More than a matter of life or death

Some people think football is a matter of life or death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” The infamous Bill Shankly quote was indeed a very appropriate opener for the Geneva International Sports Convention. The UNICEF program project shared by Verity Nicholas, Chief Corporate Partnership Officer, lively supported how sports has the power to save lives. If you know that in Bangladesh drowning is still in the top 5 causes of death of children below 5 and if you appreciate that swimming lessons for kids in small villages may be a lifesaver, it is much easier to understand and applaud the investments UNICEF is making in the global commercial sports arena.
Shining on the chests of great football legends like Lionel Messi is merely a means to an end for partners – be it Qatar Airways or UNICEF. That end may be to increase awareness of brand or offering, to build brand value or client relations, to gain market share or to give children the right to sport and play in a safe environment.
Regardless the purpose, even organizations advocating measures to give children the best possible start in life have to walk the ROI talk to achieve their end goal. Indeed Björn Wäspe, sponsorship is not to be confused with altruism.
Barcelona increased its Nike sponsorship value 4 times over after they engaged in UNICEF shirt sponsorship.” Verity smartly juggled dazzling numbers during breaks in between engaging stories on Indian girls harvesting community appreciation by playing football or teens learning about HIV hazards on the playground. UNICEF is very convinced of the return on sports investments for their cause. For instance, their (probably expensive) partnership with Manchester United allows them to unlock the potential of Wayne Rooney and others alike. “The power of these players to activate fans is unseen. In no more than 10 minutes Wayne raised over 750,000 EUR for our cause.”

The economic downturn hit traditional big sponsor industries like banking and insurances particularly hard. Many companies had to reconsider prior evident engagements. Nowadays sports partners – and certainly the global ones – define a strategy and translate it into sports program KPIs and requirements. They pursue optimal use of all available platforms accessible through the partnership. Players are also important assets in this picture. Ronaldo is a brand with 93% global brand awareness and a ‘channel’ with 31.8M Twitter followers around the globe. It’s not so crazy for Nike to spend much marketing money featuring CR7 & co. In fact, with Risk Everything they were pretty damn sure they weren’t taking many risks.
But what do you do if Iceland is your playing field and you aspire to grow market share through football, the number 1 national sports which unfortunately gets deprived from big talents even before they reach the Pepsi League age?
Maybe with the exception of Sigurdsson, the Icelandic players are in the best case semi-professionals. But when the team was up against the Netherlands, 65% of the total population (320,000 people) cheered them!

“We could not fall back on famous players to feature. Looking for our campaign icons, we found them in the local boys and girls playing the snowy fields, moms vending tickets before and washing shirts after the game, dads cheering sons and daughters in wind and weather.” dixit Jon Mikael, Brand Manager Pepsi.

The result was the Passion for Football campaign that did not only win the UEFA KISS Awards for best sponsorship activation (2012), but also much market share. Whereas Coca-Cola still claimed 85% of local coke consumption in 2002, today (2014) 41.1% of the overall coke market in Iceland (and 63.5% of the growing no-sugar segment) is claimed by PepsiCo. Moreover, Pepsi is the number one football brand, beating not only Coca-Cola, but also Adidas and Nike. This was an unprecedented campaign success and within the PepsiCo Group the case has become a best practice example.

Michael Thompson, Global Marketing Director Carlsberg, would take the sponsorship discourse to the next level: the Premier League – Probably the Best League in the World. “Having established relationships with great tournaments and great clubs like Liverpool (since 22 years now), it was a very strategic choice for Carlsberg to sponsor the Premier League.” The Premier League is broadcast in 212 territories addressing 930M fans. Carlsberg smartly activates this global fan base by bringing the fans very close to the action, through campaigns like Join the Greats – granting mere mortals the pleasure of personally encountering the legends they so much admire.
Brands do not only seek to strengthen the ties with leagues in order to reach the consumers; leagues in their turn are actively attempting to acquire their operating funds through sponsorships in currency or in kind. The economic climate has made traditional media partners wary about their towering expenditures on broadcasting rights for big events. The fragmentation across modern media further dispersed remaining resources. League funds that had always been evident were now to be sourced elsewhere.
Jose Luis Rosa-Medina, Partnership Director at the EuroLeague Basketball, gave an excellent presentation on how they reinvented their income model by making an attractive pitch for partners. The EuroLeague has 60 clubs with 900 professional players under its umbrella, delivering their fans more than 500 games in 7 months’ time. Of course fans are fans of a local club and not of an overarching international organization. But fans want their club to play on the highest possible platform, hence – when guarding absolute fan centricity in all content and action – the EuroLeague was rightfully convinced of the relevance they had to offer to those fans all over.
Sports is a breeding ground for epic social currency. People love to talk about sports and you have to create content that is very exciting and very inclusive so the fan wants to accept this offering from you. Where consumers go, brands will follow.” They pitched this simply solid insight very well, resulting in a long-term partnership and activating consumer campaigns together with Turkish Airlines targeting both existing fans (Basketball Capitals of Europe – celebrating big basketball cities) and new fans all round (Epic Pool Dunk campaign – widening the world of basketball).

You have to offer access to all your assets (including the players) and this at the right time and in the right place (in and around the arena where the fan action is happening). Once you have developed your proposition based on content, you tie in your platforms.” EuroLeague really dunked the idea with an Italian Job very well done. Enjoy the Eye of the Fan! It triggered over 40,000 content contributions by followers on the site with an estimated total reach of 900,000 unique site visitors and 7,303,989 social media viewers on Twitter and Facebook.

Whether you are representing an athlete, a club, a local league, a national team, an umbrella organization in football, basketball, tennis, Formula 1, golf… think about what makes your fans tick and (have them) share stories about it. If you cannot activate your fans at the right time, in the right place, they might as well stay at home and watch the game on TV or zap away. If you (consider to) sponsor one of the above or another sports, think about what your audiences will expect and how you can engage with them. And above all: set objectives, get the party started and measure the success against the KPIs set.
Of course it is sometimes challenging to pin effects down to sponsorship alone, but that is not a good reason not to do it.” Amen to that, Gregory Renand, Global Head of Sponsorship and Thought Leadership Marketing at Zurich Insurance Company Ltd.

This blogpost was inspired by all contributors to the Sports Sponsorship EXPO at the Geneva 2014 Sports Convention, which I enjoyed very much. Thank you all.

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