Over the years, sponsorships in sport have changed and developed drastically. Indeed, so much so that there is often a semantic difference to new commercial collaborations. The word ‘sponsor’ less used, preferred often by the idea of a ‘partnership’. Chiefly, it reflects the desire to ensure any collaboration is very much a mutually beneficial relationship, and not just a transfer of money. The needs of prospective partners have evolved and, as a result, the way in which these relationships are activated has too shifted. One major reason why sports sponsorships generate so much revenue is because of a reality that most probably will never change. Brands are enticed by the possibility of engaging with prospective customers at a time when they at their most passionate. This passion is a key indicator as to why so many sports rights holders have fanbases in the multi-millions, often from all corners of the world. There is a strong claim therefore that sports partnerships offer something that no other form of marketing can.

There remains a space for brands who see that pure alignment with a major rights holder is itself enough to warrant the investment, and as such some brands will settle for a more traditional rights package. But for those that see an opportunity that goes beyond a media buy, there is scope to find numerous avenues from which to grow your brand through a direct connection to millions of passionate supporters. As an alternative to a traditional rights package, brands increasingly can get creative on how to maximise their return on investment. For some, it’s about omnipresence; eToro is a great example of this. Rather than trying to foster a relationship with a single rights holder, they have partnered with numerous football clubs across Europe in attempt to highlight that they are the most legitimate, obvious choice for a consumer looking for a FX trading / Crypto platform. Such a strategy makes sense in what is an unbelievably competitive space. Indeed, Nielsen estimate that by 2026, sports sponsorships through cryptocurrencies could reach $5bn. This staggering figure projects a 778% increase from the current levels of investment from blockchains, cryptocurrencies exchanges and NFT spaces. Ideas around legitimacy and fan engagement are the driving forces behind the increased spend in this space. In a similar manner, the betting category’s large presence in the world of commercial sport has been dominated by a desire to increase brand awareness in what is an extremely competitive space. It demonstrates that garnering trust alongside well-established rights holders is a key reason explaining why a brand may look to a commercial sports partnership.

For some brands, involvement in sport can be a means to alter brand perceptions. For example, TotalEnergies is an Official Partner of the upcoming Rugby World Cup in 2023. Principally an oil and gas enterprise, TotalEnergies’ CEO commented on the partnership announcement explaining how the brand wants to “shift lines and play its full role in meeting the climate challenge. We want to move forward together towards the new energies that need to be at the centre of Rugby World Cup France 2023 and participate in its positive impact for society.” The argument that deals like this represent little more than ‘greenwashing’ is pertinent, but beyond the scope of this piece.

An example from further afield in Colombia shows that with the right ideas and creativity, brands can gain much more than LED around a pitch. When, in 2019, it looked as though the Colombian Women’s Football League was to be cancelled, Colombian Football’s title sponsor, beer brand Aguila, saw an opportunity for impactful activation. Their campaign, ‘Half Fans’, involved taking the badge of the current league champions and splitting it in two, with the men’s team playing with one half, and the women’s team playing with the other. The message to fans was clear – “half love is not really love”. The activation turned into a movement that took Colombian Football by storm. It led to real impact, with a 633% increase in attendance for the women’s league and an upsurge in popularity for the beer. The platform ensured the opportunity, the creativity delivered the tangible results.

Rights holders too can be active in the search for brands with shared common goals. The 2023 UCI Cycling Worlds have been seeking to engage with brands who wish to support the growth of the sport. By championing cycling’s unique position as an environmentally friendly sport as well as a means of transport, prospective partners are encouraged to see the opportunity to creatively encourage customers to make healthier choices. As a result, a brand not only gains from the global exposure of such a big event, but also because consumers see that business as one actively pursuing purposeful goals.

Sometimes it’s less about goals and more about values, meaning the positioning and stature of the rights holder has a direct influence on its commercial partnerships. Henley Royal Regatta, for example, is famous for its longstanding history and heritage as “one of the premier events of the British sporting summer calendar.” It means that it attracts and is attracted by the prospect of working with brands that share these values. Crew Clothing and – previously – Aston Martin were “chosen due to their heritage, premium offerings and synergies with Henley Royal Regatta’s values and ethos.” Much more than an exchange of money for rights. These deals of course require big investments for brands, not just in financials but in resource and ensuring a partnership is maximised and activated as effectively as possible. The global platform of sport means that it also presents an opportunity to newer businesses that need to achieve more cut-through in saturated markets.

A brand’s position in their market has a very tangible impact on the marketing spend of that company. With obvious exceptions, it’s generally considered that there is a disproportionate relationship between revenue growth and marketing spend. The need to establish oneself in a cluttered space explains why start-ups need to pay for exposure. Jen Lombardi’s recent piece on marketing spend surveyed Tech / SaaS companies, highlighted that there are nuances when it comes to budget levels. It revealed that some brands feel so compelled to commit to marketing that they spend almost as much as their current annual revenue. A bold investment in growth. Much like the crypto example, they compete in crowded markets, and there is also a great emphasis placed on demonstrating that their digitally focussed businesses offers trustworthy, safe products. Sports marketing therefore represents a great avenue when it comes to validating a brand’s service – even if the product is not necessarily one for mass market. If you are connected to a well-established rights holder with millions of supporters, trust for your service will irrefutably grow.

Perhaps a good example of this is Manchester United’s deal with TeamViewer. From the start of the current season, the club’s new front of shirt sponsor will see them reportedly earn upwards of £45m per year. Massive partnership deals have become commonplace in the sporting world, but most often with brands who are fundamentally consumer facing. In the case of TeamViewer, the product is that bit more niche and, in many respects, more of a B2B service. A “remote access and remote-control computer software, allowing maintenance of computers and other devices” is far removed from a betting, airline, crypto type deal. It perhaps sets an interesting precedent for future collaborations in the sports marketing space. If a well-funded, B2B focussed start-up has access to a seven/eight figure marketing budget, partnering with a sports rights holder immediately separates them from much of their competition, validifying them straight away.

Whether its Turkish Airlines having their in-flight safety video delivered by Manchester United’s first team squad, Standard Chartered using their space on Liverpool’s shirt to promote ‘Futuremakers’ or DHL supporting two adventurers cycle the referee’s match-day whistle from London to Tokyo for the Rugby World Cup, activation ideas are limitless. Sports marketing can guarantee global exposure and can provide validation to a brand from a category that may not have existed 10 years ago. With an increasingly anti-betting agenda in sports sponsorship, therein lays an opportunity for new-age brands to be bold and benefit from the array of rights and exposure that global sports properties can offer. The key is in the ideas and in finding creative, collaborative narratives that can lead to tangible growth for everyone involved.