Athletes to Influencers: The New Competitive Playing Field

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Professional athletes endorsing brands is not a new concept. For years the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Cristiano Ronaldo have proudly donned the infamous Nike logo (amongst others) as part of high value sponsorship deals, but the rise of social media and the absence of live sport due to the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the development of a new highly competitive playing field amongst athletes – both professionals and amateurs – in the digital arena.

Prior to social media, fan aspiration and celebrity influence was based predominantly upon athletic ability. Large endorsement deals, such as those from brand powerhouses like Nike, signified athletes having ‘made it’ within the sporting arena – recognition for their superior athletic performance. Fast forward to 2021 however, and many brands are capitalising on athletes’ content creation abilities and their social reach in lieu of on-field performance. Fans are seeking authentic, relatable experiences with their sporting heroes and brands are recognising the value of even micro and nano-influencers who have developed significant online rapport with their followers.

As Vodacom Blue Bulls CEO, Edgar Rathbone, stated in our recent Rights Holder webinar, “rugby has become a by-product to a large degree – we have become lifestyle brands and content creators”. Whilst sporting performance may have provided teams and athletes with a springboard into the public domain, it is their ability to engage with fans and their attitude towards their fans which now has a greater impact on loyalty and preference.

To watch the full webinar, CLICK HERE.

Whilst many athletes have, to a large degree, had an awareness of their social influence – previously predominantly due to their success on the sports field – the global Covid-19 pandemic has forced many athletes and teams to capitalise on their online presence as a means to create alternate sources of revenue. Similarly, for brands, endorsement deals are no longer simply considered based upon on-field performance and athlete likeability – increasingly, attributes such as athlete engagement, social relevance and reach are becoming of greater significance.

With lockdown and restrictions on live sport and spectator attendance, fans are seeking that personal connection with their sporting heroes. Social media has created new levels of immediacy and access that enables fans to develop emotional connection and attachment by sharing significant moments with their sporting icons. For the athletes, social media provides a platform to expose their authentic selves and providesnew ways to engage with fans outside of the sportsfield.

Data from YPulse, a youth research and insights company, has shown that when compared to musicians, online influencers, and Hollywood celebrities, athletes are the type of celebrity that Gen Z and Millennials aspire to most and are the type they would most like to see as a spokesperson for a brand. These athletes have become more than just role models, they have become trendsetters, persuasive powers and influential cause ambassadors.

Responsibility vs Authenticity

Along with all the benefits social media provides brands, fans and athletes, it also comes with a large degree of risk. It’s reach, immediacy and lack of rules and direct control of the account holders content, means that brands, teams and personal reputations are quite literally in the hands of the influencer in question. Poorly produced content, offensive posts and unsavoury online behaviour all have the power to jeopardise sentiment.

The rise of athlete influencers has also shifted the balance of power. Whereas athletes used to be treated as property of the teams that “owned” them and saw them viewed more as well-polished spokespeople, they’re now considered as authentic human beings with unique points of view, opinions and beliefs. These athletes have a responsibility to their followers to use their voice, reach and influence to take a stand against controversial topics, but the consideration of tone, content and desired call to action needs to be carefully considered based on all the stakeholders involved.

Which begs the question – where do influencers draw the line between authenticity and their responsibility to sponsors?


Transactional vs Transformational – The Sponsorship Paradigm Shift in Post-Covid Economy

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There is no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed the proverbial playing field for several industries – and the sports and entertainment industry is no exception. With marketing budgets having been significantly reduced in most instances, the absence of live events and severe hospitality and tourism restrictions has meant fewer sponsorship opportunities to consider and even fewer resources with which to capitalise on them. But who is worse off in this scenario – the rights holder or the potential sponsors?

Debating that question furiously in-house has led us to the conclusion that in fact, that mentality is exactly the wrong approach to sponsorship agreements in the post-COVID economy. The relationship between rights holders and sponsors will have to become less transactional and more transformational to ensure adequate return and mutual benefit for both parties.

