2015 was a banner year for the interconnected industries of digital and social media marketing, athlete sponsorship, and sports business. As we roll into 2016, members from all departments of the opendorse team have shared their predictions for what’s to come in our ever-evolving industry.

Athletes As Media Companies

Blake Lawrence | CEO
“I’m looking forward to seeing the ‘athletes as sports media companies’ concept become more widely accepted by sports marketers. In 2015, we saw big industry folks invest in digital content creation solutions, with LeBron’s partnership with Warner Bros, Wasserman’s acquisition of Laundry Service, and NFLPA’s launch of ACE Media. For athletes to be respected as media companies, they must begin to act like media companies. Creating high quality, engaging content on a consistent basis is the first step. With a leap in the quality of content shared by athletes, sports marketers will be lured to leverage athlete star power to engage sports fans in new ways.

I also expect sports properties to take a big leap in leveraging their social media assets to sell creative, effective digital sponsorship opportunities to brand partners. At the college level, more athletics programs are including social media activations in sponsorship packages, creating a new revenue source for multi-media rights owners. While the simplicity of slapping a logo on a digital image is easy to sell, sponsors can benefit by building deeply integrated, season-long digital campaigns to complement traditional activations.

I’m excited to see how sports properties leverage influencers in the content creation and distribution process. With an abundance of content flooding the social inbox of sports fans, properties will look to get creative in cutting through the clutter. One way to do this is to distribute content through non-owned assets. We look to see athletes become a natural choice for properties aiming to increase content distribution.”

The Use of Social Influence Continues to Grow

Derek Peterson | VP of Marketing Agency Relations
“As the calendar rolls right into 2016, brands will still want to get their messages in front of potential consumers. I think we’ll continue to see them increase their use of sponsored social—borrowing the influence of actors, musicians, industry influencers and, certainly, athletes.

As I listened to Ryan Schram of IZEA deliver the State of Sponsored Social 2015 report at the end of the year, he noted that 54% of their respondent base of marketers utilized sponsored social in 2015. On the other side of the equation, consumers said they recalled noticing more sponsored posts than ever before—about three per day—making it one of the most effective forms of marketing tactics out there (behind only experiential and content marketing, respectively).

The various folks leading the strategy for brands, be they the ladies and gentlemen at creative agencies or the leaders of the companies themselves, are some of the smartest people I’ve ever been around. And when they start to see the potential in and effectiveness of the sponsored social space, there is no doubt in my mind we’ll continue to see that 54% figure grow and grow.”

Marketing is Media, Media is Marketing

Sam Weber | Marketing Coordinator
“I expect the line separating media and marketing to continue to blur in 2016. The transition has been taking place in recent years alongside the rise and monetization of social media and online influence.

In the best article I read in 2015, Laundry Service CEO Jason Stein argues that advertising and media are, in fact, the same thing. Stein explains:

“Before social media, if you wanted people to see an ad, you had to place it in inside of popular entertainment: a TV or radio show, a digital or print publication. These were the mediums that owned the attention and advertisers needed to rent it. Today, any brand can reach the exact same audiences directly, from its own channels, on the mobile platforms where people invest their attention 24/7. Now, ads compete with entertainment for attention, and vice versa, and the best content wins. As a result, advertising and media have become the same thing.” — Jason Stein.

The idea applies uniquely to the athlete sponsored social media industry. While athlete’s media ‘competitors’ like traditional outlets (print, TV, etc.) and new media (online publishers, social media celebrities, and brand accounts) earn their audiences by consistently publishing exceptional content, athletes earn their social media audience by being, well, athletes. By excelling in widely publicized sports, the value of professional athletes tends to be measured in yards, points, or goals, above quality of the media they publish.

The ease with which these audiences are built, however, does not mean that athletes can simply ignore content. Instead, they should acknowledge another key point from Stein: “All media published by an influencer, athlete, or celebrity— is an ad for what the creator can do for your brand.” By pairing great content with their massive (and growing) audiences, athletes have the opportunity to be among the most influential media companies on social media.”

Apps for Athletes?

Andrew Venrick & Patrick Hayes | Talent Team
“We believe 2016 will bring significant changes to the sports sponsorship space. We look for a greater emphasis put on high school athletics. Sponsorships at ‘big-time’ high school programs will spike and the athletes themselves will become recruited even heavier through greater exposure via televised events and technology-enabled recruitment services like our friends at Hudl.

