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Well, this is awkward. As an agency whose passions lie in sports marketing and sponsorship, starting our latest blog with a list of negative headlines hardly seems a sensible move. Yet, a quick flick through some of the international sports sponsorship news in the past few weeks warrants some attention:

      • Multiple World Cup sponsors concerned over contracts after Qatar’s alcohol ban
      • Mercedes F1 announces suspension of deal with cryptocurrency exchange FTX
      • British Cycling receives backlash for its sponsorship announcement with Shell UK
      • The English Football League has been urged to end its long partnership with Sky Bet as clubs have been taking a cut of the money fans lose with the bookmaker.
      • Cricket’s international players’ union will back any player who opts out of Aramco sponsored match award
      • Australia’s netball team is refusing $15m sponsorship from Gina Rinehart due to comments made by her father about indigenous Australian
      • All Blacks and Back Ferns await verdict on shirt sponsor Altrad’s corruption trial

      Let’s be honest here, these stories hardly paint a rosy picture of the sponsorship industry. Of course, there are positive partnership announcements and activations occurring simultaneously, but we all know that controversy attracts eyeballs. Ultimately, when it comes to the public’s perception of the sponsorship industry, these are the stories that capture the attention.

      For those of us who work hard every day in the sponsorship sector, we know there are so many positive outcomes of well-constructed partnerships that benefit wider societal needs and meet both the rightsholder and brand’s objectives. However, each time a story like those listed above takes priority in the sport business news, it’s a bit of a kick in the gut knowing this will drive people’s perceptions of the industry.

      When the Shell UK x British Cycling announcement was made, it felt like another spoke in the wheels. The backlash was severe. Cancelled memberships, key British Cycling representatives leaving, open letters of disapproval, and petitions to end the partnership have all resulted in a very messy situation.

      So, what can we do to ensure that the integrity of the sponsorship industry is upheld? Well, sponsorship conversations are internal matters between the brand and property with numerous individuals involved in the process: from sponsorship managers and marketing representatives, through to C-suite and legal. It is with these stakeholders where the decisions lie.

      In most cases, due diligence should form an integral part of this process, however it’s difficult to confirm that this occurs in all instances. The challenge with keeping things internal is that quite often the blinkers are on and the dollar signs rule. Although with the sophistication and rigour of sponsorship teams nowadays, ‘Chairman’s whim’ in its traditional form has largely become a thing of the past. That said, the pressures and decisions led by key stakeholders can still have an all too impactful role.

      In the advertising world, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ensures ads across UK media stick to the industry rules; they respond to concerns and complaints and take action to ban ads which are misleading, harmful, offensive, or irresponsible. For sponsorship, there isn’t such a body in place.

      The leading organisation in the industry is the European Sponsorship Association (ESA) which does a fantastic job at informing and growing the sector. It provides a range of documents and insight on the various legislation and policy issues that surround sensitive topics such as alcohol, gambling, and ambush marketing, and how this affects the sponsorship professional. However, right now it doesn’t act as a regulator.

      Should this be the way forward? Is this something we need? Would it be too prohibitive in the long-term and deter brands from entering sponsorships at a time when we are all trying to rebound to pre-pandemic levels? All questions that demand some discussion time. Greater guidance and best practice frameworks for due diligence can only be a positive thing, right?

      Having this in place won’t resolve every sponsorship challenge that arises; there are just some issues that are unforeseen by both brands and rightsholders, but regular external health checks and critical analysis would go some way to help. There is also a role that agencies like ours can play; although quite often working on behalf of one of the two key parties in an agreement, being honest and critical for the good of the industry is imperative.

      Ultimately, this is what it comes down to. We all have a responsibility and role to play in protecting our industry, showcasing it in the best light, and ensuring it keeps evolving and adapting. If we can’t do that, as far too many recent examples are proving, then perhaps it’s time to come together to find the right solution to protect the integrity of the thing we feel so passionately about. The future of sponsorship might just depend on it, and we’re committed to playing our part.