Sports marketing agencies have a different perspective when it comes to building and kicking off the right sports sponsorship process. While clients and brands are usually more enthralled by the emotional side -and rightly so, because partnering with a sports property is a super exciting thing to do- agencies and operators tend to focus on the effectiveness and accuracy of the program. Far from the once-popular opinion of a rather bent and twisted route, the sponsorship process is indeed a quite methodical and rigorous structure, with a large amount of data, expertise and procedures involved.
There can be little doubt sports marketing has tremendously evolved in the past fifteen years, clawing its way up from a pat-on-the-back-sticker-on-the-car kind of marketing to a more data-driven, multi-platform, highly-layered marketing tool. Sponsorship programs today are -and must be- three-dimensional communication campaigns, strongly rooted in the brands’ vision and mission with a complex array of activations carefully targeted.
Understanding the sports sponsorship process from the point of view of a professional sports marketer means therefore to leave aside the gut feelings and build from a strong foundation that’s made of a bit of theory and a lot of interesting variables.
What is sport sponsorship?
Sponsorship can be defined as the acquisition of rights, following a monetary compensation in goods and/or services, deriving from the affiliation or association with a product, with a team, with an organization or with an event, with the aim of getting economic, marketing or image benefits from such affiliation or association.
This definition, even for an experienced sports marketer, must be the starting point of each and every sponsorship campaign, as sponsorship is never per se, but it is always a means to an end. What is the end goal the company is trying to achieve? And, on the other hand, what are the benefits the sport properties are willing to allow in exchange? Are there products, or services, that can be part of the equation?
You ask, they answer
As odd as it might sound, a great sports sponsorship program always kicks off with a good first interview. Understanding the client’s needs and going above and beyond their impulsive penchants is mandatory, especially with regards to a subject -sports- where many claim to be experts or well-informed.
Ideally, you should leave the room with the following information:
- What are the client’s goals, both on the commercial and marketing front
- What are the company’s values, mission, vision and legacy
- What are the features of their products and services they are trying to convey
- What are the territories the company is targeting
- What is their target audience and buying persona
- What is the timeframe for the project
- Has the client ever been involved in a sports marketing project before
- Does the client have a dedicated team to follow this campaign, both from the office and on the field
- Who is making a decision on this subject
- What is the allocated total budget for this activity
As the pros know, this is easier said than done. Clients or prospects lie all the time (everyone is a decision maker until, eventually, they aren’t), won’t share some information (“the budget is there if we like the idea”), would over-promise when they smell a good opportunity (“of course we have an experienced team in-house for the activations”) and have a very optimistic idea of their decision-making process (“of course we can make a decision in the next week if you can draft a proposal for tomorrow”).
Leaving the building with a robust, valuable kit of info about the project is priority numero uno for any good sponsorship project. Then, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
All you need is data (and love, of course)
Sports marketing agencies can help you make a better decision because of 3 key aspects:
- They have data
- They have experience
- They have contacts
Fresh, up-to-date data allow for more precise decisions and clearer projects. What team has empty spaces on their car or bike or kit? What is the average attendance of that sport or that event? How many countries receive live TV signal for that match or that race?
Experience helps reading that data and understanding those situations because they have been there, done that. If you’re a MotoGP sponsor, you’d probably think it would be a good idea to plan on a hospitality package at the French Grand Prix, since two French riders are top of the league right now. A motorsports marketing agency would however suggest against this as they know it’s highly likely to find poor weather conditions in LeMans.
Scouting the field, choosing the right property
Choosing the right property and the right sport could be a very tricky business. Sometimes the right sport is not liked by the company’s management who, for some reason, like cycling and marathon running even if they work for a microchip brand.
Picking the right team and game means carefully matching the sets of values and heritages to create a congruent, consistent project.
Sport marketing agencies know that not all sports are created equal and that different events make for different audiences. There is a reason if Rolex sponsor Golf and Formula 1 and not, for instance, trail running. At the same time, if you are a sustainable, brand new startup in the technology field, you’d better sponsor Formula E rather than, say, table tennis.
Building the right sponsorship proposal
Building the right proposal means giving the client what they need rather than what you want to sell. Sponsorship in this day and age is a million miles away from standard packages and pre-batched solutions, so each and every proposal must be tailor made and customized around the client’s goals and features.
Flexibility is the name of the game here and crafting the perfect balance between visibility, social media support, photo ops, athlete appearances, video shootings and so on and so forth truly is a form of art.
As a rule of thumb, always make sure you have several tiers of opportunities, the bottom one being the exact budget, goals and timings the clients has asked for in the first place. From that, you can show them what happens if they add that money or that year of contract, and it’ll be easier for them to get the bigger picture.
Approval and timings
When drafting a sports marketing project, sponsorship agencies and professionals know timing is key. There is a huge difference between getting started in-season, before the season or after the season. Different sports have different calendars and while November might be the perfect month to sign a MotoGP partnership deal, it would be a little late for anything related to football or basketball, the seasons of both starting at the end of the summer.
This has a lot to do with how long does it take for a client to sign that proposal and approving the sponsorship project. Newbies might be scared to push for a quicker response, but experts know it’s a fine line between being on time and a little too late.
Activation, activation, activation
Activation is the true engine of any sponsorship deal: the set of actions and tools devised to bring the project from the paper to the track must be front and center in any sponsorship program.
As we mentioned, sponsorship is but a set of rights you exchange for money or services. Leave it as it is and it’ll hardly bring you any benefit. How you turn those benefits in something tangible and profitable is paramount and there are a billion examples of great activation strategies, from hospitality programs to PR operations, from social media storytelling to contests and raffles.
A word of caution though. Activation strategies won’t come for free and are not included in the sponsorship contract, meaning the client will have to pay for each and every one of them. Again, as a rule of thumb, for each pound spent in sponsorship, consider spending 1£ in activation.
In sports and in sports marketing it ain’t over ’til it’s over. The beauty of a football match or a Formula 1 season is highly connected to their unpredictability and uncertainty. This is exactly why agencies and sports marketing consultants keep their eyes peeled for unexpected opportunities that might come knocking. At the end of the day there is always something that can be perfected, a campaign that can be tweaked or that angle nobody had looked into and now could be interesting.
Fine tuning is essential if we want to keep the program healthy, shiny and exciting.
Measuring the sponsorship benefits
Finally, reporting. Reporting is an area too often overlooked in sports sponsorship and one that -in the past- was connected to senseless innuendos such as “you can’t really measure sponsorship”.
Truth is you can with exquisite precision. Tools and strategies are in place to calculate exact Return on Investments, Return on Objectives and other metrics. Technology allows for perfect on-screen exposition measurement and the internet is nothing short of data on engagement, audiences and penetration.
Measuring the sponsorship benefits allows for finer tuning and for higher accountability, while, of course, letting you appreciate the great benefits of a well designed sports marketing program.
The good, the bad and the ugly
In this article we have portrayed a very quick and unsophisticated scenario: a pretty childish tip of the iceberg that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of a true sponsorship program. Of course we haven’t discussed the hundreds of ways things can go south very fast very soon, but we haven’t provided examples of unexpected triumphs either. Just like with everything, sport and sport marketing have a lot to offer under the surface. But complexity isn’t always bad: there are a lot of quick wins to reap and a ton of hidden treasures if you know where to look.
This is why you have agencies: a bunch of people who have been dealing with that specific complexity over and over again until that thing is not complex anymore. Do you really need one? No, of course not. You also don’t need a pair of shoes to run a marathon, but they sure help.