The word ‘legacy’ is never far from the conversation when it comes to global sporting events. When a country gives host to an event that draws in hundreds or thousands of world class athletes, and in turn hundreds and thousands of fans, therein lies an opportunity for the event to make a lasting impact. Whether it is infrastructural, societal, environmental or economic, major sports competitions are enthused at the possibility of implementing change. For event organisers and governing bodies, the long-term commitment to promoting diversity, inspiring younger generations and creating opportunities will evidently appear at the top of the agenda of those with an invested interest. For sponsors, it is not always as clear cut.

The primary focus for sponsors is understandably centred around return on investment, with the sheer exposure of being connected to a global event often seen as sufficient when it comes to reaching consumers. Moreover, if a sponsorship deal is limited to a singular event, often constrained to one or two years, the level of achievable, genuine and long-lasting social impact is perceived to be limited.

This alone is a good indicator for why sporting partnerships are not always able to cut through in a way that both they or the rights holder may wish. As a result, the word legacy is itself tarnished; spoken about but not always delivered.

When it comes to elite sport, the legacy of London 2012 is difficult to question. The Rio Olympics in 2016 marked the first time in history that a nation had bettered its medal tally four years on from hosting the games. Team GB in both Olympic and Paralympic disciplines have enhanced their strong position in the world of sport. Financially there were benefits too. Gov.uk reported in 2013 that the London Olympics was set to generate up to £41 billion in gross value-added windfall to the economy by 2020.

There was also a participation spike directly after the games. Included in the above-mentioned report was the claim that the games inspired younger generations, with half of 11–15-year-olds and a third of 5-10-year-olds saying it motivated them to do more sport. The sustainability of this increased participation since the 2012 Games has been challenged. In a BBC report from 2017, which referenced Sport England’s participation surveys about physical activity, participation had failed to grow. For 16–25-year-olds, there had been no change since 2005. Sport England’s work pointed towards a temporary boom in the immediate aftermath of the games, a boom that then tailed back off as quickly as it grew.

The wider legacy of 2012 is therefore generally considered to be complicated. State of the art sporting facilities aiding elite performance, increased tourism, job opportunities are counter balanced by the perceived lack of a sustained increase in sporting participation or lasting change. This, however, does not downplay the impact that a brand associated with an event can have in driving societal change. The Olympic example is centred around the role of the host nation or organising committee, less to do with the role of a sponsor.

The Rugby World Cup (RWC) in 2015 provides a great example of where sponsors have directly contributed to legacy goals. The RFU’s plan for the RWC legacy programme included seven strands based around delivering either building capacity or increasing participation. Two of England Rugby’s biggest sponsors made clear attempts to contribute to those goals.

QBE Insurance created the QBE coaching club, in which it pledged to train 2015 coaches who would then positively impact 50,000 players across the country. Crucially, this programme was not done solely for the tournament. QBE referenced how they had been working with the RFU for three years in the run up to the RWC to ensure that building blocks were put in place to welcome new and returning players, with the aim of keeping them playing rugby for the long term. As Sophie Morris reported, this achievement enabled QBE to genuinely claim that they are growing the sport of rugby, not just sponsoring it.

Partnerships that are more short term can still create a meaningful lasting impact. In 2019, logistics company DHL used their partnership with the RWC to give back to the sport and to connect employees globally. The philanthropic initiative ‘Race to RWC’ emerged, in which the match whistle for the first game was to be cycled from London to Tokyo. The Race provided DHL with over 310,000 video views on social, more than 200 news articles were published and crucially, over €120,000 was raised for ChildFund. Along the way, DHL employees came together at 22 separate fundraising events, with many members of staff cycling alongside the adventurers during certain legs of the journey. Demonstrably, impacting society and ensuring reach to consumers does not have to be mutually exclusive.

In football, Visa’s commitment to long-standing legacy is centred around increased participation in the women’s game. The success of the 2019 World Cup was always set to trigger a buzz around female participation, yet Visa’s commitment has remained deliberately more long term, underlined by the signing of a seven-year deal with UEFA to sponsor all of its women’s competitions.

Speaking to The Drum on Visa’s involvement in the women’s game, Adrian Farina, the company’s Head of Marketing for Europe, pointed out that the brand “didn’t even think about walking away after the World Cup. The worst mistake would be for us to see this as a short-term thing.” Farina claims that for the many brands that came and went, “it was a good press release and that was it.” There is a tangible, albeit unorthodox ROI for Visa too, with Farina outlining that their engagements in women’s football are “helping consumers perceive Visa as a business that stands for positive change in society, instead of just a technology they use daily”. Tom Corbett, Head of Sponsorship at Barclays, who have also had a long-standing partnership with elite English football, has suggested that the brand will spend the “vast majority” of its time and money on growing accessibility for the game among young girls, working with the FA to meet its commitment to make football available to every girl in the UK by 2022.

Inside Edge’s approach to securing sponsorship for the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships requires learning from pre-existing legacy, purpose-led partnerships. By looking to secure partnerships years before the event itself, the opportunity for legacy is significant. For any decision makers that believe in cycling as a sport, a mode of transport or a leisure activity, the reasons to partner are endless. The 2023 Championships will be the biggest cycling event in history. The coverage, the array of world class talent and the number of spectators will mean that the summer of 2023 in Scotland will help provide the traditional ROI that is so crucial to sponsorship. Being able to activate long before and even after the event provides an opportunity for the legacy of the event to stretch further than two weeks in August. Finding creative ways to engage with consumers and employees enables a brand to genuinely claim that they have made a lasting impact not just on the sport of cycling but also the role that cycling can play in society.

The pull of cycling is that it represents much more than a sport. Increased participation is not judged merely on the number of those interested in going round the track. Firstly, the beauty of bringing together varied disciplines will provide invaluable coverage for BMX and mountain biking, two sports that could have significantly better cut through with younger audiences. Perhaps more pertinently, bikes are modes of transport and a way of life. They represent a turn towards a greener and more sustainable future and therefore the benefits increased participation can bring transcend the elite sport. More broadly, the push for altruism and sustainability has become more essential than ever. Sponsors in sport have a role to play and, if packaged the right way, can have a huge, long-lasting impact, connecting with the billions of people who consume global events.