What Can UK Sponsors Learn From US Sports and a Physicist and Astronomer?

Synergy’s recent launch in the US got me wondering whether sports marketers closer to home could learn from America’s love for stats. My search for an answer unveiled some unexpected sources of inspiration and insight. This blog shares them and, in doing so, shows the answer to my question is a resounding YES.
Say the word “statistics” and memories of miserable maths lessons are what flood back for most of us. Yet today, US sports fans and coaches LOVE data. Broadcasters ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports and NBC Sports are feeding fans, via their websites, with a constant flow of facts and figures in every American sport going. The traditional Big Four – NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB – are perhaps the most stat-heavy sports on the planet.

So why are US sports fans and coaches today so hungry for data? Perhaps the answer can be traced back to the US in 1950, when physicist and astronomer Professor Arpad E. Elo introduced a system to rank the world's chess players. Elo’s approach has since been adopted and adapted by sports organisations, especially in the US. FiveThirtyEight, for example, use it to predict future NFL performance. In brief, using analysis of past performance and a bit of maths, his system has been used and adapted to estimate and rank the future performance of players and teams, and in doing so has come to the attention of sports fans globally.

The power and popularity of Elo’s approach among fans lies in how it can arm them with data to help win debates with fellow fans, and potentially even cold hard cash through betting. DraftKings, which gives gamers (gamblers?) sports research before they ‘play’ is both enormously popular and controversial in the US. Whatever you think of it, it may not be long before DraftKings is the latest US to UK import. Subjectivity and gut instinct no longer rule fantasy transfer decisions and heated half-time debates. The popularity of FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo Rankings is just one example of how the appetite for data among US sports fans is being met. Closer to home, @AccentureRugby’s analysis of the RBS 6 Nations is an equally compelling case of how data is changing sport.

Snapshot from FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo Rankings 

Player turned manager Billy Beane attracted criticism when he started using sabermetrics to make decisions on trades, rosters and the like at Oakland Athletics baseball team. Success ensued on the pitch to such an extent that in 2009 Sports Illustrated placed Beane in their Top 10 sporting GMs/Executives of the Decade, and in 2011, Moneyball, with Brad Pitt playing Beane, hit the screens to critical acclaim. Whether it be sabermetrics in baseball or mathematical modelling at Brentford FC or FC Midtjyjlland, data in coaching decisions is here to stay. Data has become integral to decision-making and debate. Why? In sport, data helps you win.

Data is integral to decision-making in business too. How many CEOs and CMOs do you think invest in multi-million £ or $ campaigns with no view on expected return on investment (ROI) vs. viable investment alternatives? To prove the point with data (I couldn’t help myself!), recent research from Millward Brown Vermeer’s Insights 2020 showed 51% of over-performing companies said “Insights & Analytics Leads the Business” vs. a 27% for global average. In business, data helps you win.

The lesson for sports marketers? Yes, you guessed it – data can help you win. Sports fans and coaches realised long ago data can deliver success. The title of sports marketing’s answer to Billy Beane is still open to applications but – with such high financial gains to be made – it’s only a matter of time until the vacancy is filled.


If you want to chat about ROI in sponsorship or anything to do with sponsorship measurement and evaluation, please do send me an email at chris.pinner@synergy-sponsorship.com and, if you haven’t already, take a look at how Synergy think about sponsorship value in our white paper here.

A Synergy Blog presented by Microassets Ltd*

*Microassets Ltd. is the world-leading provider of small ‘features’ within a bigger sponsorship asset, including content, giveaways, challenges, stats and in-game moments than can be sold to a Presenting Partner.

On a recent trip to New York, Tim Crow and I had the pleasure of going to Madison Square Garden to watch the New York Knicks take on the Indiana Pacers. Anyone who has followed the NBA this year knew that we were unlikely to witness a basketball masterclass or a win for the home team. Rather, we were going for a first-hand experience of US sports marketing and sponsorship activation. And where better than in one of the world’s most iconic sporting venues?

We certainly got more than we bargained for. Here’s what we found (and I promise I’m not making any of this up):

