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2022: The year that sports marketers faced the reality about sports Achilles’ Heels

by | Mar 22, 2022 | Public Relations

The early weeks of 2022 have proved one thing: Sports marketers should always have a back-up plan because as Robert Burns wrote in his poem To a Mouse, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” Burns wrote this sage advice in 1785, long before there was a National Football League, a Major League Baseball League, an International Olympic Committee or even before Tom Brady did his flip-flop about retiring. In my opinion, the poem should be required reading every morning before PR and advertising agencies’ client planning sessions, in TV sports production meetings and in corporation and brand marketing meetings.

What the 2021 and 2022 Olympics in Tokyo and Beijing proved was that sports promotions can be a victim of world affairs and changing public attitudes. Sports marketers had to cancel or limit their Olympic PR plans because of the COVID situation in Tokyo last year, and in China this year because of the condemnation of China’s human rights polices, spearheaded by a diplomatic boycott of the games by the U.S. Likewise, NBCUniversal had to change its plans, resulting, in my opinion, in the most boring telecast of an Olympics during my lifetime. (And according to the dismal TV ratings, I wasn’t the only person to feel that way.)

It wasn’t only mega-sporting PR and marketing plans that were affected by world events this year and in 2021. So were niche sports. Phil Mickelson’s comments about his backing a new golf league in Saudi Arabia several weeks ago roiled the relatively small insular world of professional golf, as did the National Hockey League deciding not to participate in the Beijing Olympics.

After the Olympics, the possible postponement of the baseball season because of the labor disagreement between team owners and players also short-circuited sports marketing plans. I know that this is a very small sample, but among my acquaintances at dinner, during my visits to the gym and in email conversations not one person brought up the delay of the baseball season, and among those individuals are five that I know follow baseball. As for myself, I enjoy watching a game on TV in the evening but didn’t miss it when a game is postponed. Instead, I read a good book or watch a movie.

Was the lack of interest in the Olympics, as evident by the low television viewership, and the uncaring attitude of a possible postponement of the baseball season among my acquaintances a sign of things to come? It might not be, but sports history shows that it might be.

Years ago, when I was a young sportswriter, I used to spend Wednesday nights watching “name” prize fighters at a popular local arena—the Eastern Parkway Arena in Brooklyn, known as The House of Upsets—and on Friday nights listening via radio to even bigger “name” fighters slugging it out from Madison Square Garden, across the Bridge in Manhattan.

When I transitioned to the public relations business, my first major assignment, which led me into the sports marketing business, was doing publicity for a 52-week-a-year television series (for eight years) that featured a bevy of different sports—one being the weekly big thoroughbred racing event, another a harness racing telecast. Basketball and hockey events rounded out the programming. Today, I consider boxing, thoroughbred racing and harness racing niche events and so do sports marketers and televisions sports directors, given the lack of TV time they receive.

In addition, current sponsors can’t be thrilled when their athletes publicly speaking out on political matters.

Sponsors of many other sports like soccer, tennis, auto racing, figure skating, and basketball might have curtailed marketing plans because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even the International Judo Federation got involved after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by stripping Putin from his roles as honorary president and Ambassador of the IJF.

For many years, marketing experts have been questioning the effectiveness of brands spending millions of dollars on mega sports events, such as the Super Bowl and the Olympics

And during my Olympic days, when I was a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations and for foreign governments on Olympic projects, I was confidentially told by some clients that they thought the results they received from sponsoring the events was not worth the money it cost them.

One client I managed for many years wanted to be associated with events like the Super Bowl and Olympics, but didn’t want to spend the big bucks necessary to become official sponsors. What they did was advertise on the pre- and post-event telecasts and, cleverly, ran their own national sports marketing program at another time, when their message didn’t get lost in the clutter of Super Bowl and Olympics advertisements. In order for marketing plans not to become victims of world events and changing public attitudes, here’s what sponsors should consider:

  • Clients should always demand that their agencies suggest other more targeted advertising and publicity possibilities to complement their sports sponsorships.
  • Sports sponsors should recognize that effective social media attacks can derail sponsors’ long-planned multi-million dollar promotions. Even brilliant promotions are not a defense against activist groups. (Examples: The 2021, 2022 and 2014 Olympic Games, Tokyo, Beijing and Sochi, respectively.)
  • Sponsors must recognize that politics will forever be part of the sports scene and sponsors can become part of the story at a moment’s notice. They should be prepared for such an eventuality.
  • Sports marketers should request from agencies a special sports crisis PR plan. They should ask agencies to investigate possible problems that may occur at a sports venue or because of an athlete spokesperson’s comments or behavior and include in all programs suggested client responses if necessary. The program should also contain a fast-response plan.
  • Sponsors should make certain that sports fanatics are not part of a PR account team. The team should consist of publicity-oriented personnel with marketing and corporate experience, who have knowledge of sports but view sports promotions as a selling tool and corporate good-will vehicle, nothing more.
  • Sponsors should realize that despite the cost of rights fees and sport organizations’ efforts, there is no way of preventing successful ambush marketing programs, which are covered by the media despite their not being “official” sponsors.
  • For controversies about the Olympics, PR agencies must suggest a better strategy for clients than “we follow the athletes.” Statements like that, might have worked during the days when the media treated sports differently than other business, but today it doesn’t fly.
  • However, when a sponsor is asked about a political comment that an athlete makes, the sponsor can use the hackneyed phrase, “We believe in free speech.”
  • Most important: Sponsors should keep an open mind to alternative promotional opportunities, and
  • Clients should insist that some of the money be allocated to “good citizen” PR programs that will receive positive publicity in both social media and traditional news outlets that can be launched when necessary. That can produce a “good corporate citizen” image that may help offset a portion of any problems resulting from tie-ins with athletes or sports entities that generate negative coverage.

Of course, I realize that many in our business disagree with the above, some because they like the prestige of working on a mega account; others because they are afraid to speak against agency higher ups suggestions—big budgets mean big profits for agencies—but most, I assume, is because they are afraid to challenge the sports organizations, client’s advertising and marketing agencies’ recommendations, as I did.

To those I say, what plans did you have to immediately replace the Summer 2021 and Winter 2022 Olympics, or did you have a back-up plan if the baseball season began late. The answer to the Olympics situations obviously was none. And I’d be willing to wager the same was true if the beginning of the baseball season was postponed.

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Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

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