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Sally Hancock | Where next for sponsors in an era of consumer activism?

Sally Hancock, managing partner at Y Sport, outlines how sports organisations need to think about public perceptions of brands when choosing them as sponsors.

Sally Hancock

We’re all very familiar with the huge importance of sponsorship in sport – it’s a vital source of revenue, enables deeper fan engagement and reward, and drives greater visibility and reach.

Great brand sponsorships are unique in their ability to bring added emotion and meaning to the passions and interest of the fan, and despite economic uncertainty, the sector shows no sign of slowing down. According to data-driven sports agency, Two Circles, spend has increased by an average 4 per cent a year since 2014 – a figure expected to rise to 6 per cent between 2020 and 2024.

But things may be about to change. As the fundamental messaging and impact of Extinction Rebellion takes an even greater hold, and consumers are increasingly reacting through the rejection of brands they see as undermining those sports, clubs and events they cherish, what might the future look like?

Regardless of how “clever” the activation is, or platitudes around giving back to the community and supporting the fan – consumer activism is on the rise, and woe betide any brand or sports body who, through their partnership, tarnish the things that people are passionate about. Fans and consumers are increasingly putting pressure on sports and arts organisations to clean up their act, and no longer allow businesses to reap profit from the things that they love, in an attempt to gloss over poor environmental, social, health, and political records.

Huawei is a case in point. The Chinese tech giant’s partnerships extend to some of the biggest names in sport – AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax, to name but a few. But with accusations of spying for the Chinese state, and the potential for criminal proceedings in the US, Huawei’s sponsorships have become, literally and metaphorically, a political football, with many clubs very uncomfortable with their partnership but hugely dependent on Huawei’s investment.

Earlier this year, the world’s fifth-largest chemicals company, Ineos, took over from Sky as the sponsor of the world’s richest cycling team. Regardless of the motives behind this sponsorship (the founder and chairman is the UK’s wealthiest man and a huge cycling fan) the deal has already been fraught with controversy, with anti-fracking protestors lining the route of the Tour de Yorkshire, and greater awareness of Ineos’s environmental record than might have been the case without the partnership. And, arguably, a partnership with a consumer-facing brand rather than a faceless chemicals company would have driven far greater engagement in the team and cycling generally.

And closer to home, the ECB found recently found themselves at the forefront of this debate, with KP Snacks announced as the sponsor of its new format, The Hundred, designed to open up the game to a new, younger audience. Each of the eight franchises will carry the name of a KP brand, and despite the promise from KP to reduce the levels of fat and salt in its products, both organisations have found themselves under fire from the National Health Service and others in a partnership designed to encourage more young people to play and watch the game.

So, where do we go from here? In my opinion, rights-holders will need to pay much greater attention to the interests and views of their fans, and not simply hand their commercial rights over to a highest bidder. There will be greater scrutiny over environmental and ethical track records, and much greater attention paid to the core purpose behind the intent of the partnership. The winners will be those sports and brands that, together, recognise the real importance of brand alignment, a commitment to strong, strategic activation, and, most importantly, the social impact of their activity.

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