  1. We were told to collect our tickets at the North Concierge presented by Lenox Hill Hospital. I have no idea if the South, East or West Concierge had different presenting partners
  2. The game was part of an NBA-wide Latin Night presented by Sprite which “celebrates the growing support of NBA fans and players across Latin American and U.S. Hispanic communities”
  3. In an early time-out break, we were treated to the Cub Reporter presented by Hi-Chew, a neat little segment where the big screen showed a kid interviewing Roger Federer. The best bit: all the Pacers’ players were looking up and watching it rather than listening to their coach
  4. There was a controversial “out-of bounds” call. Luckily, we had the Official Review presented by Chase to make sure the refs made the correct decision
  5. The entertainment kept coming at the end of the first quarter with Dance Like a Champion presented by Norwegian Cruise Line. Two members of the audience had a (admittedly hilarious) dance-off for the right to win a big cardboard cut-out of a ship and a cruise with the sponsor
  6. As always, there were plenty of celebrities at courtside including Jesse’s dead girlfriend from Breaking Bad, the big dude from Blind Side, one of the inmates from Orange is the New Black, and Mahoney from Police Academy. We saw them all courtesy of Celebrity Row presented by Douglas Elliman
  7. The T-Shirt Toss presented by Kia showed us exactly what lengths people will go to catch a promotional t-shirt that is probably worth about $1
  8. Clearly, they just couldn’t blast enough t-shirts into the crowd with their measly “one-at-a-time” t-shirt cannons. Thankfully, there was the Mega T-Shirt Machine presented by Foxwoods, which, as the name suggests, raised both the quantity and distance of the t-shirts blasted quite considerably. It was a bit strange, though, that it was presented by a different sponsor to the standard t-shirt toss
  9. The Madison Square Garden has hosted some remarkable events in its history. Garden 366 presented by SAP gave us a taste of some of them on the big screen. I still haven’t worked out why it’s called “Garden 366” though – maybe the number of days in a leap year?
  10. The Knicks City Kids presented by Hi-Chew were an awesome troupe of young dancers/cheerleaders throwing some shapes to Carlos Santana (it was Latin Night remember), MC Hammer and others
  11. It is always brilliant to see your MSG-related tweet on the big screen. Luckily, Tweet Your Message presented by Duracell Powermat could make that happen, presumably while your phone was being charged
  12. The Half Time Highlights presented by Chase reminded people how and why the Knicks were losing again
  13. The Half Time Scores (from around the league) presented by Douglas Elliman reminded people that the Knicks weren’t going to make the play-offs
  14. There was another controversial moment and this time the referees could turn to the Official Review Replay presented by Delta. Wait, I though Official Reviews were presented by Chase?
  15. There is no doubt that US rightsholders do a huge amount of positive work in their local communities. In one of the breaks during the third quarter, the big screen told us all about one of these initiatives: Community Assist presented by Garden Veggie Snacks
  16. While we were all lucky just to be there, there was one fan that was even more lucky than the rest of us: the Lucky Fan presented by Sprite. I’m not sure what he or she won…maybe a year’s supply of Sprite
  17. The 3rd Quarter Stats presented by Delta reminded us that the Knicks were still losing in pretty much every statistical category
  18. We found out what was happening in the night’s other games with Scores from Around the League presented by Terra Vegetable Chips. Wait, I thought Scores from Around the League was presented by Douglas Elliman?
  19. As the tension ramped up and the game neared its conclusion, we had the Final 5 (minutes) presented by Foxwoods. It probably would have helped had the game been a bit closer
  20. At the end of the game, the best play of the night was awarded the Drive of the Game presented by Kia
  21. It was also important to remind people not to drink and drive which is why we had the Good Sport Designated Driver presented by Bud Light
  22. Trees for Threes presented by PWC made sure that we could all go home with the knowledge that there would be a tree planted for every three-pointer made during the game
  23. Finally, on our way out we walked past the Lexus show cars. They looked great but they looked lost. Why were they there? How could fans experience them? How were Lexus capturing leads?

We couldn’t quite believe the sheer intensity of the brand bombardment that we had just experienced. But when we told one US sports marketing veteran about it, his response was simple: “Welcome to America!”

Really? Is this the direction that sports marketing in the US is heading? Is the Madison Square Garden a template for the future or a relic of the past? Will the future just be an endless collection of semi-meaningless assets like “The FedEx Air and Ground Players of the Week” (NFL), “The Dominos #DomiNoNos” (MLB) and “The Dunkin Donuts Dunks of the Week” (actually that last one doesn’t exist, but it probably should)?

The appeal of this model for rightsholders is obvious. It’s about carving up rights into smaller and smaller pieces and creating saleable “micro-assets” out of thin air – basically money for old rope. Who can’t see the appeal of that? But that’s only if you see sponsorship as a zero-sum game – a transaction rather than a true partnership.

The best way for rightsholders to create more value for themselves is by focusing on creating more value for their sponsors, and then figuring out ways to tap into that incremental value; not by coming up with more and more things to sell them. And the plain truth is that this model isn’t particularly good at creating value for the sponsors.

First and foremost, and at an incredibly basic level, with 16 different brands all vying for a bit of attention at this particular event, there are simply too many brands present without enough whitespace between them. The problem isn’t the number of brands per se, but the fact that they are all basically doing the same thing (sticking their name on a particular feature), meaning that none of them are really memorable. Without scrolling up, try to remember who the presenting partner of the mega T-shirt machine was, or what Terra Vegetable Chips sponsored.

