Smash It: How to Win the Sports Sponsorship Game

The US Open is well underway at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. As it’s the most attended annual sporting event in the world, you better believe brands are taking advantage of fan engagement. In fact, this year, major sponsors like IBM, Mercedes-Benz, Chase, and American Express are diverting from celebrity-led campaigns and directing fans to spread their messages on social.

As technology evolves and connectivity increases, brands are given more and more opportunities to interact with fans. According to representatives from Havas Sports & Entertainment: “Brands have more chances to create bespoke content and generate conversation along more channels. They don’t have to wait any more for their logo to appear on the pitch side so that they can interact with fans.”

With evolving consumer behavior and the opportunities technology provide brands, we have to wonder if traditional sponsorships still provide value. Why shell over the big bucks?

“There is no one-size-fits-all in terms of sporting event sponsorship’s return on investment,” says Havas S&E. “Brands sponsor events for different reasons along the marketing funnel. Once the brands define their key performance criteria for the asset activation, they can measure the success of this activation accordingly.”

Of course, brands expect the value of the sponsorship to exceed the price, but to determine value, they must first assess the “opportunity cost,” what the sponsorship provides compared to other media. That being said, it’s not necessarily a one-to-one comparison. As Havas S&E reminds us, “A sporting event is not a media channel but a platform to build campaigns, offering numerous activation opportunities.”

For example, US Open sponsor Amex has created a virtual reality game that lets fans play one-on-one with Maria Sharapova. And IBM has found a way to enrich the fan experience with its SlamTracker feature which allows Facebook users to share live match statistics with their own commentary,

Gone are the days of simply sponsoring major events, advertising with the major networks, and being guaranteed your message is successfully delivered to the right audience. With fragmentation, sports sponsorships now require more than just brand associations. They require activations that truly connect with people. That’s why Havas S&E advises that brands not talk to consumers but rather engage fans.

Ultimately, the key to a successful sponsorship activation is not the value it provides a brand, but the value a brand can provide consumers. Havas S&E: “When brands successfully engage with the audience through their activation of sports assets, they are truly accepted by fans for what they bring to them. This is something new in the relationship between brands and fans, moving from a begrudging acceptance of brands to an appreciation of brands.”

To win the brand sponsorship game, brands must add value to the fan experience with experiences related to consumers’ passions. Just like in tennis, it’s all about the love.