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COMMENT

22/5/2014

A recent European Sponsorship Association conference in London focused on issues that the industry will have to address in the coming years, even including whether or not the term ‘sponsorship’ should be used, as it somehow ‘cheapens’ the industry. The main issues, however, considered how the industry justifies its existence and what it needs to do collectively to improve its image and grow.

There is still a perception that the industry cannot prove that it delivers a good return on investment. Henry Ford supposedly said (although the saying has also been attributed to several others) that half his advertising was wasted, but he didn’t know which half. Sponsorship has long suffered from this problem, partly because it is a long-term investment, which doesn’t take place in isolation; advertising, sales promotions, direct marketing and various other activities all run concurrently. So how do you prove the effectiveness of a continuous programme running in the background? Talk to any of the leading research companies active in sponsorship and they will point to sophisticated models that measure both return on investment and return on objectives. The issue has been nailed, but the industry has not properly communicated that fact.

On the subject of communication, one of the most interesting panel sessions at the event saw a group of journalists discuss sponsorship from their perspectives. Delegates in the audience complained that they invested a huge amount on events but the mainstream media frequently gave no brand mentions in their reporting of sports. Similarly, even the specialist marketing trade press were seen as not giving sufficient space and importance to sponsorship.

It was an interesting debate, and the responses from the media were instructive. First, they said, it was difficult to get good information about sponsorship. When major news stories broke on the subject, there was no single reliable source to go to for comment and facts. Major deals frequently lack any figures with brands and rights holders reluctant to disclose how much has been paid for rights. Second, the media is not really in the business of reporting good news – quite simply, it doesn’t sell. The conference coincided with a story about Nike’s new England soccer team shirt going on sale for a whopping £90 ($150). This story sells newspapers, whereas the benefits of sponsorship to grassroots sports funding, improved spectator experience or, in the business world, brand performance, generally do not.

The conclusion was that sponsorship needs to do more to promote itself. It is arguably a case of ‘cobbler’s children having no shoes’. The industry is full of marketing and PR experts helping to promote clients, but their own industry is neglected. Patrick Nally, whose interview we will feature in the July 2014 issue, pointed out that sponsorship has a chance to be part of a major UNESCO-led debate on how sport can be a global force for change – and he challenged the industry to co-ordinate a response.

To some, the word sponsorship has become a tainted word. It has been associated with the worst excesses of corporate hospitality, frivolous spending by banks, chairmen who bankroll their favourite sports and the whole ‘over-commercialisation’ of sport. As an industry we have failed to promote the investment in facilities for amateur sports. We have failed to state that ticket prices might be much higher without sponsorship. We have failed to state that all those new stadia with naming rights might never have been built without such commercial backing. We have failed to say that the Olympic Games (which of course features barely any branding at all) could not be run without commercial partners. In short, we have failed to promote our industry.

It is now time that we became proud of the word sponsorship and started to show the world that for every negative story, there are hundreds of positive alternatives.

Michel Desbordes, Editor: International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship

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