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The Good, Bad & Ugly of Sports Marketing in Just One Week

The new year is off to quite a start in the sports business, with a number of noteworthy sponsorship deals, issues and controversies arising in just a few days last week during what is typically a slower time of year for our industry.

The Bad

After rejecting the LGBCoin sponsorship for Brandon Brown’s Brandonbilt Motorsports team, NASCAR is considering “a shift in policy to restrict sponsorships that it believes are political in nature,” according to Fox Sports.

Why it’s bad: Quite clearly, the issue is bad for NASCAR because it puts the sanctioning body in a no-win situation through no fault of its own.

Amid all the debate on numerous media and social channels about what course NASCAR should pursue, I have yet to see or hear the following argument made for why NASCAR should institute a ban on political sponsorships.

Ideally, allowing political partnerships would see multiple deals from parties, candidates and viewpoints from both sides of the aisle and beyond. Realistically, NASCAR teams and events would attract sponsors from only one camp, however.

In today’s climate that would polarize the sport just when it is making strides to diversify its fan base and increase its appeal geographically. Despite the negative revenue impact to teams and the perception that a ban restricts free speech, NASCAR cannot afford to take the step backward that allowing political sponsorships would mean.

The Good #1

In a powerful example of a corporate sponsor using its resources to make a difference beyond selling more product or promoting a sport, Budweiser Canada teamed up with the Hockey Diversity Alliance for a #TapeOutHate campaign that aims to eradicate racism in hockey.

Featuring a gut-wrenching two-minute video with the stories of the current and former players who launched the HDA in 2020, the campaign also promotes the sale of rolls of hockey tape with anti-racism messaging printed on them, with one dollar from every roll going to the HDA.

Why it’s good: Beyond supporting a worthy cause marketing initiative, the Anheuser-Busch InBev brand was the driving force behind the no-holds-barred video after other attempts at brand partnerships did not come to fruition because they were too “watered down,” the HDA told ESPN. Kudos to Budweiser for directly confronting the issue of racism in a meaningful way rather than soft-pedalling or ignoring it all together.

The Good #2

ProMedica health system became the official health and well-being partner of the U.S. Golf Assn. and presenting sponsor of The U.S. Women’s Open, increasing the purse of the major championship from $5.5 million to $10 million, which according to Golf Channel, is “the largest in not only women’s golf but all of women’s sport.”

USGA CEO Mike Whan said there is an additional commitment to increase the purse to $12 million over the next five years.

Why it’s good: With the need for brands to play a larger role in supporting women’s sports in the U.S. getting more lip service than actual dollars—with some notable exceptions in basketball and soccer—this deal is a reminder of the difference one brand can make. The fact that it comes from an organization previously not on most radar screens also reinforces the opportunity that exists for sponsors outside the list of usual suspects to build their brands by making commitments to equity in sports.

The Good #3

Prior to the team making the NFL playoffs, The San Francisco 49ers announced sponsorship extensions with United Airlines and Levi’s. As reported by Sports Business Journal, both partners will receive marketing rights in the U.K. and Mexico, “the first and only known deals announced under the NFL’s new program allowing some teams commercial rights in foreign markets.”

As quoted in SBJ, 49ers CRO Brent Schoeb noted that both companies committed to a minimum activation spend in addition to their cash fees to help promote the team in the international markets. “We’re going to lean on Levi’s and United, who have been in these markets for a long time, to unveil our plans from a 49ers standpoint,” Schoeb said. “This significantly helps activate the 49ers brand in these markets, because they are trusted brands there.”

Why it’s good: These deals are prime examples for other rightsholders and brand partners of the importance of non-cash contributions from sponsors. Too often, the focus is on the rights fee payment—and attempting to maximize it on the sellers’ part—without due consideration of the impact partners can have through marketing spends, employee-engagement programs and other elements that don’t involve cutting a check directly to the property.

The Ugly, which had signed a four-year, $2.51-million sponsorship with the Jacksonville Jaguars last year, sued the team last week.

Why it’s ugly: Although published reports appear to make the company’s claims of breach of contract highly suspect, that angle will play out in court.

What’s generally ugly for sports marketing about this story is the sheer lack of understanding of how and what sponsorship is all about demonstrated by a company with significant marketing dollars.

According to ESPN, the Georgia company claimed it did not “want its brand associated with being the primary sponsor for Sunday's home game against the Indianapolis Colts because of the movement on social media of disgruntled fans planning to wear clown attire to the game.”

Unlike, the vast majority of sponsors thankfully understand the inherent risks involved in aligning with sports, which are by nature wildly unpredictable, and which sometimes require creativity on the part of brands to navigate both the highs and lows of the fan passion they want to tap into.

To prove that point, look no further than Sunday’s game, which saw merely a few hundred protesting fans, while the rest were treated to an impressive victory by the underdog Jags versus the Indianapolis Colts.

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