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Time to Take Fans and Consumers Back to School

With tens of millions of parents and guardians stocking up on supplies and otherwise preparing their kids for a new school year, it’s a suitable time to consider how sports properties and sponsors can do some educating of their own in terms of ensuring that fans and consumers understand the benefits of sponsorship.

As I stated in a previous post, “Consumers are much more likely to think favorably of sponsoring brands, and have a higher propensity to purchase those brands, if they understand the value of the partnership to the sponsored property and to their own fan experience.”

The reaction of Pittsburgh Steelers fans to last month’s naming rights deal that turned Heinz Field into Acrisure Stadium is a prime example of what can happen when fans don’t readily see the benefits of a partnership.

Some launched a petition demanding the team switch the name to an unspecified but non-sponsored moniker. Others flocked to social media in support of an idea suggested by the great former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier in a local TV interview that the stadium should be named “Rooney Field sponsored by whoever” to honor the family that has owned the team since its inception.

Ironically, what is lost amid all the predictable backlash is the fact that it was the Rooneys’ decision to make the deal with Acrisure. If president Art Rooney II wanted to name the stadium in honor of his father and grandfather, he could have done so. Instead, he did what those two men would have done and chose to benefit the team and its fans by securing upwards of $100 million in revenue.

Thankfully, fans who take to online soapboxes to protest naming rights and other commercial intrusions are in the minority. Most fans get that—like it or not—such partnerships play an essential role in the sports and entertainment business.

The question really comes down to whether rights holders and brands can persuade consumers to appreciate sponsorship rather than merely tolerate it as a necessary evil. This is where many sports and entertainment marketers continue to drop the ball by not making the benefits to the fan experience more explicit.

In Pittsburgh—and as is often the case with sponsorship unveilings—the announcement of the deal came with vague statements about enabling the Steelers “to continue to invest in stadium amenities and aesthetics” as well as future “community initiatives aimed at providing a deep connection for Acrisure in the Pittsburgh community.”

No doubt both of those will come to fruition, but the inclusion of specifics and the addition of an immediate fan- or community-centered activation could have gone much further in winning over consumers and their acceptance of the change of name rather than being indignant or indifferent to it.

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