Great sponsorship needs a Big Idea: a powerful insight that connects the brand to the audience via the asset they are sponsoring, and an activation campaign which brings that Big Idea to life through different channels, over time and in new and interesting ways. But frankly, it’s really hard to see how any of the items on the list above connect to a bigger, more meaningful insight or are part of a broader, more engaging activation programme.

Sure, there are some obvious connections like the fact that the ‘drive of the game’ was being presented by a car company or that the two assets involving children are presented by a brand of chewy sweets. In fact, I’m pretty certain that someone, somewhere has come up with a logical justification for all of them (“We dance on Norwegian Cruise Line Ships so we should sponsor Dance Like a Champion”; “Trees for Threes rhymes with PWC” etc.)…but, in truth, none of them help to tell a meaningful and compelling brand story that the audience cares about. Because, to do that, you have to go beyond the obvious.

Also, it was hard to see how any of the activity we saw in the building was part of a broader campaign. Clearly, Sprite’s Latin Night was part of a bigger NBA-wide sponsorship property, but nothing happened on the night to give it that sense. Is there a PR or social media component to Douglas Elliman’s celebrity spotting? Do Chase have a campaign around helping people make better decisions which their sponsorship of the video review brings to life? Do Delta use stats in any of their other marketing communications?

If the answer to all these questions is “no”, then what’s the point of even doing them? The fact is that none of these “micro-assets” are big enough to stand on their own, so if they aren’t part of a bigger campaign, they are just tactical media buys that reach the 18,000 people inside Madison Square Garden.

Surely that’s no template for the future.

Should Sponsors Resist Contractual Activation Guarantees?

In modern sponsorship, success is most frequently characterised as being about win-win partnerships, where both sponsor and rights holder benefit from the shared value created - in other words, the synergies - by activation at scale. When this happens in the UK, it's usually the result of the sponsor delivering on a generally non-contractual commitment to activate.

However, at Synergy, we work on sponsorship contracts with rights holders around the world, and it's not uncommon to see contractual activation guarantees, particularly in the US. These can take several forms, including guaranteed activation spends, 'activation pots' (where the brand can choose from a menu of items provided by the rights holder) and/or  activation commitments, such as leveraging on-pack to a minimum scale or dictating mandatory markets to activate within.

There is further complexity when rights holders dictate the channels that sponsors must use as part of their media buy. This typically takes the form of minimum media spend with the official broadcast partner, as part of a wider deal between the broadcaster and the rights holder. And in the latest potential evolution, the NBA is exploring mandating jersey sponsors, as part of any deals brokered in the future, to spending guarantees with its broadcast partners Turner and ESPN. Although terms of this are still very much under consideration, it is in response to fears from the broadcasters that brands with jersey sponsorships won't need to buy as much of their media.  Of course it is not directly comparable, but imagine if Chevrolet, Emirates, Standard Chartered or Samsung were contractually obliged to buy a minimum number of commercial spots on Sky as part of their Premier League shirt sponsorship deals.

We are now beginning to see more and more of these type of clauses creep into contracts in the UK. So, what are the benefits and disadvantages to rights holder and sponsor?

It is easy to see the benefit to rights holders of being contractually guaranteed an active sponsor, who will take on the financial burden of promoting the asset, thereby increasing its visibility and value.

Contractual terms also protect rights holders at the end of longer deals, when it is not unusual for sponsors' interest in activation to wane.

It is less easy to see the wins from the sponsors' perspective. By being forced down certain paths, sponsors have less choice and flexibility on how they activate their sponsorship.

A minimum spend in itself could also be construed as counterproductive, as spend levels are not necessarily a proxy for reach or efficiency of messaging. Digital and Social in particular, can be highly targeted, with less wastage than channels such as Out of Home or TV, and are generally considered to be more cost efficient. If activated smartly, sponsorships can be leveraged on a tight budget.

Dictating a minimum spend in broadcast can also limit a brand's ability to activate creatively across other channels, with budget tied up in costly media buys. It can also be strongly argued that brands know their own audiences and how to interact with them better than anyone, so are best placed to select their media strategy.

As Tim Crow suggested recently in his blog on the IOC’s Agenda 2020, imposing geographical obligations is equally unpalatable for sponsors. The IOC is contemplating this to stimulate local activation by TOPs, and whilst National Organising Committees naturally want to see these global brands activate at scale in their territories, sponsors have their business priorities across the globe, which demand the focus of their marketing budgets.

In truth, it is a very fine line between ensuring that partners are, and remain, active and simply trusting them to activate effectively. Rights holders will argue that they are simply safeguarding themselves against being used as a media buy, with little incremental benefit to themselves. The balance needs to be found where clauses are included with contracts to ensure that this doesn’t unduly restrict sponsors' freedom of choice.