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Roger Duthie | Now is the time for the big leagues to start relaxing their philosophy on shirt sponsorship

Roger Duthie, sponsorship consultant, believes it's about time for sports to give something back to the sponsors

Roger Duthie

In my 19 years working in sponsorships, for what I consider to be one of the world’s most progressive brands, Emirates, I always felt that at some point in my career I would see the North American Leagues start to relax their policies on shirt sponsorships and on-course/tee-board branding. I had several conversations with various League officials from the PGA Tour, NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA regarding this matter. I really wanted this to happen so that the company I worked for could be at the forefront of North American shirt sponsorship when it finally did happen.

I’m still waiting.

I received several proposals over the years for branding referees in various leagues and there was chatter here and there on shirt sponsorships, but it never really amounted to anything. I raised this issue several times but always received the same answer: fans weren’t ready; leagues weren’t ready; it was too hard or unfair in some markets etc. etc. etc. Plenty of reasons.

I fully understood that the model in North America, for the most part, differed from the model around the rest of the world but for the life of me, I just could not comprehend why the LA Lakers for example, would refuse millions upon millions of dollars from brands that would jump all over this. Or why the NY Yankees or the NHL would not allow international or local brands to buck up for the right to plaster their brand all over the various jerseys. Yes, I appreciated the revenue models and the other logistical issues that accompany this, such as fan reaction and TV deals, but the reality is that fans would soon get over this, and as the NBA has already proven, their revenue-sharing models would be a positive thing for all teams.

I have spoken at length to the PGA Tour about getting Emirates involved with some big events on the PGA Tour in America. I always pushed for on-course Emirates branding and tee box branding so I could show to my bosses the value of golf sponsorship in the USA. The value for a company to have Tiger Woods standing on the tee box with branded signboards in the background was huge. There is no clear association between Tiger and Emirates for example but building the brand through sports was key to the overall global brand aspirations of the company. Everyone who watches golf knows that when Tiger plays, the media value and coverage is 3 or 4 times greater than without him, perhaps more, and that still exists even today. If a company could get photos of Tiger in front of their brand that publicity helps associate that company with golf, and subsequently all things associated with golf; in the airline world, this means travel.

The few PGA Tour events that allow on-course branding do not display the prominent branding that is apparent on the European Tour. The PGA European Tour understands that sponsors need further association on the course with their events.

Emirates for example, was allowed to have their famed Cabin Crew greet the players of the Ryder Cup teams on the tee boxes during European Home Ryder Cup Matches in 2018, in France on the first tee. Did it affect the players? I don’t think so. The association was there, and all seemed pretty positive. This activation may not work for all sponsors as there should be some relevance between the brand’s core business and the activity. Greeting players on the tee box is akin to greeting them whilst boarding an aircraft and therefore garnered positive reviews.

Given the situation the world is in at the moment with the uncertainly of sports and fans returning to watch live sport, I would assert that if there was ever a time for the PGA, NHL, MLB and the mighty NFL to start allowing for shirt sponsorships of some sort, the time is now.

What better way to engage with sponsors who are nervous about the future of their sponsorships than to provide added value for them? This would enable the leagues to generate new revenue streams as most events will now be viewed on TV or online rather than in person for the remainder of their seasons.

When sport does come back, and it will, the TV viewing figures will be huge, so why not give current sponsors added value and new sponsors something unique? Current sponsors could trade in and carve out certain rights that they are currently losing on hospitality or on site activation in return for player branding. This could be a short-term fix and as well as a long-term solution. The contract situation between sponsors and rights-holders will now be complicated but rights holders could actually alleviate some of the mess in North America by allowing this initiative.

Many US sports leagues were professing pre-Covid-19 their desire to become global leagues. Surely now is the time to attract brands that are surviving and thriving in the current pandemic situation and encourage them to become shirt sponsors? The leagues could even cut the fees for new and existing sponsors in an act of solidarity to show they understand the global economic situation. This is not a time for rich leagues to get richer, but it is a time to maintain sponsors who are justifiably concerned about their businesses and their staff. Yes, these are challenging times for many, but the reality is that sport provides a welcome distraction from life during a pandemic and when sport does come back, it will come back with a vengeance.

One only has to look at the Taiwan Baseball League with cardboard fans and cheerleaders to realise that baseball is happening even though it looks different…but that’s okay. The games a few weeks ago between the Rakuten Monkeys and the CTBC Brothers was played out on the global stage. Clearly Rakuten has done well with their foray into global sponsorships (see its NBA patch deal) and good for them.

ESPN’s televised games in South Korea are a hit too (if you have not been to a game in South Korea, I highly recommend it as it’s an amazing interactive experience with fans singing, and dancing led by male and female cheerleaders). US sports could learn a lot about entertainment from the Asian baseball leagues. Sport will be different when it returns, but it will return and that is the most important thing to remember.

I am aware of some situations where there is stadium sponsor whose main competitor is an opposing team sponsor. So what? It happens in English Premier League as well as in other leagues and teams around the world. The great rivals in Scottish football, Celtic and Glasgow Rangers, even shared the same sponsor for many years for fear of alienating half of the local population. It worked well. Why can’t the North American Leagues follow suit and benefit from shared common sponsors’ objectives?

Sponsors are very important to leagues, teams and athletes. Let’s ensure we do not lose these valuable corporate partners and offer them more during the pandemic. Rather than having to repay some of the funds back to these partners, the timing is perfect for the NHL, NFL, MLB and PGA to follow what other leagues are doing globally and enable shirt sponsorship and on-course deals to be made. This is beneficial to all and will help ease some of the lost revenues moving forward.

It’s time to give something back to the sponsors.

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