Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Mar-Apr 2011

Game on – the need for sports sponsorships

Brands need sports to live. It is a symbiosis. Sports also need brands to survive.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Let’s face it: sport remains one of the most powerful ways to attract audiences.

Numbers talk.

Every four years, the Olympic Games are watched by an average of four billion people and according to FIFA’s overblown figures, the World Cup finals of 1998, 2002 and 2006 respectively, attracted global audiences of 1.3 billion, 1.1 billion and 715.1 million people. Other competitions such as the Tour de France or the Super Bowl (111 million viewers in the 2011 edition) draw attention beyond their own national borders.

In this context, it is easy to understand why brands are interested in sports. It gives them fantastic exposure and maximises their chances of connecting with their key customers. Sports enable better media buying segmentation. Half time during a football match is the right time to promote cars and razors. Ice skating usually attracts retired couples. According to marketers, it is possible to define customer profiles according to their favourite sport – but with a caveat: the sports they like are not necessarily the sports they play.

Over time, sport has become a show. People go to the show, they see the brands at the show, and maybe they will buy the brands when they go back home. That is the equation. The better the show, the more they will enjoy it, and if they are entertained, the brands on show will benefit from their exhilarated state. This is why the show must go on.

High performances are expected and media space must be available. American football is a good example of how advertising and sports are intimately correlated; short and spectacular action on the field, short and catchy spots on the screen. They are formatted for each other. This applies to many other American sports, including basketball. One could say that the US provides the best example of how sports and marketing can benefit from each other.


According to FIFA’s overblown figures, the World Cup finals of 1998, 2002 and 2006 respectively, attracted global audiences of 1.3 billion, 1.1 billion and 715.1 million people.


The game has changed. Sports authorities and organisations have had to adapt to the expectations of brands and their sponsors. For example, the environment of the sports field is changing too. Thirty years ago the football field was surrounded by simple and plain fences. Nowadays, the field is surrounded by a digital screen promoting four to six brands every minute.

Brands need sports, and brands need sportspeople. Athletes can promote the key values of a brand. Accenture chose Tiger Woods because he embodies precision, foresight and strength. Accenture could not anticipate Mr Woods’ extramarital affairs. Gilette decided to put an end to Woods’ contract. The same thing happened to Thierry Henry, who gave an early tribute to the handballers against Ireland. Athletes are human beings. They have weaknesses. You cannot control them. When they appear humble and easy to manipulate, the public finds them boring. This is the ambiguity. Brands want extraordinary sportsmen but they fear their extraordinary behaviour and possible misconduct.

Like a marriage, there are ups and downs. When the French team won the World Cup in 1998, Adidas was associated with their success and the brand name proudly appeared on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Yet, when the French team miserably went on strike in South Africa, Adidas asked for their money back and finally terminated their contract.

It seems to me that sponsoring a sport or an event is less risky business than sponsoring a sportsperson. Peugeot has been the main partner of the Roland Garros (French Open) tennis tournament for the last 30 years. The French Open, symbol of elegance and performance, has successfully served Peugeot’s brand values. Rolex gives a lot of support to golf. Not to a single man or a team; it is the whole golf category that translates its key values, such as prestige and timelessness. Rolex has been on the market for more than a century. Golf is one of the oldest sports in the world; with similar mindsets and target audiences, they had to get along.

So yes, brands need sports to live. It is a symbiosis. Sports also need brands to survive.

What would the Football Premier League be without Barclays? Would Manchester City and Arsenal be the same without their Emirati sponsors (Emirates and Etihad respectively)? By the way, the Premier League is a formidable media for both Emirates (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) as they try to raise their awareness on the international scene.

Formula 1 races display the fastest cars in the world dressed with brand logos. They look like supermarket shelves on wheels. It is a win-win deal. F1 stables give the brand high visibility; brands enable the stables to finance and maintain their high cost machines.

Sport has become a marketing tool. Sport need sponsors to exist.

Like any relationship, co-existence is made of compromise and mutual acceptance. The judge is the public. For example, when it comes to football, over branded teams are rejected by their fans because the soul of their favourite club could be sold out. This has been the fear of all supporters when a big company approaches their club managers. In the modern era, sports brands have reached a high level of sophistication.

Today sports teams and clubs have become powerful brands themselves. The market value of football teams such as Manchester United or Real Madrid is impressive. Travelling to Asia, you understand how powerful these sports brands have become as they have invaded the media space. They have become so powerful that other brands or sponsors now queue in front of their headquarters to associate their names to their success. However, all this depends on the performance of the athletes and players. As long as they score and win, as long as the show goes on, the brand equity of the sport will rise and money will come in.

This is one reason why athletes and coaches are under more and more pressure. They are responsible for their team’s value. They have no right to fail, and this can explain the worrying trend of doping and cheating in all competitions, but this is a topic for another day. Hopefully, the coming ICC will put the beauty of sports first.

Olivier Auroy is Managing Director, Fitch Middle East.
olivier.auroy@gsfitch.com