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Brand Murray Is Just Beginning

Arguably sport always has been, and always will be, associated with stars. Sportspeople of incredible athletic ability make the impossible appear effortless, creating moments of magic that give fans the chance to utter the phrase “I was there”. For an athlete to be held in this rarefied bracket of superstars can bring global fame and vast financial reward, but also a burden of expectation not just from their own fans, but the sports they bestride.

The Next Stage

An athlete who must surely now be considered within this group is Wimbledon Champion Andy Murray. Three years since his first win, Murray once again captured the title that he covets most, placing him alongside esteemed double Wimbledon winners such as Stefan Edberg and Rafael Nadal. The win also topped off an incredible year for Murray. Marriage to his long-term girlfriend, guiding Great Britain to a Davis Cup win and becoming a father has brought about a slow but noticeable transformation of brand Murray. His growing maturity matched with a change in perception among even the most casual of tennis fans offers him the perfect opportunity to take his brand even further as he moves into the next stage of his career.

Star Power

According to London School of Marketing’s 2015 sport power list, Murray ranked in 16th place. Not bad, but when considered alongside his fellow male players, Rafael Nadal (8th) Novak Djokovic (7th) and Roger Federer (1st), there appears to be some room left to grow. Federer’s continued brilliance away from the court is in contrast to his slowly diminishing powers on it. Without a Grand Slam win for four years, Federer’s ‘RF’ brand remains worn by more than just a few of the paying crowd on centre court. His ability to show a side of his personality that resonates with sponsors without a link to the court has helped prolong his marketability and it’s a path that Murray has already started to tread.

Although he counts Under Armour and Head as his on-court equipment partners, Murray’s partnership with Standard Life represents a deal that looks to work with some of the less athletic aspects of Murray’s character and is undoubtedly contributing to a better understanding of the man behind the racket. Yet it’s imperative that the partnership works both ways, with a set of shared traits that can be projected to a targeted audience for the benefit of both sponsor and athlete.

Careful cultivation of these traits can truly transform reputations and Standard Life’s Master Your Dreams film series is a perfect example of the process at work. The films explore a side of Andy Murray that isn’t well-known, helping the audience to see a new thread in the Murray story and one that Standard Life applies to its own organisation. From the meticulous preparations of Andy’s childhood, to meeting his own sporting heroes, viewers have shown a willingness to engage with the films, sharing their changing perceptions and even thanking Standard Life for providing the opportunity for them do so.

Standard Life’s willingness to look beyond the common narrative and work with a different side of brand Murray not only helps them stand out from the crowd but supports their own story, not something every sponsorship or indeed athlete, has the ability to do. The challenge therefore is two-fold, first to identify an athlete whose own brand, ambitions and athletic performance complements that of a sponsor and secondly (and far more challenging) is to select the the correct aspect of an athlete’s story to tell.

Executed properly the rewards are clear for all to see, both on and off the court.

Heart Over Head: Spotlight turns on sponsors after Sharapova ban

In the 48 hours following the news that Maria Sharapova has been banned for two years for taking banned substance Meldonium, the spotlight has invariably shifted to her sponsors to see their reaction.

Many would have expected Nike, Head and Evian to pull the plug on their sponsorship deals with the former world No.1, but all three have done quite the opposite. Nike announced it will be continuing to partner with Sharapova, citing that she did not dope intentionally and is appealing the ban. Originally Nike had suspended its relationship with the Russian pending the investigation.

Evian, likewise, had first said it would follow the investigation closely before making a decision, but has now come out in full support of Sharapova and will continue to work with her despite the ban.

Head, though, took things a step further – a big and controversial step further – by challenging the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Head has claimed that the ban was based on WADA’s flawed process and was therefore a flawed decision, and so the brand will be sticking by Sharapova and continuing its sponsorship.

Quite why a tennis racket manufacturer is challenging WADA’s global drugs policy is baffling. What expertise does Head have to make such a criticism of WADA and doping in sport? A well-advised sponsor would steer clear of such a move and comment only on its relationship with the athlete, certainly not taking on a governing body that is trying to keep the sport clean and fair.

This follows the original statement Head released back in March when the failed drugs test first arose in which the company nailed its colours to the mast and came out in support of Sharapova without knowing all the facts or what the final outcome of the independent investigation would be. This did not sit well with one of its biggest athletes, Andy Murray, who openly criticised Head’s position in supporting Sharapova.

Sharapova is a Head ambassador

At the same time, another Sharapova’s sponsors, Tag Heuer, took the non-emotional route and put loyalty to one side by announcing it was suspending renewal talks and cutting its ties with the tainted tennis star. Tag has reaffirmed this stance and said it is not in a hurry to discuss any new contract, signalling the partnership will wind down

Porsche took a similar approach to Nike in suspending all planned activity with the former Wimbledon champion and has now said it will hold back final judgement until the outcome of the appeal is known.

Avon sensibly chose to remain silent back in March, but has now confirmed the sponsorship will expire at the end of the current contract without renewal, pointing at a limited engagement window for activity being the reason as opposed to the doping situation.

The Nike positioning is interesting when you look at the business value and the brand’s reputation. Supporting an athlete banned for doping damages the reputation of the brand, although a precedent was set by Nike’s renewed support of two-time drugs cheat Justin Gatlin. If there is a huge business value attached to the athlete that outweighs the reputational risk in the long-term then you could understand Nike supporting Sharapova. However, she is approaching the end of her career, especially by the time she can return to the court, and when put alongside the other stars on Nike’s books she no longer has the revenue pulling power.

We now await the verdict of Sharapova’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and to see what the sponsors do next. Will Murray and other top stars with Head or Nike partnerships speak out publicly against Head challenging WADA or Nike sticking by Sharapova?

The Momentum Behind Women’s Sport

It’s been business as usual this week at Synergy, because we’ve been celebrating and championing the momentum behind women’s sport.

On Tuesday night we were celebrating the SSE Women’s FA Cup, which we partnered our client SSE in creating, winning the inaugural ‘Empowering Women Through Sport’ award at the UK Sponsorship Awards. Fantastic recognition for SSE, our team, and a sponsorship that is literally a game-changer. It is focused on a commitment to invest in the women’s game with funding dedicated to creating a national programme of girls-only football activity and, as the first ever major sponsorship of the Women’s FA Cup, it signals the growth and stature of the women’s game.

And the day before, we championed women’s sport and, in particular, women’s tennis following Raymond Moore’s sexist idiocy and Novak Djokovic’s ill-advised, and subsequently retracted, reaction, when I made the point on that night’s main BBC evening news bulletin that women’s sport worldwide has greater momentum and investment behind it, by every measure, than ever before.

Further proof of that — if it were needed — and of the popularity of women’s tennis arrived the same day from the latest ESPN Sportspoll, sent to me by my friend and ex-colleague Alex Balfour.

Female sports fans are the biggest growth area in the last ten years in the US, whereas male fans in the 12–34 year old segment have decreased.

Look at the biggest ethic grouping among WTA fans in the US…

And where are they in the US? The south. These aren’t Federer, or Nadal, or Djokovic coat-tailers Mr Moore: they’re Serena fans.

Go Serena. Go women’s sports.