A Key Link in the Sponsor-Fan Chain Is Breaking

A Key Link in the Sponsor-Fan Chain Is Breaking

As host of MLB All-Star Week, Coors Field was unsurprisingly awash in T-Mobile magenta for last Monday’s Home Run Derby. But viewers of the ESPN broadcast could be forgiven if they were turned off by the overt branding because it was lacking the context of the wireless service provider’s role as one of the league’s most important brand partners. (And it is far from the only sponsorship facing that problem.) 

Multiple research studies over the years have shown that consumers are much more likely to think favorably of sponsoring brands, and have a higher propensity to purchase those brands, if they understand the value of the partnership to the sponsored property and to their own fan experience.  

In other words, for brands to gain traction with them, fans must feel that sponsorship makes the event happen and is not merely an advertising exercise. 

NASCAR has been the prime example of this cause-and-effect for many years. Over the decades, the sanctioning body, the teams and the drivers have constantly reminded fans that without the sponsor logos seen all over their cars and uniforms there would be no racing as we know it. As ham-handed as some of those post-race sponsor acknowledgments can be, they work because they are genuine and authentic. The message has gotten through and NASCAR fans remain among the most sponsor loyal. 

Some of that success can be attributed to NASCAR’s sponsorship model of driver and team sharing the same corporate partners. Without it, other leagues, teams and event promoters have historically been on their own to inform and educate fans about the important contributions sponsors make in terms of critical revenue, operational support and enhancements to the fan experience. 

And many did a good job of it.  But that was when those organizations had fans’ attention, as well as the biggest megaphones, whether through media partners or direct communication channels.  

As we all know, that dynamic has shifted dramatically. Fans—especially younger ones—have become increasingly disillusioned with many of the entities that govern sports leagues and events, with less interest than previous generations in listening to what they have to say.  

On top of that, and ultimately more importantly, is fans’ connection to individual athletes and the ability of those athletes to communicate, engage and form relationships directly with their fan base through social and digital media.  

Although they are now in the best position to carry the message about the importance of sponsors, today’s athletes don’t have much, if any, incentive to promote team, league or event partners. They use their media opportunities and digital platforms to build their personal brands or share the stories of the brands they endorse. 

At the Home Run Derby, a message from Rob Manfred sharing the details of what T-Mobile’s partnership means for the league and its communities would have fallen on deaf ears, while no supportive words could be expected from Pete Alonso or any of the other stars in the competition. As good a job as T-Mobile does in spreading the word about all of the elements of its MLB partnership, its own words can’t equal the impact of a message from a sponsorship beneficiary. 

This situation will be especially acute for Olympic sponsors during the next few weeks in Tokyo. Brands such as Visa, Coke and Toyota won’t be able to look for support from the main focus of the vast audience viewing on TV and digital device screens—the athletes—unless they have an individual sponsorship deal with them. 

Without fans at events, no crowds visiting state-of-the-art activation experiences, a dearth of B2B hospitality, organizers that don’t engender public goodwill, and—as always—no visible signage or sponsor identification, Olympic partners will have to rely on their paid, owned and earned media to spread the word about their involvement in the Games.

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