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International Sponsor Council Drives Sustainability for Sponsorship Industry

The world’s only sponsor trade association is working on fixing the sustainability within the sports industry.

Max Simpson

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The business of sports sponsorship is an ever-growing, dynamic sector of the industry that can usually be found in a state of flux and consistent evolution. Many policies, industry trends, and best practices change at a moment’s notice as sponsors look to stay ahead of the curve and separate themselves from the pack.

With all of the moving pieces in play, it can be difficult to implement wide-sweeping changes across the sports landscape.

Enter the International Sponsor Council. The world’s only trade association for sponsors, the ISC is a multi-faceted platform that serves to enact advocacy and best practice throughout the industry. CEO and Chief Sustainability Engineer Terry Cecil highlighted the many areas of focus that the ISC works to improve upon.

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“One of the biggest issues we are looking to improve within the sports industry is ensuring corporate sustainability commitments are protected,” said Cecil. “It’s critical to limit brand reputational risks, but will also create relevancy between sponsors and fans, athletes and other stakeholders based on the sponsor’s values.”

The International Sponsor Council can tie sustainability and its three pillars to most issues facing the industry. Justifying a return on objectives (ROO) is a focus for the economic pillar of sustainability. Athlete health, security and safety, transparency, gender equality and preventing corruption are all integral to the social pillar. The considerable impact that events have on the local hosting area and planet as a whole is covered by sustainability’s environmental pillar.

The ISC represents sponsors who are its core members, but works with many different organizations across multiple areas of sports sponsorship. Cecil states that with the many issues going on with the sports sponsorship industry, a crucial step towards creating real change is collective collaboration. The industry has to acknowledge the importance of committing to being sustainably-driven to help evoke long-term solutions.

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“Corporations are the world’s leading practitioners of sustainability based on their operations and massive footprint,” said Cecil. “The ISC works to educate the industry on the importance of corporate sustainability and how to match those commitments.”

Members of the ISC include AT&T, Anheuser-Busch InBev, The Coca-Cola Company, Mastercard, Panasonic, Sony, and VISA among others. In representing the collective interests of these multi-national corporations, the ISC works to raise the efficiency of the industry based on sponsor needs.

The ISC juggles a handful of key issues throughout the industry. One of the constant themes that appears every day within the sports world is the consistent need for improving athletic health, both during an athlete’s career and after it.

“One prevalent issue that has been on the forefront of the International Sponsor Council’s efforts is athlete health and particularly athlete brain health,” said Cecil. “Fiduciary responsibility for corporations has shifted from just shareholders to a broadened focus on stakeholders and athletes. It has been shown that athletes are very important stakeholders as they are more business savvy than ever. Without athletes, you obviously do not have sport sponsorship.”

With the athletes continuing to be on the forefront within business decisions, the corporate partners involved become increasingly important to creating viable change. The ISC utilizes partner connections to pull and utilize valuable resources to help benefit the industry.

“Within the social pillar, health and wellness is critical and sponsors have a responsibility to ensure the health and wellness of athletes is a priority. This is especially true with athlete brain health as we are seeing in issues involving concussions, CTE, headaches, and other TBI and diseases. The ISC and sponsors are working with the American Brain Foundation on research and industry guidelines to ensure athletes are protected especially young athletes.

“Our position is not that sponsors should avoid partnering with sports, but we need to be responsible. It makes you wonder, ‘How can anyone trust a brand that seems to ignore the dangers and long-term effects of an activity those very sponsors are leveraging?'”

While there are many immediate responsibilities that the ISC currently holds on a day-to-day basis, the organization is constantly looking at how it can implement policies across a large-scale, long-term basis. While an athlete’s health can be defined as an issue that is a challenge at the top levels of the game, there are other factors at work that make it something to monitor across all ages.

“We are looking at massive transformational trends in sports now including sports betting and esports, which could have a positive and negative impact,” said Cecil. “For instance, one issue that can shape the future of football involves the fact that there are states saying they do not want to introduce tackle football until high school. We have a problem on our hands that will be very disruptive to sport as we know it.”