In the athlete social media endorsement space, we expect more social sponsorships pertaining to professional players tapping into their loyal college markets. Mobile will emerge as the front-runner in fan engagement. Top athletes will have their own downloadable mobile apps for fans to engage with their own personal brands. These apps will allow fans to get closer into the athletes’ personal lives by seeing what clothes they’re wearing, cars they’re driving, and food they’re eating away from the field of competition.

Media platforms like Uninterrupted, Barstool Sports, and The Players Tribune will provide outlets for talent agencies to leverage their clients’ value and engage their fans as clauses in on-field contracts will move to include compensation based on off-the-field social success metrics.”

Keeping Brands Squeaky Clean

Tim Braun | CIO
“Athletes (and everyone in general) are becoming more and more publicized through their social media accounts. Type ‘social media training’ into your favorite search engine and you will find a lot of companies willing to teach you how to stay out of trouble and improve your brand. This industry is still in its infancy, with 45% of student-athletes never receiving social media training (according to a study by Field House Media).

Furthermore, a lot of social media channels keep content throughout careers (or some big-data company has it stored in a database), eternalizing the thoughts of minds not yet fully aware of the future consequences it will cause. It’s reminiscent to the prior generation’s instant messaging user names and emails. “CoolCatPunter007@aol.com” may have been funny when you were in middle school, but imagine putting that down as a contact on your professional resume. When celebrities do it, it can not only be embarrassing, but detrimental to careers later in their life (start taking note of how many scandalous Tweets are screen-shot in modern news reports and articles).

Studies, data, and technology geared towards helping athletes present their brand well and clean up past transgressions will be going at a premium.”

Influencer Marketing = More Than Just Impressions

Brooke Jensen | Operations Manager
“The world of social endorsements is ever-evolving. I think this year, we’ll see a lot more light bulbs click within agencies and with brands realizing that publishing and amplifying content through influencers is an incredibly effective way to not only get impressions, but also create brand loyalty.”

Fans Go Behind-The-Scenes

Kaci Hixson | Campaign Manager
“Behind-the-scenes content has been a popular topic for sports marketing in the past few years. Fans crave the ability to witness exclusive footage, directly from their favorite athletes. Social media and live-streaming technology has allowed athletes to take matters into their own hands. In 2016, I think there will be an uptick in the number of athletes taking to platforms like Snapchat to connect with their fans. Brands are already taking notice, but I expect more branded content being shared in the coming year. For instance, every time Lolo Jones receives packages from Asics, she opens them on her ‘Snapstory’ and reviews her new gear. I foresee more seemingly organic content like that happening more frequently.”

Big Events = Big Growth

Brandon Barnes | Data Specialist
“One thing that I always pay attention to and think is really cool is when during and immediately after a big sporting event, single play, knockout, etc., not only does a video or image of the play go viral on social media, but sometimes following an athlete who made the viral play/knockout becomes a natural thing for social media users to do. This has been shown most recently by the follower growth of Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, and Holly Holm following their respective UFC fights.

McGregor social media infographic

Influencers Embrace DJ Khaled’s “Keys”

Clayton Henderson | Product Development Team
“I look to see influencers increasing their fanbases like DJ Khaled has by using Snapchat or by using video on other social media channels to engage their followers. More and more, Influencers are creating and distributing personal media rather than a formal blog or website. I think this shows a fundamental shift in the way people are consuming media.

A few years ago, people were flocking to blogs or official Facebook pages to see promotional materials that an agent would post on behalf of their client. Today, we are more captivated by a shorter-form and less refined glimpse at an influencer (such as an Instagram or a Tweet.) In 2016, I think we will not only see more of this type of media, but also more media outlets that share this short-form format.”

Snapchat & Periscope Continue As Fan Favorites

Casey Seberger | Talent Team
“I think the popularity and user-base of Snapchat and Periscope will continue to grow along with an industry-wide shift to sharing more video. To me, It’s all about the experience. Fans want to know what it was like to be there and to feel that atmosphere from wherever they are.

Fans want as much access to their favorite team’s athletes as possible. They want to know what it’s like to live the life of an athlete— what practice looks like, the locker rooms, training rooms, bus rides— everything. This push to have more access will allow athletes to promote their personal and team brands by engaging with their fans through authentic content.”