Teams across MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLS inked a record-breaking $6.7 billion in ad revenue over the last year — a 17.5% increase year-over-year — according to new data from SponsorUnited.
MLB saw the most growth, with a 23% increase due to more fan engagement and new sponsorship opportunities through jersey patches; the NHL was next with 21% growth due to innovations like digitally enhanced dasherboards.
However, SponsorUnited CEO Bob Lynch tells Front Office Sports that the sports sponsorship marketplace is shifting to individual athletes rather than the leagues and teams they play for.
“Athletes and influencers are realizing that they can start to build brands themselves or partner with companies to build a brand where there’s an equity component to this,” he says. “They’re starting to be more of a business partner within this process versus just a face to a brand.
“I think it’s going to be quite challenging unless leagues and teams can start to think about introducing other new high-value opportunities that maybe we’re not even contemplating today.”
Lynch also notes that athletes’ cumulative audiences in the United States are beginning to surpass those of leagues and teams — a state of affairs that has been the norm in world soccer for quite some time.
For example, Louis Vuitton was the top-performing brand for branded social media posts with athletes, racking up almost 73 million engagements — largely thanks to just one Instagram post from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Adidas’s partnership with Lionel Messi was the second-best performer by a large margin, with over 70 million engagements, heavily bolstered by Messi’s World Cup win and high-profile move to Inter Miami. Adidas was the most engaged brand across all its athletes, with over 228 million engagements.
This is beginning to shine through among American athletes with NIL: 550 brands signed NIL partnerships for the first time this year.
SMU women’s volleyball player Alex Glover signed the most new deals this year with 19 — the only college athlete with more than 10. SponsorUnited also noted huge social following gains for Iowa’s Caitlin Clark (635%) and LSU’s Angel Reese (3,885%), who also saw a 145% increase in brand endorsements.
The power of individuals is also showing through, with influencer-led brands making a big splash in the sports sponsorship space.
“If you’re a brand that’s historically been No. 1 in any particular category, getting that additional sign or logo on a jersey really has a diminishing set of returns based on the lift that you’re going to see in your business,” says Lynch. “Whereas if you are a growth brand, it’s transformative in some cases to do those early deals.”
Case in point, Prime Hydration — the sports drink company founded by creators Logan Paul and KSI — inked 40 sponsorship or digital media deals this past year, most notably with the UFC and FC Barcelona.
Feastables — the snack brand founded by YouTube star MrBeast — became the first creator-led brand to have a jersey sponsorship in the United States four major leagues when it became the jersey patch sponsor for the Charlotte Hornets.