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Watch this Space: Jersey Sponsorship in the US

In this year’s NBA All Stars game in Toronto, there was one towering difference on the court. It had nothing to do with what the players were doing with the ball, but everything to do with what they were wearing. On their jerseys, for the first time, there was a brand logo – Kia.
Let’s put this in proportion: at 3.25 inches by 1.6 inches it’s barely noticeable in comparison with the logos on MLS or European sports jerseys, but it’s the barrier it crosses that’s significant. There can be no doubt that this is the NBA putting feelers out for what Commissioner Adam Silver talked about back in 2014 when he said: “We know what the value is to advertisers…to be able to show fans in-game branding.”

The math is simple – the average MLS jersey goes for around $3–3.5m dollars a year, but for commercial departments from the leading “big four league” teams in the US, I would imagine that there have been some envious glances across the pond to Manchester United’s deal with American car company Chevrolet at $75m a year.

Whilst the NBA have been joined by the NHL (whose Commissioner described jersey sponsorship as “coming and happening”), the MLB and NFL have been certainly more lukewarm. There are obvious logistical issues around it.

First, with a league’s collective bargaining agreements there needs to be consensus and balance as to whether it’s sold centrally or as per the European sports model, team by team. And secondly, the objection of broadcasters concerned about potential conflict and lost revenue.

The real question here is not whether this will indeed happen in the USA (I believe it’s inevitable over the next few years in NBA and NHL, at the very least), but rather whether it will impact negatively for consumers. And moreover, will brands here in America learn the lessons from the decades of good, bad and ugly jersey sponsorships in the past to influence the future?

So do consumers care…and, in particular, the Millennial consumer?

At Synergy, we’ve long been frustrated by the lack of real understanding and insight on the way Millennials engage with and view sports – both now and in the future. There are countless myths that have been built across the demographic, some of which are wrong and many of which can skew the way brands and rightsholders build campaigns. At the end of 2015, we undertook a bespoke and comprehensive piece of research with our sister agency, The Intelligence Group, around both Millennial and Generation X attitudes towards sports, sponsors and the future of sports engagement, with findings featured throughout Now, New & Next 2016.

The survey (3,145 consumers in America with 66% 18–34-year-olds and 34% 35–54-year-olds) specifically examined the potential impact of jersey sponsorship among the audience.

In short – they don’t see it as an issue. The rise of European soccer, MLS and WNBA has made jersey logos a more acceptable part of the viewing experience for the Millennial sports fan. The research highlights that 27% of Millennials think jersey sponsorship is “very appropriate” (higher than Gen Xers), whilst, tellingly, more Gen Xers than Millennials think it’s better for brands to be in the ad break or break bumpers.

History also shows that team success soon overcomes fans’ commercial objections. FC Barcelona – whose motto is famously “More than a Club” – held out for decades against commercial shirt sponsorship by featuring Unicef on the front of their jersey (at no charge), before replacing the global charity with sponsorship from the Qatar Foundation for a then record $40m a year.

Whilst there was a clear media backlash, it didn’t last long when a team with significantly increased resources went on to lift the UEFA Champions League. So if it helps your team produce a great spectacle, most fans soon overlook the logo.

Critically, fans soon discover that a brand appearing on their shirt will not affect their “fanship.” Indeed, more than being just a benign presence, fans may even come to see a jersey sponsor as a positive force for good, with the brand actively enhancing this very fanship. Another reason why this front-and-center asset can be so powerful.

As a jersey sponsor you have a responsibility, since your logo becomes part of the history of the team. Famous jerseys down the ages of European sports are identifiable due to the brand logo on the front of them – the brand locked forever, in the very midst of that trophy-lifting moment. The same applied off the pitch, where through the replica shirt market, fans of all ages wear your brand on a daily basis.

You cannot be edited out – be that in the live moment, or the subsequent media coverage: your brand is indelibly stencilled into that moment of history (for good or bad).

This responsibility means that you must understand and tap into the players, the fans, the culture and the tone of the team.

Lessons Learned for the Future

So what lessons can brands considering jersey sponsorship here in the US learn to ensure this doesn’t become just a glorified media buy?

1 UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Jersey sponsorship has always been the closest you can get to being in the action as a brand. New tech can only help this to literally get up close and personal with your team and your favourite players. At the 2016 CES Sports Forum, virtual reality was talked about by one team owner as “what TV was to radio” – imagine the creative capacity for VR technology being able to take fans into the action courtesy of the jersey sponsor.

2 IN-GAME, EVERYWHERE
Being at the heart of the action means being at the heart of the live moment, and research shows that Millennials notice brands in-game more than anywhere else. As a jersey sponsor you need to ensure you contractually own the live moment by having access to your team’s official social media feeds in order to feed the consumers’ desire for in-play, shareable content that can enhance their fanship.

3 CONNECT WITH THE PLAYERS TO RESONATE RICHLY
Get the players onside and fast, as they’re the living embodiment and running billboard for your brand. This is what can make the activation of a shirt sponsorship both easy (as you don’t need to shoehorn your brand into the situation) but also dangerous (you may not want your brand involved in certain off-court exchanges).

Again, with players controlling their own IP and the restrictive contracts they can have with teams in the US on its usage, brands need to be savvy enough to work in harmony with the players. Additional agreements with them are a must, especially in relation to their social feeds. Take, for example, the starting line-up for the Cleveland Cavaliers, which has a combined Twitter and Facebook following of 58m, versus the team’s official feeds of just over 5m.

LeBron’s Twitter following alone is nearly as big as that of all the other teams in the league combined.

4 DISRUPTIVE THINKING PAYS
Don’t be afraid to innovate or have fun with it – when Intel signed a jersey deal with FC Barcelona they literally turned the traditional model inside out by putting their Intel branding on the inside of the jersey. Some brands have handed over the space to a charity that they back for key matches – something that usually attracts positive sentiment.

5 THINK LOCAL AND ACT GLOBAL
The geographic activation restrictions of most US league deals ensure that the jersey sponsor would need to keep home fences mended, but the real potential for the leading teams would be the global potential. It’s no accident that leading UK soccer clubs Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea are sponsored by Chevrolet, Standard Chartered and Yokohama respectively – all brands targeting a global audience. Chevrolet don’t even sell vehicles in the UK.

Jersey sponsorship will happen here in the US, and fans will accept it. Leagues and brands, however, must look past the jersey as simply prime estate, instead seeing it as a chance to help share the very beating heart of the team.

Respect this, enhance it and tap into the fan culture, and it’s among the most powerful assets in a sponsorship arsenal. Get it wrong and it’s an expensive – and very public – mistake.

This blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship and entertainment outlook for 2016, which can be viewed in full here.

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 Synergy an email at tom.gladstone@synergy-sponsorship.com and, if you haven’t already, take a look at how Synergy think about sponsorship value in our white paper here.

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.