Sport is unequivocally a driving force at the forefront of social and political change. Be it the Springboks 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph aiding in the progression of racial equality in post-apartheid South Africa (followed up this year by Siya Kolisi, their first black captain, lifting the Web Ellis trophy), Jackie Robinson signalling the end of racial segregation in professional baseball, the iconic Black Power salute* by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, NFL players kneeling during the national anthem or the Miracle on Ice in 1980 representing an ideological victory for the US over the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Granted, these examples are on the extreme end of the spectrum and occurred in an era largely free of commercial partnerships in comparison to the present day, but they continue to serve as a stark reminder of the influence that sport wields in politics and society. It’s therefore apparent that when committing to a sporting partnership with a brand, team, league or organisation, shared values between the relevant parties are paramount to its success. In order to best explain this, I’ve opted to use a few recent examples that have drawn negative scrutiny, therefore drawing into question the reasoning behind the partnership and likelihood of its success.
The NBA and China
After a rollercoaster off-season that saw a series of high-profile trades and signings, the start of the 19/20 NBA season was thrown into chaos for wholly different reasons.
Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Moreys’ tweet in October, in which he expressed support for the protestors in Hong Kong, led to the NBA releasing a controversial statement that was widely interpreted as them choosing their own financial interests over human rights and freedom of speech. The resulting uproar drew stark criticism from US politicians and the general public alike and, in the following weeks during which time several NBA teams were playing pre-season games in China, a host of Chinese companies pulled their deals with the NBA and individual teams. The Houston Rockets alone have lost an estimated $7 million in revenue this year and nearly $20 million overall as a result of cancelled sponsorship agreements with Chinese firms.
Due to being the most popular sporting league in China and contributing a huge share of viewers, finances and merchandise sales to the league, the NBA’s business relationship with China is reportedly valued in excess of $4 billion. On the cusp of the new season losing such a significant share of this revenue posed a significant challenge and therefore partly explained the actions undertaken by the NBA. The issue itself though lies with the initial agreements made between Chinese companies and the NBA, drawing into question what was valued more - market importance or American values and freedom of speech that the league has sought to embody.
John Gonzalez highlighted the predicament: “This is a lose-lose situation for the NBA. If the league stands for democratic values and supports Morey and others like him who speak up on social issues, it will further anger China. If the NBA tries to repair the relationship with China in the interest of bottom-line business, it will anger everyone on the domestic political spectrum.”
With the Chinese Basketball Association, China Central Television and Tencent suspending their relationship with the league, the story is now portrayed by the American media as a battle between American values and Chinese censorship, and with fans looking to take matters into their own hands this issue is unlikely to be one that will simmer out soon.
The Hundred and KP Snacks
As previously examined in Christianne Whitehouse’s debut blog, The Hundred and KP Snacks’ recent partnership announcement drew a wave of negative press, with critics calling out the new competition’s willingness to promote junk food brands at matches aimed at drawing in families and new cricket fans.
There are undoubtedly positive connotations to the partnership, including aiding the visibility of a classic British brand, promoting KPs work to encourage balanced, healthy and active lifestyles, and, of course, it has contributed to some particularly vibrant looking kits. The issue, however, is The Hundred is receiving such negative attention before a match has even been played. While their additional partnership with Vitality is a step in the right direction, how they look to rectify this before the inaugural competition next summer is one worth watching.
Football and betting
A contentious topic for a number of years now, the relationship between betting brands and football in the UK is one that is often harshly criticised. So much so that Labour has pledged to ban advertising on television during live sports to combat the gambling addiction “epidemic” in the UK.
While the relationship appears a logical fit on paper and gambling on football being worth an estimated £1.4 billion a year in the UK, the rise of campaigns such as BetRegret suggest that its presence in the sport may soon follow the same path as short-term loan advertising. Italy, in fact, announced a ban this year on betting firms marketing in Serie A for the 2019/20 season and while other leagues may look to make similar moves in the future, their decisions will likely be influenced when the financial repercussions become clearer.
All eyes will undoubtedly be on the Premier League as it carefully navigates these issues, but really there is only one outcome. In an interview with The Drum, Simon Dent, the founder of creative agency Dark Horses, whose previous work includes SportsBet’s sponsorship of the Conifa European Championship, said: “I have no doubt in my lifetime there will be no betting at all.” This really says it all.
What risk are you prepared to take?
Predicted to reach £35 billion this year, global brand spend on sports sponsorship continues to grow year on year at a staggering rate. Why risk devaluing your investment by aligning yourself with others without similar principles? It is vital that brands ensure they are attaining real value for money spent in an increasingly saturated market, whilst at the same time money talks. For more information on getting the most out of your sponsorship, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Later referred to as a “human rights” salute by Tommie Smith in his autobiography Silent Gesture
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