Sports Sponsorship – What Do the Fans Think?

Euan MacNicol, Account Manager at Spiritmedia asks the question.

Sports sponsorship, already a well-established area of marketing that many global brands cite as central to their communications strategy, continues to grow financially. Across the ‘Big Five’ European football leagues, for example, sponsorship revenue dwarfs income gained through ticket sales and other match-day moneymakers.

On the whole, that gap has been increasing over the past five years, with sponsorship and other commercial revenue reaching €4.875 billion across the ‘Big Five’ in 2016/17 – nearly a third of their total revenue. From the advertiser side, sponsorship expenditure is also increasing year-on-year, with the sports category unsurprisingly taking the lion’s share.

Although the numbers convey the financial significance of sponsorship for both sides of the contract, it is equally important for brands to understand the other ways in which they are affected, such as:

  • brand equity
  • brand awareness
  • brand fit between sponsor and sponsored organisation
  • the consumer’s perception of their values
  • the ongoing maintenance of their buyer-seller relationships.

This is a notion that has already been picked up on by some large brands with long-standing experience of sponsorship. Coca-Cola, for example, provided a reasonably open justification for their position as longest continuous sponsor of the Olympic Games. Stating first that they are, of course, a business looking to showcase their range of products, they mentioned the idea of consumer participation on a large scale, plus the desire to build a deeper relationship with customers and to further their understanding of the social values brought by their sponsorship.

So how are sponsorships viewed by the fans themselves? We conducted a small online survey of UK sports fans to gather perceptions.

Product Relevance

Only 18% of survey respondents agreed that it is important that the sponsor’s product or service is relevant to the team, but their comments provided some interesting insight. Referring to a player’s protest over the ill-fated Wonga’s previous sponsorship of their team, a Newcastle United fan said that “a club with a multicultural squad and fans shouldn’t be taking on sponsors that alienate certain people”. At the other end of the scale, an Edinburgh Rugby fan felt that gym chains “are also valuable partners, as they provide the best facilities and products for the fitness and conditioning of the players. I think this has led me to take more interest in the companies myself.”

Attitude to Sponsor

Over a third of respondents agreed that they were more likely to choose a brand that sponsored their team. Their responses also suggested that certain prerequisites make a positive reaction more likely. One example is team performance, with a Heart of Midlothian FC fan commenting that they “associate [sponsors] with certain eras, e.g. Strongbow when we won the cup, so I think of them as part of that”. Nationality also appeared to be important to some, with one viewing RBS as “interested in serving local customers” as a result of a previous deal with Scottish rugby, and an Arsenal FC fan saying they would “feel a connection to the company renaming our stadium if they were British” as opposed to Dubai-based airline Emirates.

Interest in Sponsorships

This question produced a strong response, with 56% of respondents agreeing that they take an interest in their team’s sponsorship deals. Financial benefit was, unsurprisingly, the most important factor to them, but others also emerged: coherence between sponsor logos and team strips; level of interference with players; sponsors’ willingness to interact with the club and community; creation of competitions and digital content. All the aforementioned factors were considered important in selecting commercial partners.  

Overall, fan responses have shown that convincing stakeholders of the sponsor’s suitability for the organisation is central to deriving benefit from, for example, brand loyalty and trust. A sponsor brand that is perceived as the team’s equal with regard to quality can reinforce this image for both parties. Fans want interactivity; they want their voices to be heard when it comes to commercial decisions; and they want to understand a sponsor’s purpose in connecting with their club. If these prerequisites are met, sponsorships can lead to a rewarding, mutually beneficial relationship.