You can’t tell the sports marketing program sponsors without a scorecard

by | Aug 6, 2020 | Marketing, Public Relations

Eventually, hopefully, the coronavirus pandemic will subside. And some aspects of our culture will be changed. But one that will not is the business of sports. Regardless of the event, sports marketing sponsors will continue spending billions of dollars a year on advertising and public relations programs, attempting to distinguish themselves from other sponsors as they always have (usually to no avail). The situation hasn’t changed over the decades.

Years ago, the economics permitted single sponsorships of events; today, it’s too expensive for one brand to bankroll a mega event. The constant is that breaking through the sponsor clutter by utilizing TV commercials is still almost impossible. But there is one proven marketing tool that can differentiate a sponsor from the others: a savvy media-oriented public relations publicity program. And the cost of doing so can be far less than running a 30-second TV commercial on a mega event. (Adding to the TV commercial cost, of course, is ad agency billings for creating the commercial and any PR aspect of promoting it.)

It’s been a while since ads on mega sporting events were widely celebrated as creative artistry

Viewers of some TV commercials can’t tell what products are being hawked. (Neither can I or other people who watch with me. I’ve always told people who report to me that creativity alone is not enough. That a good creative product must contain brand or corporate selling messages.) The PR approaches try to be unique; usually they’re not, and most resemble past programs.

There is one thing that even competing marketers and all honest PR practitioners can agree on: It’s more difficult, if not impossible, to have your client stand out from the sponsorship clutter, unlike the long-ago days of single event sponsorship. But even in those days, getting client recognition for sponsoring an event was difficult because most consumer news outlets, in what I call the “PR Dark Days,” considered mentioning corporations or brands in none business stories as being “too commercial.” Today mentioning a brand name is considered a part of a story.

Some time ago, for eight years, I managed a highly successful publicity program for a single sponsor’s U.S. national sports marketing program. (Even when I began to travel worldwide as a media adviser with high-ranking government officials and was designated a troubleshooter during Olympic programs, the American client insisted that I remain a consultant and approve and improve publicity plans for his program, which was made possible because of computers.) The publicity results were terrific, but client surveys showed that brands not associated with the event also received credit as the sponsor. As rights fees escalated, eventually, the client decided that the return on investment didn’t justify the cost and dropped the program, Another sponsor of an international mega event confided to me that the major reason they sponsored it was to keep a competitor from doing so. Eventually, this client also dropped its sponsorship.

Today, the old baseball adage of “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard” applies more than ever to sponsors and their sports marketing programs

What’s needed is for a sports event sponsor is to have the courage to separate itself from the pack by taking a stand and launching a campaign on an issue that other sponsors find too dicey (as Nike did by highlighting Colin Kaepernick in its advertising). And the beauty of doing so is that such out of the box PR publicity programs can be crafted without breaking the bank, and if executed correctly will achieve major positive media print and TV coverage with client identification. An example is ambush marketing publicly programs. While I’m not advocating ambush marketing, creative ambush publicity programs have often gained more positive media attention than run of the mill “official sponsor” of” events. That’s because a good story is more important to the media than an official designation.

I’ve always suggested such affordable programs, for sports and non-sports marketers, and can attest that they received ongoing major publicity. Three examples: One was for a corporate client who wanted to create a new sport. Another was for a provider of sports TV programming who was among the first to speak out against parental involvement in youth sports. (The latter topic is always relevant and would still be a major publicity-getter for a company.)

The third was to gain major media coverage and sponsor recognition for an on-going national sports marketing program that had received unflattering media coverage for years. This was accomplished by simply discarding parts of the sponsor’s past publicity efforts and adding creative new elements without increasing the budget. All were successful.

There are three largely current untapped hot-button happenings in the sports spectrum that I’m confident would ensure major positive publicity for takers-on once the coronavirus pandemic is history

One is the continued sexual, physical and emotional harassment of young athletes by coaches. The other is the awarding of the Olympics and other international games to totalitarian countries that use them as propaganda vehicles. Both of these subjects are constantly in the news and at most only receive infrequent boiler plate comments from sponsors, with no one sponsor taking an aggressive on-going pro-active position. The third is the minimal news coverage of the physical dangers related to some sports that are played by high school students and younger.

Clients should consider building a program around the above topics. Doing so would ensure continuing positive major media coverage, position the company as a good and caring corporate citizen and provide even a company with a limited sports marketing budget a leadership position in the category. (Any truthful PR person will admit gaining meaningful positive publicity for a client is not determined by the size of the budget. It’s by the news elements of the program.)

And best of all for clients: Such programs do not need a multi-team effort by big ticket PR agencies. Savvy boutique firms with a practitioner who knows how to create or jump at news opportunities will ensure a positive outcome with only a fraction of the budget requested by mega PR firms.

As someone who has been on both sides of the sports marketing aisle, first as a journalist and for many years at Burson-Marsteller as a senior VP/senior counselor, who was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs, I know that the size of a PR budget does not determine the publicity success of a program. It is the theme of the program, along with a savvy PR team that can juggle story angles at a moment’s notice without straying from the client’s objectives which results in major positive coverage.

Sports publicity programs, like all PR programs, should not be client-centric

They must include elements that work for both the client and the news media. Most don’t. And that’s what’s missing from too many sports marketing PR programs—even those with a “break the bank” budget.

Sometime when I watch a baseball game, the Super Bowl or Olympics, I wonder if I’m watching a sporting event or an extended alcohol or auto commercial with interruptions for a few minutes of sport. Surely, there has to be a better way for sports marketers to differentiate their products. And it’s not by doing copycat commercials or publicity programs. A savvy publicity program will do the trick. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many, either on the advertising side or the publicity side. That’s why it’s difficult to tell the sponsor without a scorecard.

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 has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.


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