These short-term and long-term issues force sponsors to take a larger perspective on the activities that they are involved in. By stepping back and looking at how their activity impacts the industry as a whole, real, genuine change can occur.

To make an impact through collaboration, the ISC is holding its SponsorCamp conference this December in Los Angeles, which will cover these issues through the eyes of sponsors.

The ISC is at the forefront of many of today’s leading sports issues. With its ability to keep sponsors involved in the collaborative process, the sports world of the future seems a whole lot brighter and more connected than we believe.

Max Simpson is a contributing writer for Front Office Sports. A graduate from Arizona State University, Max currently works for the Reno Aces & Reno 1868 FC with time spent with Sun Devil Athletics and the Arizona Diamondbacks. For @frntofficesport, Max highlights unique partnerships, brand marketing strategies, and content activation. He can be reached at max@frntofficesport.com.

Sponsorship

Celsius Makes Esports Inroads With Echo Fox Partnership

After making its name in the traditional sports sphere, Celsius is ready to take on the esports industry with its first sponsorship deal.

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Celsius Echo Fox

Photo Credit: Jeremey Freeman/Turner Sports via USA TODAY Sports

Celsius EVP of Marketing Matt Kahn never had imagined esports as a potential partner opportunity. Founded in 2004, the performance energy drink company has surged in the energy drinks space by positioning itself adjacent to the traditional fitness industry. But when the esports organization Echo Fox approached Celsius about a partnership, it only took a little research for Kahn to realize that a sponsorship made a lot sense.

“They professed to drink it while in training and tournaments,”  Kahn said. “I wasn’t shocked but found it super-interesting that these players are terrific athletes in their own right and need to focus for hours.”

According to Kahn, esports reached an audience of 335 million people globally in 2017 and is expected to grow to a market of more than 600 million by 2023. Meanwhile, brand investments — media rights, advertising and sponsorships — in esports are expected to reach nearly $900 million this year and jump to more than $1.5 billion by 2022. Those were exciting numbers for a brand that plays in a relatively new performance energy drink space, Kahn said. Competitors include brands like Bang and Monster Energy’s recent Reign product.

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“It’s new for us,” Kahn said. “But having done the research into the industry and being a student of business and marketing and a sports lover, the category is exploding.”

Prior to the partnership with Echo Fox, Celsius stayed close to the core athletic segment it felt their product aligned with best. Celsius experienced a worldwide year-over-year revenue growth of 45 percent globally and 62 percent in the U.S., in part due to growth in sporting good channels. The brand went from a 25-store test with Dick’s Sporting Goods two years ago to more than 500 locations this year. Likewise, Celsius is positioned in 300 Academy Sports stores.

But recognizing the potential growth and market penetration of esports could be a boon for the company, Kahn said. He’s excited about Celsius’ entry into what he believes could be the “next billion-dollar industry.”

To that end, he considers Echo Fox to be an ideal first partner in the industry. Founded in 2015 by NBA champion Rick Fox, Echo Fox was recently named one of the most valuable esports organizations by Forbes and boasts teams in a variety of games ranging from League of Legends to Super Smash Bros. to Dragon Ball FighterZ.

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“Celsius continuously innovates and pushes the boundaries when it comes to keeping athletes healthy, and their support of a diverse group of athletic competition is something we admire,” Fox said in a statement. “Ensuring our players are competing at the highest level possible is a top priority for Echo Fox, and we’re confident that our partnership with Celsius will help us achieve that goal.”

As part of the partnership, Celsius now has the ability to use team and player images and likenesses as well as player testimonials. But Kahn also expects the product to be integrated organically into the team, an increasingly common tactic when targeting younger demographics. Some areas including placing the product nearby while players engage in cardio and hand-grip exercises, as well as competing in their respective games. “We’re going to have significant behind-the-scenes footage of these guys training and consuming the product,” he said. “Authenticity is important for me, to see who really loves the product.”

