This is a column about sponsorship and promotion so, like the pro that I am, I’m going to get my plug in early.
On 26th and 27th September SportsPro will host the fifth edition of The Brand Conference, our event for the sponsorship and marketing sectors, at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. The tagline for this year’s iteration is ‘A New Era in Sponsorship and Marketing’ – a reference to all the ways in which the maelstrom of changing consumer tastes and behaviour, the growing significance of detailed measurement, and the kaleidoscopic flux of digital technologies and regulations are affecting the job of selling things to sports fans.
Yet for all the talk about new kinds of partnership and new kinds of partner, there are three quite conventional-looking recent major deals that will tell us a lot about where sponsorship is going. These are Paris Saint-Germain aligning with Jordan Brand, the Premier League signing with Coca-Cola, and Allianz joining the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) elite TOP sponsor programme from 2021 to 2028.
First up: PSG and Jordan. On the one hand, this is just a kit deal – or more accurately, it’s an arrangement that shifts the French soccer champions from one part of the Nike stable to another. Initially, they will be wearing special edition matchday shirts in the Uefa Champions League while they continue to sport Nike gear in Ligue 1.
Think hip-hop and hipster bars and kids playing basketball, instead of Gauloises, tiny coffees, designer handbags and green newspaper stands
But really, as French soccer writer Tom Williams explains in a piece in Bleacher Report this week, it’s a Trojan horse to smuggle PSG into pop culture settings where they’re relatively unfamiliar. The club aren’t that interesting as a sporting story right now – an oil-powered superteam smashing up overmatched domestic opponents before losing meekly to the first decent European side they face each year is pretty much the opposite of cool – but young fans introduced to them through other entertainment media might build up an affinity in a different way.
Far more important than Jordan’s playing shirts will be the 100 or so clothing items on sale to feature a reconstituted club crest with the ‘Jumpman’ logo taking the place of the Eiffel Tower at its centre. Even before the official confirmation came last week, some of that newly stamped clobber had found its way on to the backs of pop stars like Justin Timberlake – continuing a trend that has seen female artists and models wear one-off dresses that incorporate versions of the PSG shirt.
For the club’s Qatari owners, the Paris part was always what was attractive about PSG, and this is the most aggressive effort yet to bring the French capital to the core of the team’s identity. Rather than the picture postcard landmarks, it is exploiting a very 21st century image of Parisian cool: think hip-hop and hipster bars and kids playing basketball, instead of Gauloises, tiny coffees, designer handbags and green newspaper stands.
The use of cultural icons to spread team iconography is nothing new – Yankees baseball caps being only the most prominent example of sporting merchandise as fashion statement. It’s rare, though, that such a strategy is so explicitly outlined, and so dependent on a key sponsorship deal to do much of the heavy lifting.
Across the Channel, Coca-Cola and the Premier League have also updated a classic partnership type: FMCG brand partners with sports property so it can sell its product in stadiums, slap logos and imagery on to packaging, build installations in store and use the association in advertising. But this deal has a couple of additional dimensions to consider.
One is that it is a pragmatic response to specific market conditions. The UK government is introducing a tax that will make sugary soft drinks smaller or more expensive, depending on producer preference. Coca-Cola, then, needs to promote its less saccharine lines, and move itself away from the conversation around obesity and other conditions related to poor diet. By incorporating all of its drinks brands, the Premier League deal will allow the company to do just that – while also giving a handy push to new releases like its Honest coffee range, its AdeZ smoothies and Fuze Tea.
But the other element is content. Few sponsors are more prolific activators than Coke, especially when it comes to publishing across a range of media – SportsPro data partner Hookit discovered that, during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, the company posted 982 times on social platforms for a return of over 11 million interactions. As soccer feels the impact of a growing appetite for short-form video, there is much to be said for lining up with partners who have their own reach and a desire to exploit it.
The alliance between Allianz and the IOC has the potential to be the most conventional of the lot, which should conversely make it the most interesting case study for all the ways in which sponsorship is changing and all the ways in which it isn’t. The world’s biggest insurance group becoming a major partner of the world’s biggest, most mainstream sporting event – so far, so safety-first.
The reported nine-figure value of the contract underlines how the TOP programme has been rejuvenated, with the Olympic Channel outlet and the certainty around upcoming big-city hosts – the frosty 2026 race notwithstanding – helping to reinforce confidence. Other than renewals, though, the recent run of IOC deals have come from the tech space and given new partners like Intel and Alibaba a very obvious stage on which to demonstrate their capabilities in an exciting, consumer-facing way.
Allianz will provide insurance services to the Games.
That means it’s likely that any fresh thinking around the partnership will come through storytelling and the kind of Olympic initiatives Allianz chooses to support. The company’s recent sponsorships provide some clues as to its tastes. Early last year, it made a first step into what it called the ‘digital sports’ space through a landmark title sponsorship deal with the Drone Racing League. It is also a long-term partner of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) – which has recently strengthened its own links with the IOC. Between those two, it’s possible to get some sense of the elements of 2020s Olympism that Allianz will want to tease out.
What is suggested across the three partnerships is that the fundamentals of a compelling sponsorship are pretty much constant. A good collaboration is still one that delivers mutual benefits to all parties, and a solid, well-reasoned bit of activation is still one that is enjoyed by the appropriate audience. Brands still need to think about how a deal helps them achieve business goals; rights holders still need to understand how to maximise their value and be shrewd in leveraging their partners’ assets.
The end goal, then, hasn’t really moved. It’s just that the way there runs through a landscape in tectonic overdrive.