Microsoft have had a big week. Tuesday saw the global unveil of the Xbox One – for the uninitiated, the successor to the company’s Xbox 360, and natural rival to Sony’s forthcoming Playstation 4. Following the PS4 launch back in February, Microsoft went to town to differentiate this event from Sony’s: no glitchy web-streaming, less heavy company preamble before the big reveal and, rather critically, an actual working version of the Xbox One in the room, to allow the geeks to get their gawk on.
It’s extremely early days in this new battle for front room supremacy, although worth noting that the Xbox One has been positioned not merely as a games machine, but rather a bridge between TV, DVR, home cinema, streamed content and wireless communications, such as Skype. The verdict from the media was largely positive – although social sentiment amongst web users was slightly less so, with the look of the new machine being unflatteringly compared to that of a vintage VHS player.
As a side note, it was interesting to see the ailing Sony’s share price jump almost immediately by nearly 10%, although there are suspicions that this bore greater relation to the company’s proposed restructuring of its entertainment divisions than solely a reflection of shareholder negativity around Microsoft’s new venture.
But Microsoft’s new bag of tricks wasn’t the main thing that struck me whilst watching the presentations unravel on Tuesday; the news that slipped quietly into the party amidst the fanboy fanfare was the fact that the company had also signed a $400m, 5-year partnership with the NFL.
Hot on the heels of a similar (albeit inevitably less lucrative) deal with MLS, the agreement at first appears to be a means of bringing to life the Xbox One’s broad functionality – as a user, one can employ the device’s voice controls to flip between live TV footage, exclusive second screen content (again, delivered through Microsoft’s SmartGlass™ tech) and even get real-time updates on related touchpoints such as one’s fantasy league team – but, in fact it’s more than that.
What we are seeing with this agreement is a new type of sponsorship that is designed (whether by rightsholder or brand) to deliver reciprocal value not only to themselves and the fans (the now well-trodden ‘win-win-win’ approach), but also the sport itself: effectively delivering a win-win-win-win (or ‘Win4’) strategy. Whilst we’ve frequently seen brands activating at a sport’s grassroots, the involvement of a sponsor to advance a sport in such a top-down manner is genuinely radical. In the case of the Microsoft-NFL deal, the ‘Win4’ strategy plays out fairly clearly across the four stakeholder groups:
The Rightsholder: the deal not only delivers cold, hard cash (and plenty of it), but also includes a healthy amount of VIK. Software and server space to keep things ticking behind the scenes? This isn’t the half of it. Through the sponsorship, all teams and coaches will be provided with the Microsoft technology (via branded Surface tablets) to deliver real-time analysis on the play-by-play throughout the game – effectively becoming a brand, beyond sportswear or equipment suppliers, with the capability of adding value on the field of play itself. As a new weapon in the coaching arsenal for its teams, there’s little doubt that the NFL would be seen to sniff at this inclusion of sponsor technology.
The Sport: the tech Microsoft is putting in to the hands of the luminaries of the NFL can undoubtedly help make a case that the brand – in partnership with the rightsholder – is providing a benefit to the sport in general; faster tactical analysis and more visual feedback for players could transform the impact of those on the sidelines, with the traditional playbook becoming a living entity for coaches.
The Brand: well, aside from a selling point for its new hardware or content for its existing platforms, this deal is interesting because it takes what is typically a B2B supplier model and turns it on its head. Or, rather, inside-out. This is no ‘invisible technology’ sell; it’s not just about showcasing a seamless behind the scenes story to the IT Crowd – this is about consumer kit visibly used on the hallowed field of play by some of the biggest names in arguably the biggest game on the planet. With the purpose of delivering a genuine edge.
The Fans: aside from the aforementioned benefits for early adopters of the Xbox One, riches are likely to spread across the entire Microsoft real estate – on-demand content, stats and access through hardware such as Surface tablets or Xbox Live, alongside complementary second-screen offerings across the full tablet/smartphone universe through Microsoft’s SmartGlass apps. And which fan would consider new tactical assets for the benefit of their coaching team a bad thing? Making fans the ultimate beneficiary through their love of the sport is no mean feat for a sponsor such as this.
