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Opinion | The 4 reasons why the UK sports sponsorship market is so soft

Opinion | The 4 reasons why the UK sports sponsorship market is so soft

By: Tim Crow

Natwest will serve as title sponsor of Six Nations rugby in a one-year deal
15 Nov 2017
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When the UK sports sponsorship market started going soft after London 2012, many thought it was just an Olympic virus, and with good reason: the Olympics always creates a bubble of Games-related host country sponsorship, which rapidly bursts when the show flies out.

And so it proved - just ask most of Team GB's medallists, or the numerous Olympic and Paralympic sports still struggling to find new sponsors.

But it wasn't just an Olympic virus, and it wasn't temporary. The softness spread way beyond the Games ecosystem, into UK sport's mainstream, persisted, and is now endemic.

There is a historic glut of major UK sponsorships looking for buyers, and scarcely a week goes by without evidence of just how soft the market is - the latest example being Six Nations' one-year stop-gap extension with RBS - under which its NatWest bank will be the title sponsor - after a fruitless search for a replacement, only months after a similar deal by the English Rugby Premiership with Aviva.

It's not just about rugby. No sport and no event is immune. Numerous sports and events haven't attracted a major new sponsor for years. Even the mighty Premier League is still looking for a tech sponsor, well into the second season of its latest commercial cycle.

This is not a temporary collision of unfortunate events. Something fundamental is happening, and the red thread is that the 50-year-old model of bundled traditional sponsorship rights on which the sales side of the industry is still so reliant is being disrupted to death.

Here are the four reasons why.

1. Brexit

Yes, let's get it out there. Brexit didn't start the softness in the UK sponsorship market, but it has massively accelerated it, and this is not going to change any time soon. Political volatility and economic uncertainty are forcing businesses in the UK into increasingly short-term planning cycles. CMOs are under pressure like never before to produce faster results and hit quarterly numbers, and their tenures are shortening.

But despite this, the staple of the traditional sponsorship model remains the long-term 'three, four or more year' deal. That’s a tough sell in Brexit Britain - particularly when business as usual for your major media competitors is selling annual and seasonal products, with harder metrics.

One and two-year deals are going to become a new normal, rather than a stop-gap. If they aren't already.

2. ABC

Another staple of the traditional sponsorship model is VIP hospitality - entertaining key customers and prospects to grow or win their business. For many sports, in particular Formula One, it was their flagship asset. And for many brands, in particular those targeting the C Suite, it was key to the sponsorship business case.

But Anti Bribery and Corruption (ABC) Legislation has changed everything. What was once a major selling point for sponsorship is now a huge and complex area of risk for its potential buyers. And there's no going back. Search 'Anti Bribery and Corruption and Sponsorship' and you'll see what I mean.

3. Facebook and Google

This may surprise some people, but it shouldn't. The duopoly's dominance of the digital era ad economy is well known. If there's a budget out there to be had, it wants it. This includes sponsorship.

To illustrate, I had dinner not long ago with an old friend who is the CMO of a major UK business - the type of business any sports rights-holder would love to have as a sponsor. His target audience aligned closely with one of the major sports, so he'd looked at various sponsorships. At the same time, naturally, he looked at other options.

He eventually went with Facebook. Why? Facebook gave him much better, more detailed data and insights into the audience. They gave him bigger, more targeted reach, and case studies of previous campaigns with hard results. They suggested what creative and distribution routes to take, and offered to execute them. And they could deliver multiple campaigns within his ideal timeline: one year.

In his own words: "The sponsorships I looked at were all about awareness, but not much else. And especially not about how they were going to meaningfully connect me with my audience at scale. I don't want people to consider my brand. I want people to buy my brand."

Sponsorship has always had competition for brand budgets, but has managed to adapt and survive. Never before has it had such fearsome competition. And it's playing catch-up.

4. 'Your logo here'

Sports sponsorship is a uniquely powerful marketing platform. And I believe that it's never been more powerful or relevant than it is today.

In an increasingly fragmented world, sport inspires and unites people like little else. Done well, sports sponsorship continues to produce spectacular brand and business results for a wide range of old and new brands and categories. But it needs to get much, much better at selling itself.

I've seen thousands of sponsorship sales pitches and presentations. It's striking how many of them are selling the same things in the same way that they were five, 10 or even 15 years ago - as was the case with the Six Nations. But ninety per cent of them don't even make it past first base when they hit the desk or the inbox, for one simple reason: They talk all about the sports, and the rights, and the data, but not about what brands care about.

Most are still of the 'your logo here' variety; not about solving business problems, the opportunities created by deep audience insights, how to drive productivity and innovation, and how to create tangible brand and business value. These, and more, are all things that great sponsorship can do. But it continues to under-sell itself.

The Facebook example I mentioned above shouldn't intimidate you, it should inspire you. That's the new benchmark.

If we innovate how sport and sponsorship is presented, packaged and sold, sponsorship can do all of that and more. And survive and thrive. But it's time to get radical.

Tim Crow is the former CEO of Synergy. Follow him on Twitter @shaymantim

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