Making a comeback in sports sponsorships


Creative technology is revolutionising the sponsorship game. Here’s how to dial up both real and digital results – both for fans in the stadiums and at home.

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Sport offers a shared experience that conquers all. It weaves gripping storylines of underdog victories against all odds, of hard-fought wins, losses and homegrown pride. Sport is live entertainment, uniting the masses, as its best. It’s an emotional investment of weekly rituals and quality time with family and friends. It creates authentic and emotional moments that are reserved for the playing field. And savvy sports marketers understand that that’s what underpins solid partnerships.

The 2021 Olympics are in full swing, and I’m watching the games with my eight-year-old son, creating memories that will last a lifetime, ones filled with triumph and national pride.

However, not all heroic moments are paved the same way. Who can forget the feel-good plotlines of Steve Bradbury in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, or Eric “The Eel” Moussambani’s struggles at the Sydney Olympics? It’s moments like these that stick inside our minds alongside the superhuman feats of this global event, it’s the emotion we crave.

Thanks to the impact of digital strategies and virtual technologies, the experience is getting even closer. The pandemic has shifted how we engage with our heroes. Covid has been a formidable opponent in restricting these opportunities; but sport is winning the war. The secret weapon has been the turn towards creative technology for improved engagement, using tools like Virtual Atoms (a form of NFTs), Augmented Reality (AR), blockchain, VR, and user-generated content to unlock gamification and fan interaction in real time. Authentic sponsorship harnesses these innovations, helping partners connect with supporters, even when stadium seats sadly are forced to sit empty.

I have over 15 years of sports marketing behind me. I’ve been privileged to work with some of the country’s biggest sporting clubs such as Collingwood, Richmond, and Hawthorn; and have helped companies invest in partnership rights, such as Asahi, Lion Nathan, and United Petroleum. I’ve also worked alongside some of the highest-profile names in sports and I’ve sat on both sides of the boardroom table, from negotiating deals and maximising returns for rights holders, to supporting athletes and commercial obligations. Throughout all of this, I’ve had a home ground advantage: Melbourne.

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In my opinion it’s one of the greatest sporting cities in the world, and competition is deeply intertwined within the city’s DNA. Supremely talented athletes fill some of the world’s most iconic stadiums on a regular basis, from the MCG through to Rod Laver Arena. Melbourne hosts everything from the F1 Grand Prix to the world’s most prestigious horse races. Even with a modest population of 5.5 million, there are major events almost every week with masses filling the stands from football and cricket to rugby and basketball. Melbourne is an entertainment mecca, and it’s the ideal playground for sports sponsorships.

Here are my five lessons I’ve learnt from creating sports partnership deals that reward athletes, teams, brands, and fans, delivering impressive ROI for rights-holders.

1. START BY DEFINING THE ENDGAME.

To unlock real value, you need to define the true commercial goal and ideal brand positioning, then align them with the right sponsorship option. I learned this lesson while working in motorsport, as one of my client’s goals was to increase fuel volumes. They used a traditional sponsorship approach as the official fuel supplier for the V8 supercar series. However, we found the association value alone wasn’t getting cut through. By then shifting focus towards a more over-arching approach encompassing course activations and engagement with unique experiences, we built a stronger consumer affinity, improving what the client really wanted: which was to increase fuel volumes aka sales.

2. USE THE 5 'M' STRATEGY: MARKETING, MEDIA, MEMBERS, MONEY AND MORE.

I typically use these planning stages for everything from a single activation to larger deals:

  • Marketing - covers brand alignment, signage, and merchandise.
  • Media - covers the digital content, social channels, EDMs, and sign-up pages.
  • Members - focuses on growing the connected network.
  • Money - is about unlocking the ROI and sales potential.
  • More - looks at increasing the visibility of the efforts and continued improvements

For example, "media" is the glue for all things analytical and emphasizes engagement with your fans. It includes digital retargeting and bespoke messaging to help continue the meaningful conversation beyond the sports moment itself.

3. BRANDS THAT PUT AUTHENTIC ENGAGEMENT FIRST, WIN THE LONG GAME.

Focusing purely on ticket holders, branding in situ, and physical stadium activations collectively only targets a small portion of the audience and is thus a missed opportunity. To maximise impact, brands also naturally need to focus on the entire fan experience across all engagement channels. The mobile digital channel and customised, first-party conversations are critical to engaging fans wherever they are, at pubs, homes, or venues. The brands who have adapted swiftly and engaged creatively, connecting authentically with their fans through digital channels like Sydney Water Whaaata Six campaign, have seen a much stronger ROI, particularly during the last 18 months. There are plenty of new and innovative methods to consider - if you need inspiration, check out eSports: they’re offering brilliant new digital sponsorship and advertising techniques.

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4. IT'S A PARTNERSHIP, NOT A DONATION.

Long-term sponsorships are ultimately the result of both sides being genuinely invested in each other’s growth and success, not just a financial trade for signage. A short-term tactical deal often isn’t the answer. Strong partnerships solve commercial goals and help brands evolve with a dedicated fan base. Relationships are built on authenticity and trust between the brand, club, and member. Combine these relationships with the effective use of digital tools and the data-driven insights you’ve gained, and the winning formula in sponsorship begins to take shape.

5. AUGMENTED REALITY, GAMIFICATION AND VIRTUAL REALITY ARE NOW MVPS

We live in a digital world, and our customers are no longer strangers to QR codes and app-like experiences. Digital literacy is now much higher, and brands which bring something innovative to the market are the brands that are rewarded. For example, bespoke digital techniques engage fans effectively and seamlessly offer new experiences. They can also place fans in the action virtually: when F1 racing was cancelled due to Covid; the races became digital. Fans worldwide could drive in a Virtual Grand Prix against the biggest racing names. There’s a brave new hybrid world of digital and physical sporting experiences which is already happening, and those who nail both are headed for the podium.

They finished P3 and P4 in the end...

ROUNDING THINGS UP...

Sports spectatorship has evolved, but so too has our marketing line-up. We’ve now got MVP marketing tools to engage fans on all channels and to immerse them in the action. That means all the partners can still win, even in the now with stadium restrictions and quieter bars.

If you need a teammate to help play a better sports marketing game, contact us here, and we’ll host a free masterclass to make marketing memories together.                      

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