SBJ/April 18-24, 2011/Opinion

Fans weigh in on sponsors’ influence, relationship with sports

If I were to donate $5 million to Rutgers University (my alma mater), chances are Rutgers would be willing to hear my thoughts on how to spend it. If I invest $5 million in a sponsorship of a major sports property, do I get the same opportunity?

Seems like an interesting proposition, given the recent stories detailing spats and demands between corporate partners and properties. Here are three situations that have caught my eye in particular:

• Air Canada, a longtime and heavy-spending corporate partner of NHL teams, recently threatened to pull its sponsorships if the NHL did not immediately address the frequency of headshots and resulting injuries.

• Capital One, an NCAA Corporate Champion sponsor, launched the Capital One Cup, given to the university that best demonstrates overall athletic excellence. Organizers opted to weight football and basketball heavier in their algorithm for determining the award winner. Many athletic directors and influencers have verbalized their displeasure with the award’s formula.

• Standard Chartered, the official bank of Liverpool FC of the English Premier League, is leaning on the team to sign high-profile Asian players to allow for increased exposure in the Asian market, which is of great commercial interest to the bank.

The slope in all of these situations is somewhat slippery. While sponsorship money buys brands the ability to advertise and activate in the context of a property’s turf, does the deal buy the brand influence over that same domain? Properties will surely argue no, as Gary Bettman did rather publicly in response to Air Canada’s ultimatum. If Air Canada were to take its planes and go home, there would likely be another airline waiting in line for the vacancy — but at what cost to the NHL, both monetary and in public opinion?

Of great interest to me (and other parties involved, I should hope) is the fans’ reaction to the turmoil. I am pleased to share results of research Turnkey Intelligence conducted on these topics. All data and results shown in this column were collected March 28-31, via the Toluna/Greenfield Omnibus study. Sample size is based on 875 completed, usable surveys, representative of the U.S. population, and all respondents are either avid or casual fans of at least one major U.S. sports league (pro or college). Data will not always sum to 100 percent due to “no opinion” options.

Open mouth … Insert feet

If corporate partners are the backup bands, then properties are the lead singers. (Think of the brand as the Pips and the league as Gladys Knight.) Air Canada probably wishes its concerns had remained behind the scenes. When asked if a “sponsor/advertiser in sports has the right to request changes to rules and policies of the sport,” 87 percent of respondents said “absolutely not.” When asked “what would be your reaction if a sponsor/advertiser threatened to discontinue its relationship in an attempt to change the rules or policies of a sport that you follow,” 75 percent responded with “I would disapprove of the practice whether or not I agree with the proposed rule changes.” To pile on, 59 percent of sports fans disagree that “because sponsors/advertisers pay so much to sponsor sports, they deserve to have a say in how sports are run.” (A mere 20 percent agree.)

On a related note, the NHL didn’t win over many fans with Bettman’s strong overtones and equally public response. Forty-six percent of survey respondents agreed that “employees of professional or college sports programs should never speak negatively in public about their sponsors/advertisers.” (23 percent disagree.) This data point also has implications regarding the Capital One/NCAA partnership. Fans have no stomach for college officials publicly griping about a brand that contributes in excess of $50 million annually.

But the NHL/Air Canada and NCAA/Capital One squabbles seem like toddlers fighting over a shovel in a sandbox compared with the Standard Chartered request. Too bad news of this story came out after our study fielded. If fans want corporate partners muzzled when it comes to rules/policies, does anyone think fans would be cool with brands trying to influence who takes the field? Perhaps Standard Chartered is better served sponsoring an Asian sports team or venue.

Regarding its NCAA partnership, Capital One has a different PR issue to be conscious of: the status of college sports as amateur. Thirty-seven percent of sports fans surveyed feel that sponsors of college sports should have less influence than sponsors of pro sports, while only 24 percent feel they should have more. So while fans overall want corporate partners to keep on the down-low, they are even more sensitive at the NCAA level.

Lessons learned

The purpose of this column and research is not to identify who is right or wrong. Public perception suggests brands be wary of the fine line between partner and lobbyist. Similarly, sports should not bite the hands that feed them. It is my personal opinion that none of the parties involved in these scenarios will suffer long-term PR consequences. With so many dominant sports headlines, these stories might even count as old news. But as Abe Lincoln once mused, “’Tis better to be silent and thought a fool, then to speak and remove all doubt.”

My advice to all involved: Keep enjoying the fool’s gold. Quietly. 

Steve Seiferheld (steveseiferheld@turnkeyse.com) heads the custom research division of Turnkey Intelligence. Find him on Twitter @steveseiferheld.

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