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Volume 27 No. 88

SBJ Marketing: Parting Thoughts On 2020

SBJ’s end-of-year assignment here was to elucidate three things that stood out during 2020. Three? We could think of 3,000, starting with that warped sense of pandemic time, through which it has been either one unending day since March 11, or one of three days: yesterday, today, or tomorrow; other time references just don’t fit the COVID calendar.

Or maybe just one thing: sports marketing in general, and sponsorship in particular, has changed forever, after spectator sports came to an abrupt halt March 11, resuming in the summer with no live fans.

Words Of Wisdom

“Half of my advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” -- This aphorism has been attributed to everyone from Plato to Henry Ford. As a native Philadelphian, I’ll tell you that it was first uttered by retail pioneer John Wanamaker, whose innovations included, believe it or not, putting prices on items for sale in his department stores, and a credo that was revolutionary for its time: “One price and goods returnable.” 

Wonder what J.W. would think about Amazon...

Post-Pandemic Complicates Sense Of Value, Price

In even the best of times, and these surely are not those, the value and ROI of advertising, marketing, and sponsorship are routinely questioned. Nonetheless, spectator sports is a business where everyone knows everybody, and across the business there is shared an acute and exacting sense of price and worth.

Post-pandemic, that indelible sense of value and price is now a tabula rasa, which can now also be translated from the Latin as buyers’ market. Accordingly, my favorite quote of the year was from Strategic Agency President Peter Stern, who observed early on that, “There’s an ever-changing virtual rate card out there somewhere that we’re all trying to find." 

From the pandemic’s beginning, we’ve thought that the vestigial portions would be the most fascinating. Experiential marketing disappeared; virtual activations took center stage. “We’ve been talking about that for years, but now social/digital will be a bigger portion of every activation,’’ said Momentum Chair & CEO Chris Weil. As for how consumers have been changed by the pandemic, adjusting for inflation, that’s the $64 billion question. Will the slowdown/more time with family habit last; if so, how can brands tap in? As for a recovery timeframe; Weil doesn’t see 2019 levels of marketing spend being surpassed until 2023.  

Without physical activations behind sports sponsorships, and with fans largely verboten, it was renegotiations and make-goods that kept most agencies in business this year. Considering all the games, telecasts, and crowds that weren’t, those obligations will stretch well into the future. “Everyone spent a lot of time extending and rearranging partnerships this year, and sponsorship evolved,’’ said Ironman Group VP/Global Partnerships Chris Marciani. "The result is that any future partnerships will be more diversified. For us, that’s meant an entrée to connected fitness, which is a great place for us to be."


Brands Choosing Storytelling Over Visibility

In an attempt to fulfill those make-goods and attract more sponsors and advertisers during what will certainly be a soft market well into 2022, properties have added an abundance of new branding around the fields of play and on uniforms. That genie won’t easily return to the bottle post-COVID, and we must wonder about the impact of that much supply on a market that’s already at ebb tide.

If the NFL moves into uniform branding, and we’d expect the matter to be addressed in its media rights negotiations, it could easily get $10-million plus per team, and likely more. 

“An on-uniform asset is unique, even more so than naming rights,’’ insisted Jason Miller, Senior VP & head of properties at Excel Sports Management, which helped sell the Celtics' recent Vistaprint patch deal and is now in the market with another NBA uniform patch, along with stadium entitlement and founding sponsorships for the Nashville MLS franchise. "Brands are moving away from visibility and awareness. It's more about storytelling and real connections -- if you are on the jersey, you are there every game," Miller said.

Social Protest: An Opportunity (And Challenge) For Properties

The social protests which swept the nation after George Floyd was killed on video by a Minneapolis policeman in May reset the nation’s political agenda, both on the city streets and within sports.

After years of some fans decrying the apolitical agenda from the likes of Michael Jordan, now leagues were institutionalizing social justice phrases on players apparel and on their playing fields. BLM and the like are now as ingrained within the big stick-and-ball leagues as T-shirt giveaways. Players supporting the “Black Lives Matter’’ ranged in stature from LeBron James to the NWSL rank and file, which returned June 27 from the league's pandemic shutdown and saw every player don BLM T-shirts for warmups, followed by the entirety of both squads kneeling during the national anthem.

As divided as America is now, social protest has and will be an opportunity and a challenge for sports properties. Lending their large platforms to social justice causes now seems like table stakes. Still, some research indicates the perception that sports has become “too political’’ is one of the largest factors eroding TV ratings. As a sponsorship senior VP at one of sports' largest corporate patrons put it, “regardless of the justness of any cause, consumers look at sports as an escape. If you are buying in as a sponsor, you don’t expect a political component to be part of that.’’ 

The dynamics here are changing -- as are the mindsets of the consumer and the properties. Seeing how that yin/yang plays out next year will be fascinating. 

“If you only talk about sports now, you come across as tone deaf,’’ said Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Commissioner Gregory Moore. “Communications that show your organization is committed to social justice and sensitive to political dynamics are important.  We have to talk to our fans in a way that shows we know that some are experiencing economic insecurity, and political insecurity.”