The race for impact from sports sponsorship

April 26, 2018

With increasing money going into sports sponsorship, Mike Tuffrey asks can it yield a social return too?

Yesterday we assembled a premier league team to discuss whether sports sponsorship can have a lasting impact beyond the immediate commercial payback. Seb Coe – who chairs CSM, our sports and entertainment sister agency, and is best known for delivering the hugely successful London 2012 Olympics – joined Liz Nicholl, CEO of UK Sport, Martin George, customer director at Waitrose, and Justin King, ex CEO of Sainsbury’s where he set up that retailer’s ground-breaking sponsorship of the Paralympic Games.  Pitch referee and incisive compere was our new CEO at Corporate Citizenship, Neil Davy.

The prior question is why this matters. In simple money terms, sports sponsorship is now a $65 billion dollar worldwide business – a staggeringly large number that’s nearly doubled over the last decade or so. And sport’s reach is huge, arguably the biggest human activity in all its forms, from jogging in the park and kicking a ball around the back yard to the Olympics watched by billions.

Reflecting on the discussion, the panel had three big points of agreement. First, the big rise in scepticism by the public (whether fans, participants, consumers or citizens) in all forms of corporate behaviour extends to sponsorship. Expectations of sponsors are growing.  And that extends to the rights holders too – the clubs and sports associations, many of whom are big businesses in their own right.

Second, the panel agreed that today’s sponsorships need to go far beyond brand recognition and the logo on the kit. It needs to be authentic and deliver a social dividend too. That means, third, that the values of commercial brands have to align closely with the values of the club or assets – and their behaviours including their star talent (think abusive rugby players or cheating cricketers). A case study in how not to do it is a payday loan company sponsoring a football club in a deprived community, whose fans are unwilling customers of the company, painfully reminded every Saturday afternoon of their growing debt.

So far, so good. However the discussion revealed some differences too.

Is there a moral dimension to this? Or in practice is this win-win alignment just about the money – you won’t do things that don’t feel right to your customer or staff? If the latter, will you ever do anything challenging, that might confront homophobia or racism for example?

Everyone talks about the need to show impact. But is that at the level of a gut feel or can you put hard metrics on this?  One panellist was clear you won’t sustain your marketing spend if the FD can’t see a financial return at least.

And in the search for a return, does the big money inevitably go to elite sports, celebrity players and those chasing medal table scores?  Or is there still a place for grass roots and minority sports, where the social return may be higher.

For myself, as a self-confessed sports sponsorship neophyte – in both senses of the word – the panel made an effective case that this is the way of the future. But before the ball is firmly in the back of the net, the question is how to make it work for company and cause alike?


Mike Tuffrey is Co-founding Director of Corporate Citizenship.