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When the sponsor ship has sailed – what are your options if you’re priced out of the sports partners

Originally written for Marketing Week

You know you’ve truly made it in life when your hobbies demand you ignore the fabled ‘Three F’s’ rule. For those who are just ostentatiously minted (as opposed to obscenely rich) the adage ‘If it farts, floats or flies, rent – don’t buy’ is the first advice you get from your new chums in the VIP boxes.

Horses, boats and planes are a liability – loss making frivolities that ensure that even if you’d just managed to claw yourself onto the Sunday Times Rich List, then you won’t be staying there for long.

In the later pages of the Rich List, however, where the number of zeroes look like a queue of orderly Minions, the Three F’s rule is apparently less of a warning and more of a thrown gauntlet challenge.

These are the upper echelon folk who are so unbelievably well off that they can afford to spend their spare tens of millions on any frivolous whimsey their ego desires. A pricey nag, an executive jet that ferries family, staff and mistresses and at least one crotch compensating yacht – ‘Mega’ if under one hundred metres long, ‘Giga’ if over.

At this rarefied level of the financial stratosphere the population is down to a few hundred Black Amex-wielding souls, but even these Captains of Capitalism would balk at the costs involved in the apocryphal fourth ‘F’ – Football.

Sponsorship of top teams are now so gut-knottingly insane they should come with a health warning. The two biggest shirt deals are Chevrolet with Man Utd and Etihad Airways with their derby rivals, Man City - coming in at £47 and £45 million p/a respectively. You could buy the Harrison Eidsgaard designed ‘Elandess’ and have change left over for a Cessna Citation jet – every single year of these 7 year + deals.

Getting commercially involved in football should be the king of the ‘F’s’ rule, and it only gets worse if you lose your marbles entirely and buy a team. To paraphrase an old gambling quote: -

“What’s the best way to make a £1 Million in football? Start with £2 million”

This is the pinnacle of the sports investment tree, of course, but even as you trickle your way down through the Leagues, the numbers involved would still take a significant chunk out of any brand marketing budget.

As with all marketing channels, football sponsorship has moved with the times, albeit at a slower rate than digital and broadcast media. Teams, rights owners and agents are coming up with new and disruptive means by which to sell brand association. One of the most intriguing is the notion of granular sponsorship – short term deals that slice up the football season into manageable chunks and sell the rights for everything from shirts to match programs in proportional tranches.

A browse around sponsorship platform Connexi unearths some hidden gems that make granular sponsorship a potential reality for businesses who would otherwise assume the football world was beyond their reach. Anyone fancy a Peterborough United Match day sponsorship package? Go even deeper into localised opportunities and you unearth such gems as Sutton Coldfield’s Midland Football League team ‘Paget Rangers’ – whose sponsorship proposal page is a work of exceptional genius and honestly puts most Premier League clubs to shame.

Sponsorship has progressed significantly since the days of ‘The CEO’s a rugby fan’. Whilst the barriers to entry in the posh seats remain significant, there are numerous opportunities for brands to buy into sport at lower price points and to better exploit their brand and customer acquisition capabilities. According to a 2019 IPSOS study, sports sponsorship trends point towards storytelling, customer targeting and the rise of the influencer as key opportunities that a good partner relationship can generate beyond two dimensional brand awareness.

Then of course, there’s the sleeping giant – sponsorship of women’s sport.

The rapid (belated) growth in women’s sport has opened up a new, better value and highly targeted proposition to brands priced out of the male sports market. The fallacy that only women are interested in women’s sport has, according to Nielsen’s 2018 Women’s Sports research, been firmly debunked. 84% of sports fans are interested in women’s sports, while 66% of the total population* are interested in at least one women’s sport.

The slowness of media organisations and brands to pick up on the zeitgeist means that significant value remains in an environment rich in passionate fans but woefully poor in media coverage. Nielsen’s research states that only 3% of print and 4% of online coverage goes to women’s only sport and under 20% of all televised sport covers women only or mixed sport. This frankly embarrassing trend mimics the pay packets of the global sporting superstars, with top female athlete Serena Williams placing a paltry 63rd in this years’ Forbes list of highest earners.

She’s behind Mesut Ozil, FFS.

For now, the disparity in earnings and media coverage look disproportionately unfair, but for those businesses without media myopia looking to build brand awareness, identity and advocacy whilst telling a compelling and original brand story, women’s sport sponsorship is the low hanging fruit that looks likely to bloom into significantly greater ROI than its male counterpart over the coming decade.

Currently women’s club teams tend to have the same sponsor as their male counterparts in a practice known as ‘bundling’. They were historically thrown in as an added value freebie but now the trend is moving towards separate, more targeted rights deals, and the jargon has been updated to ‘unbundling’.

This turning of the tide is happening all the way up to the highest levels of sport governing bodies. In an interview with The Telegraph this year Mike Whan, commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, said there’s been a shift in attitudes from big business as they’ve looked take advantage of the higher profile in women's sport.

In his first four or five years in the role, he claimed, it was difficult to attract big corporate sponsors to women's golf but a number of factors have reversed the trend: -

“Thanks to women’s empowerment, the MeToo movement and women’s leadership… …that change is going on. The good news is that it is not a fad, it is not going away”.

The opportunities are bountiful and not necessarily expensive, for example with extreme adventurer Kiko Matthews who’s looking for sponsors for her 6,700km environmental cycle around the UK’s coastline with the aim of raising awareness about plastic pollution. It’s a little more meaningful, purposeful and compelling than a pitch-side advert at Stamford Bridge…

*Nielsen data sampled U.S., U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia and New Zealand

Harry Lang is a strategic brand and marketing consultant and founder of Brand Architects. You can get in touch with him at or via Linked In

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