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Volume 22 No. 8

Marketing and Sponsorship

As we try to read the course and consequences of admitting legalized bookmakers as bona fide sports sponsors, it occurred that we might look to England, where legal gambling and sports are as endemic as soft drinks and sports are here.

During the past decade or so, the ease of betting from mobile phones, combined with a huge infusion of sponsorship and TV dollars, especially from Asian bookmakers, have made oddsmakers one of the largest commercial patrons of British soccer. Nine of 20 EPL teams have their shirts sponsored by bookmakers, along with 17 of 24 teams in the EFL Championship, the next league down. Almost 20 percent of the ads shown on England’s ITV during the most recent World Cup were for bookmakers — the largest single category.

It’s pervasive enough to have become (pardon) a political football. Accordingly, the meteoric rise of in-game betting and TV ads supporting them caused an association of bookmakers to voluntarily ban TV advertising before 9 p.m. The group behind this self-regulation includes names already familiar: William Hill, Ladbrokes and Paddy Power, which acquired FanDuel last year.

Recalling that the fantasy sites bought nearly every domestic sports marketing asset available three autumns ago, won’t the same thing happen here with legal gambling?

Italy recently banned all gambling advertising. Omnipresent commercialism often catalyzes regulation. So, is the U.K.’s “political football” a parable for the U.S.?

“The U.K. is decades ahead of the U.S., in terms of gambling, so it would be wise as our gambling industry grows to look there,” said Tom Fox, president of the MLS San Jose Earthquakes. As CEO of Aston Villa, Fox got Dafabet off their jerseys, replacing it with Intuit/QuickBooks.

As you’d expect, minting new fans is the priority at MLS. Simply put: “No matter whose data you look at, people that wager watch more,” said Gary Stevenson, president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures. “It’s a fan development tool, and we’ll have the appropriate measures in place to manage it.”

The U.K.’s Labour Party has proposed banning football shirt sponsorships from oddsmakers. In light of Brexit, “Labour’s not going to win any elections on this,” said Carl Woodman, managing director, U.K., for Lagardère Sports. “In-game betting really grew and lit a fire and now it has peaked public attention.”

Will the NBA consider this when it comes to renewing its “experiment” with jersey ads? Bookmakers are surely waiting with open checkbooks.

“Legal gambling’s such a golden egg for taxes, advertising and sponsorships,” said Fred Popp, an American ex-pat who’s now CEO of Teamup Consulting in the U.K. “My view is it will become a gigantic U.S. industry before something tips over and it becomes a problem. But it bears watching.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at

After three decades in the business, Ed O’Hara says “Branding is less and less about logos and more and more about trust, likability and engagement.”
Photo: SME

In his 30 years with branding consultancy SME, Ed O’Hara has helped create some of sports’ most indelible logos — and he’s watched the business transform into one with a more holistic acceptance of marketing. The retiring president and chief creative officer of SME Branding, a Learfield company, discusses his career and the changing brand landscape.


BEGINNINGS: SME’s origins date back to 1989, when I joined a small merchandise design company (Sean Edwards Design). We combined package design and display layouts with aspects of consumer input and qualitative research for brands from Colgate-Palmolive, Avon and Kraft General Foods.


Our sports breakthrough came in 1991. I opened the National Registry of Advertisers book and called the first company listed: Adidas. Anne Occi (now Major League Baseball’s vice president of design services) answered and I asked if she needed design services. She said yes, but not at Adidas, but at MLB, where she was taking a new job. Eventually, I presented to her a work portfolio including Irish Spring, Palmolive liquid and Fab detergent. She hired us on the spot for our first sports project: the St. Louis Cardinals’ centennial mark. Within six months, we were working with every major American professional league. In a few years we went global, including the FIFA World Cup, Formula One, and we signed a six-year deal as the exclusive design firm for Collegiate Licensing Co., which led to rebranding projects at more than 100 Division I schools.


REPOSITIONING: The work we did with CLC back then was a reflection of the times. Schools viewed their brands only as a means to generate merchandise sales, so they were changing logos every few years. We realized that the path we were on was unsustainable — there were only so many redesigns. We repositioned to a strategic brand-building and engagement consultancy, a much larger and all-encompassing business.


Memorable logos from O'Hara's career from top to bottom: 1992 St. Louis Cardinals centennial logo; 1995 New York Islanders “Fisherman” logo; 2009 New Yankee Stadium logo; 2016 Kentucky Derby logo

BRAND PLAY: When we started, “branding” wasn’t a common word in sports; it wasn’t a cohesive notion like in consumer products — which is one of the main reasons we were so successful. Branding used to be synonymous with design. Now, design is a component of branding. Back then, a logo was just to sell merchandise. Now, it’s a visual expression of a team’s values. Logos were designed separately from brands; now they are built together, and supported by exhaustive market research. We used to begin designing when we got the assignment; now we’re in maybe six months of research and strategy work before design starts.


FAVORITE WORK: Either our seven years as agency of record for the New York Yankees or our ongoing work (12 years plus) with the Kentucky Derby. We helped the Yankees move their fan base from the old to the new Yankee Stadium, which meant successfully selling the most expensive tickets in sports during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The Kentucky Derby was trading on a single race and single logo. We helped them evolve to a brand that’s recognizable and successful by allowing them to expand from an event into a full-fledged lifestyle brand.


REGRETS: The (widely panned) 1995 New York Islanders’ “Fisherman” logo. To quote Forrest Gump: “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”


CHANGING BUSINESS: The competition has evolved, which is good and bad. The bad is that more projects are shifting away from independent agencies and going to manufacturers like Nike, Adidas and Reebok, which often view the brand as just the logo on a uniform or T-shirt.


FUTURE: There’s an incredible amount of passion in sports — that’s never going away. The trend is toward big data and analytics, which are here to stay, but all the passion points of sports haven’t been fully leveraged. … In the upcoming revolution, it will be about understanding how the consumer brain works and what triggers emotional reactions that generate loyalty.


EVOLVING TO A CUSTOMER NARRATIVE: Branding is less and less about logos and more and more about trust, likability and engagement. Customers will own a brand’s narrative and the brand’s job will be to curate, evolve and engage that narrative in real time.