Esports are a natural habitat for energy drinks, with brands like Red Bull and Monster having already established deep ties in the industry. Yet it took time for Celsius to realize the market potential for itself. Now, with Echo Fox signed on as its first partner, it appears the brand is eager to make up for lost time.

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NHL Turns to Corner Ice Placements to Grow On-Ice Ad Revenue

The NHL took over playoff team’s corner ice ad positions during the placement’s first year, as the league and its teams find new ways to add revenue.

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NHL Corner Ice

Photo Credit: Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL has turned to a familiar source to add incremental revenue for this season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Prior to the 2018-2019 season, the league introduced corner ice sponsor placements this season for teams to sell, a marked change over its longstanding policy of only making center ice available for purchase. It was a smash hit: According to NHL Chief Business Officer Keith Wachtel, overall club revenue growth was in the eight figures, more than 25 percent higher than originally estimated.

The league was so pleased with the results that it decided to extend the rollout into the postseason for all 16 teams. This time, the league itself is handling the real estate firsthand, with Amazon Web Services, Enterprise, Ticketmaster and MGM Resorts serving as the designated sponsors.

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Wachtel said the idea owes itself to having something of a good problem on its hands. The NHL is aided by a “very avid, passionate and affluent fan base,” with an approximate attendance-filled of 96 percent capacity. Short of building new arenas, however, there’s no more room to pack extra bodies into the stands.

“How can a club continue to generate year-over-year revenue growth when you’re selling all the tickets and have a finite amount of available sponsorship inventory?” Wachtel said of the league’s dilemma. “We felt what’s unique [is], unlike the other sports, we have the ability to bring partners onto the field of play as well as camera-visible dasher boards.”

The new positions in some ways are more valuable to potential sponsors than center ice, Wachtel said, as the corners are often where much of the on-ice action takes place. The exposure goes beyond the live games, too; most highlights on TV and social media are of goals and saves, which extend the life of those positions.

“The NHL playoffs are such a huge moment in time for fans everywhere and we’re fortunate to be a part of it,” said Greg Economou, Ticketmaster North America chief commercial officer and head of sports. “This provides us with another impactful touchpoint with fans to reinforce that Ticketmaster has the most tickets to see their favorite teams battle it out for the Stanley Cup live.”

Unsurprisingly, individual teams were pleased about the opportunity to both add revenue and, during the regular season, flexibility to choose where it came from. According to Jarrod Dillon, Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment chief marketing and revenue officer, the Lightning opted for a strategy of quality over quantity. Tampa Bay quickly sold the four locations at Amalie Arena, opting to go with two partners — Heritage Insurance and Tampa General Hospital — for the four locations, rather than four individually, to “continue our brand value of doing more with fewer partners.”

“Naturally, we assumed national partners would be looking for more television visibility, but to our surprise, partners with main a local presence were also very excited about them,” Dillon continued. “The combination of national TV exposure, as well as local market TV exposure and then the in-arena local notoriety, seemed to resonate very well.”

Dillon credited Watchel and the league in opening up the new revenue stream and felt the league deserved to have the playoff corner ice positions with “great national partners.” Wachtel partly attributes the decision to logistics. Because the league was unsure of which teams would ultimately make the playoffs, it only made sense for the league to take over placements to guarantee ad partners they’d receive streamlined, guaranteed international exposure.

“We can extract that value, by and large, the goal for the league was to sell to global marketers that saw value across the world, not on a territory-by-territory basis,” Wachtel said.

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The MGM Resorts placement is part of a long-term sponsorship, while the AWS, Enterprise and Ticketmaster placements were sold on a one-year basis as incremental investments. The corner ice spaces are seen right now as a branding play, Wachtel said, and could be used in the future to help lure in larger league partners with their value.

“They’re four really great brands that see the value in the two months of hockey,” Wachtel said. “We went to find the right brands for the right value long term, which very well might be those. But we want to prove the opportunity before we go out there in the marketplace selling for more value.”

