Sports sponsorships: Bane or blessing?
When one saw recent pictures of a fit and energetic Chief Executive of Sri Lanka Inc. dashing downfield with a football, for a moment many would have wondered if football in Sri Lanka had indeed found a new sponsor, the State itself!
But with the Minister of Sports watching intently, we were soon to realise that it was only a welcome break for Ministers and UPFA MPs gathered at a workshop in Diyatalawa and the President was displaying his skills, not that anyone would dare tackle him head on – least of all, an amiable Sports Minister! The Football Federation too, unfortunately it may seem is also not favoured with Presidential sponsorship, at least not yet it seems!
Sponsorship in any form is now a fundamental facet of any serious sport. Take the ubiquitous International Meetings from the Olympic Games to World Cup Soccer, the F1 Grand Prix to the American League Football or nearer home the ICC cricket cavalcades – all have their full measure of sponsors, lingering like vultures, soaking in the accolades and splurging like there is no tomorrow.
But make no mistake, sports sponsorship is big business with the likes of IMG dominating the big time while in our own little island, a new kid on the block, CSN, is slowly but surely taking shape destined to make giant waves before long.
For any sport to grow and prosper and push the boundaries of performance to dizzy heights requires the unwavering commitment of big name sponsors not merely offering a canny brand association but also inveigled in the organisation itself, pulling the strings and craftily nurturing and swelling its fans; the ultimate consumer connection one can make in today’s fickle world out there.
How does the dance begin?
So how does this symbiosis emerge and evolve; how does the dance of death come to pass? Who is the suitor and what of the bride? The short answer is summarily expressed, both ways as it should be, but where and how does the dance begin or who seduces whom?
Inevitably, a sport looks for congenial partners, those with deep pockets and a large measure of goodwill that is dispensed freely. The first stroking happens as it does these days via international affiliations, where sports organisations benefit from universally-aligned sponsors.
Companies like Coca Cola & Pepsi, Nike & Adidas come to mind immediately. But to qualify for such largesse and the stupendous sums on offer, a sport organisation must bring to the party the promise of a on and off field union of fans who are either sitting on the edge of their seats at the stadiums or biting their nails in front of a home TV screen.
That is the grim arbiter; you bring in the fans and we will bring the goodies is the empirical equation. And there is no doubt indeed that this fervent embrace is augmented by a relentless interdependence targeting a humongous fan base; the veritable captive audience of eager pre-sold consumers!
Just consider the emotional ranks of the Barclays Premier League every weekend, where die-hard fans turn up not just to watch the game but conjure a ritual that begins in the week and cascades into days that follow.
From head to toe, a brand resonates to a single beat with world famous players parading as standard bearers to a whole sacrosanct business driven rhythmically and marshalled by tons of money changing hands every moment. A parallel economy you might say, rising and falling with the tide of giant human waves!
Sri Lankan examples
In our little island the drama may be less intense but visceral enactments of the sports business goes on. Last week we heard the Caltex boss lamenting that they may be compelled to pull out from rugby sponsorships if the Union continues to flirt with more attractive suitors.
Having stepped into the scrums when tobacco marketing came under censure, Caltex has kept rugby in high profile for more than a decade. However with the new Rugby Chief, no spring chicken when it comes to deal making, the nuptials are now a thing of the past; time to move on it seems and even a big ego must give way it seems when the price is not right.
Cricket is wired at present to SLT-Mobitel, something fans hardly know or recognise; an example of a sponsor not making the connection with the fans in spite of the tremendous popularity the sport enjoys.
Football gets by haplessly with Holcim and Dialog none the brighter for all the spending, one cemented by dictate and the other finding a precise marketing justification hard to offer. Prima Kottu Mee did better than most in recent times linking inexorably with the spate of college big match fixtures, where the critical connection with its audience was more tangible and rewarding.
A marketing proposition
Sponsorships for all sizeable businesses are essentially a marketing proposition. It sits sedately within a marketing budget and is justified broadly by a direct or indirect link to sales. It is therefore governed by indexes and thus a percentage spent on a sponsorship is now measured in sales terms as a basic yardstick.
If for any good reason it is not strictly a marketing orientation, then at least a CSR element comes benignly into play. If it does neither, then good luck to the nice guys behind the plot; the play does not last and the actors go their own way.
Niluka Karunaratne, Sri Lanka’s badminton champ and an Olympian-in-waiting, recently stated that most sports in our island nation had no proper development plan with its future left to chance. He has been able to charter a program almost by his own efforts and with some backing from the SLBF, thereby improving his rankings and qualifying for the Olympics later this year in London.
He is also fortunate to have secured a sponsorship from the shipping conglomerate McLaren’s, where he is now the company’s Brand Ambassador. Without that critical support and its attendant benefits both to the star and his sponsors, no athlete can progress in the today’s international sports environment.
This column last fortnight made a preliminary case of financial planning for each of the National Sports Bodies (NSB). Sponsorship is an important part of such an exercise. As is obvious now, sponsorship is not a benevolent activity simply because the CEO of an organisation played the sport or happens to like it. Sponsorship is an integral part of the marketing mix.
Payback is quantified in sales and brand equity most of which are more and more measurable now. Thus every NSB must ensure that its organisational muscle is put to good use in developing and retaining a substantial fan base and active interest; an incremental customer or consumer base for the sponsor company. Then the dance of death can prosper for a while, if not forever.
We have seen recent reports of the American Lingerie Football League coming in for a flurry of criticism in Australia where it was contemplating an entry; an over commercialisation of sport that does not bode well it is claimed. The exploitation of women to further commercial interests has been rudely rejected for its extreme distasteful performances.
And so the dance goes on. Bane or benefit, sponsorship will prevail but for its full results to be realised and sustained one cannot benefit at the expense of the other.