Mar 14, 2017

Does sports sponsorship hit the target for fans?

Andy Bolter, creative partner at Yes&Pepper, a collaborative ideas agency, looks at the issue of brands and sports

It’s a partnership made in heaven. Born out of love. Boy meets girl, boy meets boy, girl meets girl. Who cares… they’re getting married. Excited parents agree that this is right, it’s a union that needs to be celebrated and that’s what’s going to happen… Ma and Pa grab their cheque book to pay for it, or at least to help pay a large part of it. You two deserve the wedding of the century. We’re your biggest fans.

The good intentions are there to be seen, but certain friends from the club who aren’t invited really should be. And we don’t think the hall you want isn’t really the hall you need. Shouldn’t we get the wedding we want too, I mean we are paying for it think the parents. Soon planning the dream becomes the nightmare, and the money invested in happiness is suddenly anchored down in joyless expectation. We’re your biggest fans?

It’s no secret that sponsorships are as much a part of sports as guest lists and seating plans are a part of weddings.

It seems every major team, league or sportsperson in the UK is flying the flag of its devout sponsor high and proud. What the brand offers, however, will determine how much the recipient will give back, and the more money the brand pays, the higher the flag is waved. For example, you might just get an arena named after your brand if you’re willing to hand over a healthy cheque.

Yet, when sponsors act like controlling parents, who have paid for their child’s wedding and now want the whole event to be about them, this is when the dream marriage runs into trouble.

As a child, even as a West Ham fan, St James’s Park – home to Newcastle United - was an infamous arena that exuded an abundance of history and notoriety. St James’s Park wasn’t just a football stadium, it was a monument to the Geordies, and whether you were a child or a pensioner, you felt the buzz walking into the Milburn Stand and seeing the field where many great players have swung a foot.

So, it came as a jaw dropper when Mike Ashley decided to rename the stadium after his other company; enter the Sports Direct Arena. This is a prime example of the ‘controlling parent syndrome’ coming into play. There seems to be no consideration for what the child wants - or fans in this case.

This was purely the choice of the ‘controlling parent’, and even though the bride and groom are bringing the substance to the day, they, ultimately, are the ones that have gone unheard and have been left disappointed.

If you alienate the people that give the sport or team its value to your business, you’ll end up just losing their support – who wants to go to a wedding where the main protagonists don’t show up?

This isn’t the first time the bosses of a sports team have swapped its legacy in return for a juicy income. Etihad Stadium. Red Bull Arena. Barclays Centre. These are all other cases of brands offering the big buck in return for having their name in bright lights.

Saying that, all my Northern friends still call the arena St James’s Park; it’s tough referring to your team’s stadium as a shop on the high street.

The sports industry is immersed and consumed by the lure of sponsorship. Under Armour is a major sponsorship success story that other brands can learn from. The company has only been around for 20 years, and has seen a tremendous buildout in the past decade - sponsorships being the catalyst in its growth.

The brand sponsors the likes of Steph Curry, Anthony Joshua and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – all legends in their own right. Sponsoring icons like these is sure to lead any brand to smile smugly at its competitors; it’s safe to say, Under Armour has been smiling for quite some time.

Talking as a sports fan myself, supporters do get to feel some emotional ties to their teams’ sponsors.

The problem emerges when the brands don’t deliver sponsorships in the way that the fans crave and accept. McDonald’s has been the sole sponsor of the Olympic games since 1976.

However, it came under much scrutiny during the London 2012 games when people couldn’t figure out what a fast food chain was doing sponsoring an event like the Olympics – it is somewhat ironic if you ask me. To make matters worse, McDonald’s demanded exclusivity for the right to sell chips in the Olympic park. What happens to all the fans who don’t like McDonald’s chips? Or to everyone who simply wants some big fat traditional British chips?

This is like the ‘controlling parent’ demanding that the only food to be catered at the wedding is pasta, not considering all the guests who might be allergic to gluten. The Daily Telegraph described McDonald’s demand as a ‘dictatorchip’ – too good.

A recent study suggested that Orange was the most successful sponsor of Euro 2016. This was down to its ‘fan focus’ and effort to target the millions of people who were travelling to France to watch the tournament; Zidane was also the protagonist of the campaign - never a bad idea. The whole campaign revolved solely around the fans, and even better, fans from all over the world.

My convictions remain the same. When it comes to consumer engagement, listen to your audience, act on the feedback you’re given, and most of all, collaborate with everyone involved in your campaign: be it clients or fans. Collaboration unlike rival fans shouldn’t have any boundaries.

My message to CEOs, MDs and FDs of global brands is don’t act like controlling parents who have paid for their child’s wedding and are now dictating the whole event, inviting all their golfing buddies. Listen to what your fans want, get them on your side, adapt your campaign to the team, league or sports person you’re sponsoring, and only then will the masses who come to the arenas every week appreciate your work, and success will surely follow.

Oh, and don’t name the stadium Tesco Express Arena.


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