Corporate Sponsorship: A Sports-Only Business?

I can’t recall when it happened. Slowly, the discipline of corporate sponsorship became so associated with sports it started being referred to as “sports marketing.” And it’s BIG business. This fall, IEG Sponsorship Report announced that U.S. pro sports leagues and their teams will generate a 15 percent increase in sponsorship for a total of $2.07 billion. That increase exceeds the 11.7 percent for the overall sponsorship industry and shows the continued resilience of sports among corporate marketers. Although IEG didn’t disclose its formula for arriving at these projections, I have no reason to doubt their veracity. I am witnessing something similar–CMOs are dumping more money into sports marketing.

What’s the deal? First of all, peel back the covers and typically you’ll find an advertising buy masquerading as a sponsorship deal. Consider that since 2005, the Chicago Blackhawks have had to pay to be on television. They need sponsorship fees to pay for that. Essentially, a pro-sports sponsorship pays for heavy ad placement, plus a little signage, a VIP box and some meet-and-greets with players thrown into the mix. Nothing new.

Lesson: media-heavy packages win. Television-heavy packages especially win.

Trouble is, there is a decline in television viewership. Is anyone unclear about this? Savvy marketers are retooling their plans, tuning into social networks and scheduling trips to Sundance to prowl for trends and glom onto some cultural relevance.

So what gives with sports marketers? Get this part straight: It’s not about consumers. Sponsorship—ooops, I meant sports marketing, is less about what the consumer population is interested in and more about direct sales–primarily it’s B-2-B transaction. To be more specific, it’s about men selling to men. The VIP hospitality element in these sponsorship packages helps the sponsor’s sales team sell more. Period.

If sponsorship marketing is to be known now as “sports marketing” we need a new name for sponsorship deals that occur in other categories. The fact of the matter is that the emerging categories–entertainment, festivals, causes, arts, and culture–drive more earned media, more consumer aspiration and are more in sync with where the rest of the knowledge economy is going.