Irrespective of this program’s ultimate success, Wachtel says the NHL will continue to look for additional pathways to open up revenue streams. One could be a jersey patch sponsorship in the vein of what NBA teams have integrated over the past couple of seasons. Watchel didn’t put a timetable on the possibility, but the larger idea is in line with the league’s ambition to increase revenue and create a vibrant sponsor ecosystem without muddling the on-ice product. The endgame is still a work in progress. But the corner ice starting points have provided a strong foundation to build upon.

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AT&T’s Logo Deal With WNBA Represents Deeper Strategy With NBA

AT&T’s investment in the NBA includes the WNBA, NBA 2K League, G-League and USA Basketball, representing a piece of its broader entertainment sponsorships.

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All 12 WNBA teams will have an extra logo on their jersey this season.

During the WNBA Draft on Wednesday, jerseys with AT&T logos were revealed at Nike’s NYHQ as part of a multiyear partnership. Along with the jersey placement, AT&T will also gain integration throughout WNBA.com, the league’s app and social channels, and broadcast partners. The telecommunications company also will be the title sponsor of the WNBA All-Star game, starting this year in Las Vegas.

It’s the latest expansion of a deepening sponsorship plan between AT&T and the NBA, as well as the telecommunication company’s overall sponsorship plan.

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“The WNBA is deeply committed to empowering and inspiring women,” said Kerry Tatlock, NBA senior vice president of marketing partnerships. “AT&T’s groundbreaking commitment to our game, which is anchored on our shared values of diversity and inclusion, make it the perfect partner for the WNBA at this exciting time.”

It will be the first non-apparel logo to be on jerseys of all 12 teams. Also announced was a “refresh” of the WNBA brand, complete with a new WNBA logo. An ESPN report noted the logo will transition onto uniforms, courts and basketballs in 2020.

The WNBA deal is part of an overall NBA partnership that includes sponsorship of the NBA, WNBA, NBA 2K League, G-League and USA Basketball, said Shiz Suzuki, AT&T assistant vice president of sponsorships & experiential marketing. The AT&T partnership with the NBA started at this year’s NBA All-Star game, as the presenting sponsor of the slam dunk contest, All-Star practice and media day.

Suzuki said the deal makes the AT&T brand across the WNBA physically and digitally, which will hopefully help engagement for both brands and create new customers and fans alike.

“The WNBA represents a brand, league, players and fan base we want to connect with and grow with as we work with them to find ways to bring fans closer to the sport, whether through an on-site activation at major events like WNBA All-Star, or to fans at home and on the go using our social media and digital platforms to deliver premium content, behind-the-scenes access and stories from across the WNBA,” Suzuki said. “By doing so, we can connect AT&T customers to the WNBA to grow fan engagement and our relationships with current and new customers.”

Within the partnership between the WNBA and AT&T, the two organizations will create programming to support women in sports. It’s a further extension of AT&T’s work to support women, support diversity and foster inclusion. The company removed gender bias from its advertising last year, two years ahead of a stated goal by the Association of National Advertisers.

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“Together, we can create ways for basketball fans and for AT&T customers to engage in the causes and communities important to the WNBA and to AT&T,” AT&T Chief Brand Officer Fiona Carter said. “Whether it’s women in sports, supporting small businesses like those owned by WNBA players, being a leading voice in LGBTQ rights, or giving back to communities in which we operate, we have much in common and many opportunities to empower these incredible athletes and their fans.”

The WNBA announcement came during a big week of sports activations for AT&T, which included the NBA 2K League’s The Tip  Off, Augusta National’s Women’s Amateur, the NCAA Final Four and The Master’s. Suzuki said the brand’s investments put fans at the heart of sports, music and other entertainment options — hoping to hit the diversity of the company’s consumer base.

“Our sponsorships strategy is about enabling growth for AT&T, by building more meaningful connections with current and with new customers,” Suzuki said. “To do that, we look to deliver moments that drive people’s love for sports, entertainment and their communities. Whether at an event, at home, or on the go, we want to bring fans closer to the moments that matter to them.

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