SBJ/June 30-July 6, 2014/Opinion

Will official sponsorships surrender to ambushers?

During broadcasts of the 2014 FIFA World Cup matches aired in the U.S. we see commercials designed to ambush current FIFA sponsors. Volkswagen commercials, for example, show fans dressed in their country colors singing “Olé, Olé, Olé” on their way to a soccer stadium. These commercials are running during the broadcast despite Hyundai’s role as the official partner of FIFA World Cup Brazil. Volkswagen also is a sponsor of segments of the broadcast, which just adds to the confusion.

Coca-Cola has been a FIFA partner for many years, but World Cup viewers are being entertained by Pepsi commercials starring young Brazilians and soccer stars kicking soccer balls, Lionel Messi reading a newspaper and a whole cast of Brazilian fans singing “We can be heroes — just for one day.” The title of the commercial: Now Is What You Make It – Pepsi 2014 #FutbolNow.

Ambushes are not unique to FIFA and its sponsors. During my many years at the International Olympic Committee, we had to confront similarly clever ambush marketing efforts designed to confuse consumers while staying on just the right side of the legal boundary line. One great example of ambush in the Olympic world is Subway’s efforts during recent Olympics using commercials starring past Olympic athletes promoting Subway as the “official training restaurant of athletes everywhere” even though McDonald’s is the official restaurant of the national Olympic committees and their teams.

While we may hold varying opinions regarding the ethics of ambush efforts, we all know that ambush marketing confuses consumers as to who is the official sponsor. We also know that significant increases in broadcast rights fees put pressure on broadcasters to sell inventory at high levels. After paying substantial rights fees to be an official sponsor, many commercial partners are not willing, or in some cases unable, to buy exclusivity on a broadcast in their respective categories. The result is a broadcast for many large events filled with commercials by both sponsors and ambushers, and it is hard to see the difference between the two.

Deep down many of us in the sports marketing industry wonder when the ambushing will become so effective that sponsorships will no longer be valuable. Watching this World Cup, I wonder if it would be better for current official sponsors to spend their funds creating great advertising campaigns making them look just like partners as opposed to becoming official sponsors at great cost. It is easy to create effective hospitality programs for events without being a sponsor. The funds saved on sponsorship fees could be used to create amazing event hospitality experiences in Brazil, to buy broadcast time and to create links to soccer in general. All of that would be less expensive than being an official sponsor and much less frustrating for corporate partners.

Personally, I hope that day never comes, but I can see it just around the corner.

Davis Butler (dbutler@encompassinternational.com) is president of Encompass International and former senior vice president, marketing development, for IOC Television & Marketing Services.

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