So, is this the start of a new suite of Win4 technology sponsorships? Well, perhaps, but one might argue that it’s already happening.
T-Mobile signed a similar multi-year, multi-million dollar deal with Major League Baseball (MLB) in 2013, which has seen a number of very similar benefits delivered across this most iconic of American sports. MLB secured a huge cash investment, including the installation of WiFi across every ground – a huge selling point for the rightsholder and value offer for attending fans; the deal has also provided the brand with video and statistical content that it is well-placed to deliver to its consumers not attending matches – including a free subscription to MLB’s $19.99 MLB At Bat mobile app.
On top of this, T-Mobile created their own product showcase ‘moment’, this time by replacing the old-school bullpen phone with their communications technology to deliver once again an (admittedly more basic) edge for coaches and teams. To say that this is a technology designed to benefit the sport in the same way as Microsoft’s coaching applications is probably overstating, but the principle that the brand is facilitating (and potentially improving) coaching dialogue for teams is still valid, just less ground-breaking.
This is a massive investment for the service provider, with T-Mobile’s involvement not stopping here: following the media domination model for sport often seen in the US, the brand will be spending big to own baseball; as the official press release puts it “partnerships with national broadcast partners FOX, Turner, MLB Network, and ESPN. T-Mobile will be the Presenting Sponsor of ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball, including on-air, digital, and mobile sponsorship initiatives, in addition to features on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. T-Mobile and Major League Baseball also will develop marquee media opportunities and marketing extensions at events throughout the year, as well as local sponsorships with select MLB Clubs.”
Speaking of which, SAP’s deal as Official Business Analytics Software Partner of the NBA has seen the company create a real-time statistics service, available for use by fans and team managers alike. Billy Beane may have just lost his edge.
So, can any brand hope to cut a deal like T-Mobile or Microsoft (assuming they can afford it)? Potentially, although the unique blend of B2B supply approach to deliver B2C benefits is definitely easier for brands such as these, whose business already spans both sides of the ‘B’ equation. This sets them apart from companies like Atos, whose B2B commitment to the IOC has kept the Olympic Games running seamlessly since 2001, but, as Jacques Rogge himself described the company, in the role of “the unsung hero”.
Outside of sport, Virgin Media have adopted what could be considered a similar approach with their sponsorship of WiFi on London Underground. Whilst the programme kicked off in time for the London Olympics last year with free WiFi at major travel hubs, it has gradually extended across more of the Tube network in 2013. That said, it’s another example of a ‘rightsholder’ (i.e. London Underground) delivering tangible benefits for its customer base through partnership with the right technology brand, with only O2 customers (who are notably excluded from access) left with reason to gripe. WiFi availability on the Underground is unlikely to lead to a better Tube service, which is where this falls short of Win4 territory, with its benefits focused on the brand, ‘fans’ (customers) and ‘rightsholder’ (London Underground), rather than transport as a whole.
The major question this raises is whether major rightsholders/events will be adopting this approach, with the hope of improving the sport as a whole. Are we going to see the otherwise glacial rate of change at FIFA thaw? Will UEFA again lead the way with innovations for the Champions League? Are we going to see Omega crack how to match on-field Olympic branding with genuine benefits for legions of fans at Rio 2016? Or, closer to home, is there a brand that could break the bank to bring the Win4 model to the Premier League and its fanbase? And is this as simple as goal-line technology?
Which brings us back to Microsoft. $400m is a lot of money to part with for a property that is still universally accepted as ‘America’s Game’; sure, the sport has fans outside of Stateside, but as a day-to-day incentive for engaging with Microsoft products or services, it’s hard to see that this travels well. Is it conceivable that the US company would engage the Premier League, and football, in the same way? What crumbs of content would be left after Sky Sports and BT have had their share? Can you imagine how many Surface tablets Paolo di Canio would get through in a season…?
In spite of these challenges, it’s clear that Win4 has a future in sponsorship, with rightsholders and fans demonstrating an appetite the right tech companies are more than capable of satisfying, to their mutual benefit and the betterment of the sport as a whole.
By Jonathan Izzard on May 24th, 2013
Tags: Advertising ,Brand marketing ,Default ,Football ,Rio 2016 ,Synergy