Sport sponsors hit fever pitch

The eyes of the world are firmly fixed on the Middle East, with the region hosting and participating in several global sporting events. And advertisers are getting involved too, leading to an explosion in sports sponsorship, writes Richard Abbott

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By  Richard Abbott Published  April 23, 2006

|~|football200.jpg|~|Emirates Airline World Cup football ad|~|It is a well known fact that the Middle East has a sports-mad population, but the obsession is about to reach boiling point. Already this year Cairo has played host to the African Cup of Nations football tournament. And in December Doha plays host to the sporting extravaganza that is the Asian Games. Jewels in the region’s sporting crown include the Bahrain Grand Prix and the richest horse race on the planet — the Dubai World Cup. The International Cricket Council has moved its headquarters to Dubai. And let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia and Iran take on the elite of international football this summer at the World Cup finals in Germany. So it is small wonder that TV channels have ramped up their sporting coverage. ART Sport now offers six dedicated channels, along with its Prime Sports and World Cup stations, while Dubai Sports has relaunched with a new on-screen look. It is also boom time for sports sponsorship, with both international and local clients taking a serious look at sport as a way of reaching their audiences. Emirates has taken sponsorship by the scruff of the neck and encapsulates its appeal in its World Cup finals advertising slogan: “We all speak one language. Football.” The airline last week announced a US$195 million, eight year deal with football’s governing body Fifa, that will see the airline sponsor the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, on top of its sponsorship of this year’s tournament. Malcolm Thorpe, marketing director, sports business at Dubai Sports City, says the shared enthusiasm for sport across the world makes it a powerful communication tool. “Sport has the ability to say something about a brand’s personality — the association with high passion, the ability to connect with people,” he says. Small wonder then, that airlines Etihad and Qatar Airways have given serious consideration to sponsoring the shirt of one of the world’s favourite football teams — Manchester United. And technology firm Intel has got in on the act with a high profile sponsorship of the BMW Formula One motorsport team. Dania El-Kadi, GCC marketing manager, says: “With the region having such a young population, we think sport is a great theme. You will see us focus a lot more on sports.” Alun James, managing director at FourGritti Sports and Sponsorship, says clients are looking at sponsorship as traditional media fragments and audiences dwindle. “Sport is a passion centre which has mass market reach — either as an event such as the Olympic Games or across a whole football season — and brands are therefore increasingly using sponsorship as an alternative to traditional means,” he says. Pretty much anything to do with sport can be sponsored, from the event itself, through to the hoardings that surround the playing area and parts of the stadium. For sponsors, the benefit is not so much about being exposed to live spectators, but to those who are watching the event on TV. Live sport is capable of uniting millions of viewers for a single broadcast. “Sport has an ability to be reported for its own sake, especially through pictures, and sponsorship comes through in that,” says Thorpe. Donal Kilalea, chief executive of Promoseven Sports Marketing, says that sponsors are interested in three areas: building brand awareness; product sampling; and using corporate hospitality to build relationships with clients and employees. “Sports is just another marketing channel now. The reason it has been so successful is because it crosses different boundaries,” he says. James also points out the ability for sponsors to generate revenues from data and content at sports events. Mobile phone operators, for example, can send official bulletins and images to their customers. The cost of sponsoring a sporting event varies according to its scale. For headline sponsorship at football’s World Cup you are looking at somewhere in the region of US$40 million. For a local event in its first or second year, co-sponsorship can cost as little as US$30,000. “The fee very much depends on the type of sport, where it is being televised and the popularity of the event,” explains Kilalea. FourGritti is involved in the sponsorship of teams and individual sportsmen, but James admits that risks are involved in the latter. “Sponsoring a team is the less risky route. Individuals can suffer loss of form, injury or become involved in adverse publicity,” he says. “Often the two are used in tandem, a company will sponsor a team which provides brand visibility and commercial benefits but also sign up one or two of the players to provide endorsement and a human face to the