Sports Sponsorship: A Whole New Ball Game

It’s hard to imagine, but the Super Bowl wasn’t always so super. The inaugural game back in 1967 failed to sell-out, featured the Anaheim High School Drill Team as halftime entertainment and left fans more curious than captivated.

From those humble beginnings, the Super Bowl has since exploded into the pop culture pantheon as a uniquely American ”holiday,” transcending sport, galvanizing the country to the tune of 100 million viewers and commanding a cool $3 million for 30-second ads.

Combining two great American passions – sports and business – the Super Bowl is one the most significant annual events on our nation’s cultural calendar, and for years, brands have gravitated to the big game’s big stage, lured by the promise of ”eyeballs,” hype and the resulting bump in consumer recognition.

The Super Bowl is presumed to be the brightest star in the sports sponsorship universe, but it may not always be the best playing field. Its pros and cons are much more nuanced these days and emblematic of the state of the broader sports sponsorship market in this new economy where ”sponsorship” may be viewed as a free-spending dirty word while ”partnership” is more in vogue.

Over the past few years, we have seen a marked shift in the way that brands manage their sports sponsorship portfolios, due in no small part to the recalibration of the economy. Companies today have a sharper focus toward maximizing the ROI of all marketing activities and have been forced to reexamine the intrinsic value of these sponsorships. No longer does it suffice to attach your brand’s logo onto a venue or event and hope that move results in increased sales.

The reality is that with so many brands flooding the sports landscape, it often takes a truly strategic sponsorship campaign to rise above the clutter and make an impression with target audiences. This includes utilizing public relations to help maximize the investment and enrich the sponsorship programs with an additional layer of creative thinking and opportunity for media exposure beyond ””¦the game was played at Acme Widgets field.”

In many cases, sponsorship at the Super Bowl is the ”easy” route that doesn’t yield the desired results in an overcrowded marketplace of brands battling for recognition. A more thoughtful campaign will look to pair a brand with a sports property that matches its values and represents a more authentic connection, one that resonates more fully with consumers and provides a natural platform to engage them.

Sprint, a DKC client, has done exactly that with its successful title sponsorship of NASCAR. While countless media mentions of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series throughout the year are important, more tangible value originates from the strategic activation of the sponsorship, which creates a genuine connection between the brand and the sport. Sprint is intimately involved with both the racing teams – through Sprint technology utilized on race day – and fans at the track and away from it – through exclusive NASCAR content and technology such as NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile, ”Miss Sprint Cup” brand ambassadors and the ”Sprint Experience” interactive fan tour. Each of these sponsorship components demonstrates Sprint’s commitment to bringing fans closer to the sport and strengthens the brand’s standing among the loyal NASCAR community and beyond. It represents a seismic change from the days when Winston sponsored NASCAR’s premiere circuit, a stark example of one-dimensional sponsorship given Winston’s inherent marketing limitations as a tobacco company.

In this case, public relations plays a vital role in maximizing the power and impact of the sponsorships. Under the old model of sports sponsorship, a PR firm would have merely been responsible for back-end publicity. Today, DKC is involved from the early stages of the planning process and contributes to the strategic thinking that goes into the activation of the sponsorship, including ideas for the types of programs and/or content that will enable the sponsorship to resonate with target audiences.

While a brand like Sprint has enjoyed measurable success with its campaign, the sports sponsorship paradigm has clearly shifted. Traditional deals may not be necessarily the most strategically sound decision for other companies, especially in today’s economic climate. That said, brands still have an opportunity to forge an authentic connection through sports – even with no official sponsorships – by utilizing a sharp and strategic public relations campaign. One prime example is DKC’s collaboration with Disney’s ESPN Zone properties on the creation of an ”Ultimate Couch Potato” contest. Despite no formal league or athlete deals and a minimal budget, the annual contest of marathon college bowl game television watching has evolved from a strictly Chicago event into an internationally covered media happening, all generated exclusively from a PR platform.

The common thread among these case studies is that while sports remains a powerful tool for enhancing the profile of brands, the game has changed drastically over the past decade. Sponsorships are much more nuanced and require cultivation on many fronts to truly yield results. The best sponsorship examples are able to illuminate brand attributes and squarely hit the target audience.

When it comes to sports sponsorships, the Super Bowl is no longer the only game in town.