Comment: 18 years, 200 issues, but groundhog day for sponsorship

It's hard to imagine that it’s now 18 years since the launch issue of SportBusiness International rolled off the presses to become the first magazine to serve the global sports sector in its entirety.

The response was universally positive. At last, there was a publication that took the strands of a disparate and sometimes divided industry and weaved them into a coherent global picture, identifying those shaping the sector and discussing the challenges and opportunities they faced.

Two hundred editions ago, it was a world where the power of technology was just beginning to make itself felt, and where almost every aspect of the business felt like a fresh frontier. It was a voyage of discovery as an industry dominated by a handful of major agencies and big broadcasters came to terms with the most effective ways of monetising a product that relied on the continuing public appetite and passion for sport.

Innovation was everywhere, and with it came inevitable tensions that called into question the survival of the old order. Broadcasters challenged established governing bodies; football clubs became public companies; TV rights values soared; and the fresh-faced kids from Silicon Valley promised new and more exciting ways for fans to get to the heart of sport without leaving their couches.

Of course, much has changed over the years, although the old order has survived more or less intact, and media rights continue to set records. And SportBusiness International is still here, connecting the industry now exactly as it had done in July 1996.

But not everything has changed over the years. Sponsorship makes a massive revenue contribution to the sports sector and has become embedded in the hearts of many leading international brands. Yet despite its many successes, there appears to remain a crisis of confidence that runs through the soul of the sector.

Back in 1996 I attended conferences where discussions about sponsorship would inevitably turn to the notion that proposition was no longer about ‘the chairman’s whim’, and that sponsorship was a sound business proposition that could be justified as such in the boardroom.

Eighteen years on and a lot of the discussion seems to be locked in the same cycle. Taking out the elements directly related to technology, last month’s ESA (European Sponsorship Association) Sponsorship Summit in London took a new generation of sponsorship executives over pretty much the same sort of territory. For those of us with more grey hair than black – if we have any hair left at all – there was an element of Groundhog Day about the whole thing.

When the economy is healthy and brands are making money, nobody on the outside bothers much about sponsorship; there’s no particular reason why they should either. But in tight times – and there have been many of those over the years – the millions spent by brands to associate themselves with sports stars, teams or events comes under the spotlight, and the resulting reports in the mainstream media tend to be negative in the extreme, focusing on expense, luxury and privilege.

But what is the industry doing to combat negativity and put the record straight? The subject was touched on at the ESA Sponsorship Summit, but in a room full of people who probably consider themselves to be in the communications business, there didn’t appear to be anyone willing to really embrace the challenge.

There are many reasons why the sponsorship sector should be in a confident and expansive mood, but there is a feeling that it remains inward-looking and somewhat unsure of itself. Sponsorship builds brands and enables them to connect more effectively with their customers.

As a result it helps create jobs and makes a contribution to a nation’s economic success. People understand the role that advertising plays in the process but, for most, sponsorship remains a mystery.

The sponsorship sector needs to better articulate exactly what it is, what it does and how it has worked spectacularly well. This is a challenge that the advertising industry took on board many years ago; sponsorship seems to have some catching up to do in this respect, and to do so, the sector needs the sort of leadership that, logic suggests, is best provided by an organisation like ESA.

Of course, in a highly-competitive business where companies are small and margins are tight, winning the next bit of business and keeping the clients you’ve already got are always going to be the top priorities.

But it would be nice to think that in 18 years’ time, the sector will have found the resource, creativity and leadership necessary to tell its own story in a more persuasive way, trumpeting its successes and giving it the overt sense of confidence that it should be displaying.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It's worth noting that SportBusiness International may not have ever made it to its second edition, let alone its 200th.

Only the last-minute shelving of a contributed article – which would have been defamatory to more or less everybody in a senior position within the IOC (International Olympic Committee) – kept what would undoubtedly have been a ruinous law suit at bay.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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