’s landmark TV deal with ESPN, Fox, and Univision, MLS seems to finally be gaining traction in American hearts, minds, and media.
As America’s relationship with the beautiful game continues to progress, MLS and its unique features present an underdeveloped—but potentially explosive—content space for brands to get involved in.
With better TV coverage, more global stars jumping to the United States, the increasingly Latino-heavy demographic shift (whose population will almost double by 2060), and the slow but steady roll of youth soccer growth, it would be a mistake for brands to overlook MLS in the future.
For once, Red Bull is out of the picture. Sure, it’s because they already have a team named after their sugary energy drink, but at least that means they can’t create a sport-wide publication without seeming biased. Any brands looking to get involved can help a league with unmatched mainstream potential grow to its fullest form.
As Kurt Russel so elegantly says in Miracle, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” This is your opportunity, brands other than Red Bull. This is your time. Get on it.