message.” For Promoseven Sports Marketing, the leverage of sporting events does not stop at sponsorship alone. The company manages events, negotiates TV broadcast rights and handles public relations for events. For the annual Dubai Rugby Sevens, Promoseven was hired by Emirates to run the whole event on its behalf. This covered everything from erecting the stadium to producing the tournament programme. The company even arranges the players’ visas and books their hotel rooms. The Sevens is now one of the most eagerly awaited events in the rugby calendar and is testament to the Middle East’s ability to attract the sporting world. Football teams from Europe are regular visitors to the region on mid-season breaks. Part of the attraction is the region’s geographic location at a midway point between the East and West. The warm climate helps too. And the facilities are getting better every day. Dubai Sports City is set to be one of the biggest sporting complexes on earth when completed, with a showpiece 60,000-seater arena at its heart. For local clients, there has never been a better time to get involved in sport. “As the economy develops, more companies are looking at how they can differentiate themselves. Sport enables them to do that,” says Thorpe. But as more events come on stream, is there a danger that sponsors will become lost in the clutter? The tendency of some event organisers to offer ‘tiered’ levels of sponsorship depending on the amount of money invested can make it tough for individual clients to stand out. “I would try to avoid having too many sponsors,” says Thorpe. “I’ve heard ads for some events on the radio and half the ad is the list of sponsors. Is there really any value for them?” Kilalea says some sponsorship is ill advised. “A lot of companies are saying ‘let’s sponsor this event’ but people shouldn’t even think of sports as a sponsorship tool or marketing channel unless they are prepared to invest in the long term. “The ones that understand sport understand the whole ethos of it. They know there is a line. They know how far they can go.” One such client is Emirates, which has embraced sponsorship around the world as it seeks to become one of the world’s best known airlines. The world’s cricket umpires bear the Emirates name. And from next season the airline will have its logo on the shirts and stadium of English Premiership football side Arsenal. “It has got to be in-your-face,” explains Mike Simon, vice-president, corporate communications at Emirates. “Most of the time we go for the jugular” However, international sports event organisers will be troubled to learn that Emirates plans to scale back its sponsorship activity. “We have probably got a 50/50 split between advertising and sponsorship. I would like it to return to a 60/40 situation,” says Simon. “Sponsorship can’t be planned as much as advertising. You have to grab opportunities as they arise. So sometimes the investment in sponsorship gets higher than you budgeted for.” A case in point is Emirates’ recent sponsorship of German football team Hamburg, which became available just as the airline was operating a new route to the German city. For many clients, the key attraction lies in corporate hospitality. “You get your brand on signage, but the ability to entertain your customers gives you an added dimension,” says Thorpe. “If you know that four of your key clients love golf, you can take them along to the Dubai Desert Classic. It’s good for business.” At first glance, a carpet retailer might not have much in common with golf, but Carpetland’s involvement with the Dubai Desert Classic gave the company a valuable opportunity to entertain clients. Kilalea agrees: “Just putting a logo on a board isn’t enough. You have to mingle with everyone at the event.” Much of the attraction of sports sponsorship is the “in-your-face” element identified by Emirates’ Mike Simon. It is hard to argue that a logo on the shirt of a winning team is a bad investment. Likewise, giving your clients a day out they will never forget is undeniably good for business. But with client budgets under pressure, how can return on investment be proved? “The problem with all marketing activity is that it is difficult to take away advertising, PR, media relations and then say ‘that segment is down to sponsorship’,” says Simon. “We do measure our sponsorships through the amount of exposure on television and then look at the cost of how much we think the sponsorship is worth.” James says there are evaluation models which help to ascertain return against investment which use a combination of quantifiable data (eg television audience figures, spectator figures) and qualifiable data (eg focus group interviews, changes in attitude to the company).The bottom line is: has it helped to change perceptions? In a world of globalised culture, yet one where media audiences are getting more fragmented, the ability of sport to cross cultural and language barriers is sure to cement its place in the marketing mix.||**||

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