SBJ/March 26-April 1, 2012/In Depth

Employee benefits

Companies use sports sponsorships to motivate employees and recognize their accomplishments

Two years ago, after the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup championship, hometown company Discover Financial Services wanted to do something special to help its employees celebrate.

The credit card company had more to bank on than mere enthusiasm. It also happened to be an official sponsor of the NHL, which explains how and why the highly revered Stanley Cup trophy wound up at the Discover headquarters in nearby Riverwoods, Ill., for a half-day visit.

About 1,000 employees, or one-third of the main campus staff, paid homage to the trophy, with Discover providing custom photos of workers posing with the Cup. Earlier this month, a similar ceremony played out in New Castle, Del., where an internal contest among Discover call centers offered a Cup visit as the top prize.

For its title sponsorship of college football’s Bowl Championship Series game in Miami, Discover awarded employees eight all-expenses-paid trips to South Florida.

“Having our employees have fun at work is really the foundation of what all of this is,” said Cathy Edwards, a company spokeswoman.

Across the Atlantic, Ricoh Europe held an internal sales competition among employees to attend one of the 13 ATP Tour events the company backs. A separate internal contest attracted more than 20 percent of the company’s European employees, all vying for VIP tickets to the tour finals in London.

NHL sponsor Discover brought the Stanley Cup to the company’s headquarters in Riverwoods, Ill., where employees could pose with the trophy.
Photo by: Discover Financial Services
From putting the Stanley Cup in the company cafeteria to sending staffers to tennis matches for selling more copiers and printers, more companies want to use sports alliances to motivate employees as well as customers.

Experts say a successful internal marketing plan with a sponsorship can pay dividends in several ways. Among the most valuable advantages: boosting morale, inculcating a sense of why the company invests in a particular sponsorship, providing perks and, in some cases, creating forums for corporate philanthropy and recruiting.

“It’s a practice that’s actually pretty common and very important,” said Dave Grant, principal at consulting firm Team Epic. “In this day and age, most companies will tell you that their workforce is one of their most critical assets. So if you have a sponsorship in your portfolio and you can make that work to your advantage with your internal constituencies, I think that’s critical.”

Examples abound, with companies trumpeting the chance to rally workers through various ties to sports teams, leagues and events.

IMG College, adviser to delivery company UPS on a portfolio of college teams, helped create an employee-recognition program that provides a memorable reward while reinforcing the company’s mission with sports fans.

At 62 schools the delivery company sponsors, UPS has one of its delivery drivers hand the game ball to the referee at the start of football and basketball games. The promotion includes a meet-and-greet and tickets for the driver and his family as a reward for accruing an exemplary safety record. Making the delivery in front of the home crowd accentuates the notion that important business doesn’t get done without reliable delivery.

Sponsors in NASCAR have become accustomed to unprecedented access to the stars of the sport, including hospitality sessions just moments before drivers take to the track. Even in a sport where business-to-business networking long ago became routine, pressure remains intense to keep corporate backers happy. One way to foster good will: creating a microsite online aimed at sponsor employees.

NASCAR Fuel for Employees now counts a baker’s dozen of blue-chip sponsors as participants, including Sprint,
Dodge, Ford, Mars and Bank of America. Intranet sites for each sponsor also can access the site, which is designed and maintained by NASCAR. In addition to explaining the various elements of a company’s investment in stock car racing, Fuel for Employees offers discounted race tickets, merchandise in the NASCAR online souvenir shop, and special offers on products sold by fellow sponsors such as Office Depot and SiriusXM.

Ford uses the site to highlight, among other things, $200 million in NASCAR-related sales generated through the sport’s business-to-business sales forums. Dodge attracted 1,200 employees to its NASCAR site within a day of launch.

“This is becoming a really hot asset in a lot of ways,” said Norris Scott, NASCAR vice president of partnership marketing and business solutions. “The interest is spiking.”

UPS driver Wyndell Jenkins delivers the ball at a Florida Gators basketball game. Jenkins actually played basketball at the school in the 1980s. UPS uses its school sponsorships to reward employees for safety, allowing them to deliver game balls to basketball and football games.
Photo by: IMG
Tire company Bridgestone has used its extensive ties to the NFL and the NHL as carrots for sales programs in recent years.

As title sponsor of the Super Bowl halftime show, Bridge-stone launched a “Performance Moment” sweepstakes for U.S. employees and dealers. The lead-in contest awarded a trip to the game.

Strong response to the NFL promotion led to a companion program in Canada just under way. Between March 28 and April 25, Bridgestone dealers and employees can visit a dedicated website pairing the same performance moments theme of the company’s tire lines with historical hockey moments. Winners receive a trip to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

In addition, the tire maker is launching a hockey tournament at Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Forty-six dealers who sell Bridgestone tires will be divided into four teams, with each led by a designated Bridgestone captain. The four-game, single-elimination tournament will award the winner the Bridgestone Cup.

“It’s an opportunity to engage the single best spokesperson a company can have,” said Kyle McMann, the NHL’s vice president of partnership marketing. “The person on the ground, in the store, actually making the sale for tires. And it wraps it into a passion point. We think it’s phenomenal.”

Electronics retailer Best Buy uses its racing ties to boost both sales and charity work. Three years ago, the company formed a pit crew of 15 to 20 employees who serve as advisers to Paul Zindrick, Best Buy senior manager of event marketing and racing.

Turnkey Sports Poll
The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in February. The survey covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.
What is the more important contributor to renewing a sponsor?
Demonstrating ROI for the sponsor
Treating sponsor contacts like VIPs
Not sure / No response

When will NFL teams be allowed to pursue ...
  Within 2 years 3-5 years 6-10 years 11+ years Never Not sure
Casinos as sponsors 23% 28% 9% 7% 27% 6%
Game-day jersey sponsors 7% 31% 22% 11% 24% 5%

Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.
The core group of advisers, which helps with increasing employee participation in the NASCAR sponsorship, works with eight territorial pit crews made up of 10 to 30 people each. The latter group represents Best Buy employees from various regions of the country.

Those groups then work on sales incentives contests when races are in their territory. In similar fashion, The NASCAR Foundation coordinates with the groups of Best Buy employees to organize volunteer outings for various charities. At the end of the season, the company awards grants to the racing foundation based on how many hours Best Buy employees donated to charity work.

Then, too, winning never hurts. Zindrick said interest has soared among employees since Best Buy driver Matt Kenseth won the Daytona 500 last month.

Doing good and doing business, as Best Buy has demonstrated, could be the next wave of employee-sponsorship campaigns, some believe.

“Traditionally, philanthropy and marketing were two distinct areas of a corporation with two distinct staffs,” said Grant, the industry consultant. “A trend you’re going to see in the future is those two things coming together. I call it strategic philanthropy.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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