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Battlegrounds Change, But Phone Wars Still Light Up Sports Marketing Landscape

In three-plus decades of tracking and monitoring sponsorship of sports, entertainment and other sectors, no category has been more fascinating to chronicle than telecommunications.

From the “Baby Bells” of the ‘80s establishing new brands in the wake of the antitrust breakup of AT&T to today’s wireless providers fighting for 5G supremacy, the category has experienced more twists and turns than the cord on your grandparents’ kitchen landline.

Along the way, the constant technology innovations of the digital age, category convergence and disruptive new entrants have ensured that rights holders have had plenty of targeted prospects for partnership and advertising opportunities. Competition between brands also has led to exemplary activations that delivered value to consumers, sports partners and the sponsors themselves.

And the best may be yet to come, as category leaders Verizon and AT&T have divested themselves of the content units that turned them into media companies and are re-focused on marketing their core services. Both will look more than ever before to their property partners for platforms that attract and retain subscribers by showcasing technology, speed and service.

That shift is clear in the terms of the renewed partnership between Verizon and the NFL. The relationship between the two began in 2010 and was renewed in 2017. At the time of the renewal, a company statement quoted chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam as saying, “We’re making a commitment to fans for Verizon’s family of media properties to become the mobile destination for live sports.”

Compare that to what executive vice president & CMO Diego Scotti told Sports Business Daily last week. “This moves us largely out of the content business with the NFL and into a technology and innovation-driven deal.”

With Verizon’s NFL, NHL and NASCAR deals all primed to showcase 5G products and services, including supporting its Verizon Up loyalty program, AT&T will no doubt respond with a great deal of promotional activity around its NBA league deal, a sponsorship it took over from Verizon in February 2019. The multi-year agreement spans the league, WNBA, NBA G League, NBA 2K League and USA Basketball. AT&T is integrated into assets such as, the NBA app and broadcast partners.

The roll-out of 5G allows for a myriad of new tie-ins with sports properties, particularly in the areas of enhancing the fan experience and providing data and tech support to teams and players.

More specifically on the consumer side, rights holders and their supporters can expect more AR and VR integrations, broadcast enhancements (both at home and in stadium) to provide unique viewing experiences and Increased opportunities for fans to share information and videos in real-time.

AT&T’s partnership with the Dallas Cowboys and AT&T Stadium will allow it to go head-to-head with Verizon in activating against the NFL audience. The company’s other major partnerships include the NCAA, the College Football Playoff and National Championship and The Masters, Pebble Beach and Byron Nelson golf tournaments.

The third major player in the category, T-Mobile, also is a top-notch activator, although it takes a different marketing tack than its rivals. The company emphasizes providing perks to customers over showcasing its tech through its major partnerships with MLB and Live Nation.

All told, the category will remain one to watch for years to come.

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