Featured Editorial: Kicking Off Your Sports Partnership Right

Stefan Pflug is the Brand Activation Manager for Unibet Denmark and was recognized as a Partnership Activation Rising Star in 2012. 

 Stefan Pflug, Unibet

Stefan Pflug, Unibet

For most organizations, having the basic commercial covenants of their new sponsorship contract fulfilled can be both challenging and very costly; the cost of setting up your new grandstand was much higher than expected, the tracking on your elaborate web integration is not capturing any data, and yesterday two star players from the team skipped out on your commercial shoot without notice. Ensuring your contractual entitlements requires enough resources as it is and yet, this article will argue that if your focus remains limited to the scriptures of your contract, you could be missing out in a big way.

If you work in sports, you have probably heard the notion, that fans do not like sponsors - that they only tolerate us because they have to. To these fans 'sponsorship' simply means that companies are paying to put their logos on stuff that does not belong to them. So, before you put your signature on that new jersey sponsorship or spend your marketing budget on LED, consider this: who are you trying to connect with? If exposure is what you need, you can consider your sponsorship a channel for communication like any other (radio spots, banner commercials or TV) - just do not expect fans to love you for it. If, on the other hand, you are trying to really connect with sports fans, this article could provide you with some helpful hints.

Exposure is of course a big deal in sponsorships, we all know that. In sponsorships, exposure is your ‘basics’ and you always need to cover your basics, but if your are like me, you want the premium.

If you are truly seeking to connect with sports fans, simply putting your logo on bleachers will not cut it. This seems obvious to most all, but how do we move from this recognition to real value creation for our companies. It is not easy, but there are certain keys that could prove helpful in this process.

Prior to your sponsorship being made official, create a baseline measurement report on brand awareness and preference amongst the fans of the sports team, for instance through surveys on their website. This report will be of immense value as you later seek to evaluate your partnerships success. Realize that your primary KPIs might change over time, so include all the parameters that could be of value to your company – right now and in the long run. You can always delete those that proved unnecessary at a later stage.

If your company is Nike, Adidas or Gatorade, you are in luck - sports fans love you just for being you! You have earned their good graces due to your continues involvement in sports and amazing activations. These companies have already build legitimacy amongst sports fans, but what about the rest of us? Many sponsorship managers have realized, there is no guaranteed quid pro quo in sponsorships. Fans to not care about your brand or your products, but you can indeed earn their preference over time. You do so by making obvious to the fans what type of value, you will be bringing to the table.For those that earn the graces of the fans will surely earn their dollars as well. At some point in your sponsorship, you will need to ask yourself: would the fans even notice if my company was not here tomorrow? If the answer is no, you might want to evaluate your engagement in the partnership.

Every time a new sponsor enters the building, they have to prove themselves to the fans, something that sponsors often do not take into account.

That first year of the contract will carry a heavy load of ‘start-up-cost’ related to securing you basic exposure (signs, web banners, LED animations etc.). Making the decision to spent budget on early activations with limited to no chance of direct return of investment can be a hard business decision, but it is worth it. To get the best results with your sponsorship, you need to activate your sponsorship quickly after launch - Get fans talking about your brand early to set the tone for a mutually beneficial relationship between your company and your future customers.

Your aim should be to continuously provide the fans (your potential consumer) with positive experiences with a strong link to your company. This way the consumer is gradually buying into values that you already share with them: the engagement with their favorite team. Fans do not want to be interrupted by commercial offers, while they are consuming sports and yet many sponsors still act like regular advertisers. At Google's launch of their Danish YouTube department, a key note speaker put it best; Why would you want to be the pre-roll when you can be tonight’s feature. I therefore urge you to focus on becoming a relevant part of the experience - preference and brand awareness will follow. You hereby ensure that stable footing with the fans that will later allow you to push product following a very simple equation:

Every time you offer the fans something they truly consider valuable, you earn commercial airtime.

Fans are always looking for more insights and access to their favourite teams and players. Does the team you sponsor have the equipment or resources they need to produce quality content in a continuous flow? If not, this could be an easy way for your company to leave a strong mark. If you are short on creative ideas simply search YouTube or look for inspiration at some of the strongest entities in sports industry such as Adidas, Manchester United, ESPN Sportscenter, the NFL etc. Remember, it is not stealing, if you are paying for it.

It is absolutely crucial that you ensure clear sender identification. This, however, can at times prove a real challenge. Rights holders are often cautious when it comes to addressing their fans and for good reason. Commercial interests have to be managed carefully, something that many sports teams have learned from bitter experience. Many rights holders prefer to sell traditional exposure. These most often require only limited resources to activate and offers them great control of the manner in which their fans are addressed. This makes sense to the extent, that members of sports organisations most often know their fans better than anyone else. However, this approach effectively limits the image transfer process, which is most likely at the top of your priority list. So, while your company could be growing brand awareness, you might not be winning real preference. The reason why rights holders approach sponsorships in this manner is just an expression of an attempt at safeguarding their relationship with their fans, but for the parties on the other side of the table, this can appear protectionist and as a signal that they unwilling to truly let your company in. My best advice for you is to proactively take steps to show the rights holder that you are keen on learning about their fan culture, take their input on activations and engage with them during ideation. Once you know the premise for their business, you can start challenging them properly.

Get to know the organisation you are partnering with thoroughly – do not stop at the account manager. Identifying key employees relevant to your day-to-day processes can be vital for the success of your partnership. It could be the fan coordinator who holds sway with opinion leaders in the fan environment, the web administrator approving the wording of your commercial offers on their website, the PR Manager looking over your shoulder when you use players commercially or someone entirely different. If you manage to find common ground with these key actives, they will be much more inclined to secure your KPIs.


Sponsorships can provide you with a great many eyeballs, but if you truly want to earn the recognition and loyalty of sports fans, you have to think in integrated partnerships rather than sponsorships. This article has introduced a few notions on how to make this transition, the rest is up to you. I wish you the best of luck with your partnership.