Transactional vs Transformational Relationships

Transactional relationships are by nature optimized around getting both parties the most they possibly can in exchange for as little as possible. It often resulted in a series of negotiation rounds until both parties felt they had secured maximum benefit for themselves, utilising the platform as the mechanism to achieve the desired return and commercial value. The sponsorship agreement became the checklist against which accountability was held for rights and objectives to be achieved and the basis upon which renewal was considered. Whilst effective from a corporate governance perspective, it lacked flexibility and room for adaptation which, as COVID-19 has shown us, has become paramount.

In the post-COVID economy, the new etiquette for successful sponsorships will be about creating partnerships and working collaboratively for the best interest of the sponsorship ‘trilogy’ – the rights holder, the sponsor, and the entity itself. When like-minded brands collaborate – knowing what they want, understanding what the other hopes to achieve, and working in partnership to achieve it – the IMPACT of the sponsorship will be that much greater. This relationship-based paradigm shift takes a more transformational approach with both parties acknowledging the value they bring to the partnership and that one is not considered “lesser” than the other.

This approach is likely to entail an overhaul of the traditional sponsorship model and instead, see brands developing sponsorship Requests For Proposal outlying their objectives and desired outcomes. It would become the responsibility of the rights holder to tailor the sponsorship offering accordingly to match and meet the sponsor requirements most effectively. Gone are the days of accepting (and paying for) rights which don’t benefit the brand or campaign objectives simply because they were pre-packaged with the rights which were desirable.

Relationship-based Sponsorships are Based on Delivery Mutual Outcomes, not Outputs.

Transformational-based sponsorship also enables both rights holder and sponsor to capitalise on societal changes which have already taken place. In an era where influence and authenticity have become important elements of the decision-making process, brands are more highly valued by their consumers and followers. This holds great appeal for the right sponsor and rights holder as both brands provide each other with access to relevant, desirable target audiences and more impactful outcomes in partnership. It also cements the importance of agencies to assist with rights holder and sponsor management to enable both parties to remain accountable to their responsibilities and ensure maximum return on desired outcomes.

So, to answer our initial question of who is worse off in the post-COVID economy…
Neither! Provided all parties remain committed to relevance, longevity, and the achievement of mutual outcomes.

With the proverbial playing field forever changed and major shifts in marketing, consumerism, and sponsorship taking centre stage, sponsors and rights holders have the opportunity to optimise their approach to sponsorship in its entirety for the benefit of not only one another but the industry as a whole.

The Future of Women’s Sport Sponsorship

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“Not bad for a girl…” Possibly the phrase which female professional athletes dread most and an accurate indication of all that is wrong when it comes to the sponsorship landscape within women’s sport. Women’s sport has been perceived as inferior based on a biased measurement against how fast they run, how high they jump or how far they hit when compared to their male counterparts. 

Should we not, however, be measuring the skills that female athletes have had to perfect in order to overcome this lack of perceived power? What about the dedication, hard work and sheer determination to succeed against the odds? Surely these are far more comparable, and relatable, metrics on the path to elite success that should be acknowledged, celebrated and rewarded? 

Inspiring Against All Odds 

The power of women’s sport is undeniable. A 2018 Nielsen report titled “The Rise of Women’s Sport” revealed that women’s sports are perceived as more progressive, less money-driven and more family oriented than men’s sport. Additionally, women are also more inspired by women’s sport than they are by men’s sport. This alone creates a massive opportunity for brands to reach a large, predominantly untapped market.

Megan Rapinoe, Breanna Stewart, Serena Williams, and our very own Caster Semenya are some of the most inspirational athletes of our time. They are not only inspirational in terms of their achievements in their respective sporting codes, but away from competition they are equally passionate activists for creating awareness of pressing societal issues.

Fans of women’s sport are known for their loyalty and commitment towards their teams. Nike experienced this first hand in 2019 when the USWNT’s home kit claimed the record for Nike’s most sold soccer jersey for a single season. 

It is no secret that female athletes earn a fraction of what their male counterparts do in both pay and press coverage. Female professional cycling is a stark reminder of this –  according to recent statistics only the top 25% of female professional riders earn salaries that meet the minimum wage criteria stipulated for male professional teams by governing body UCI.

Professional golf follows a similar trend. Prize money for the leading earners on the LPGA Tour is a 10th of what their male counterparts earn on the PGA Tour and this disparity in earnings only gets bigger when endorsement earnings form part of the equation. 

Current Women’s Sport Sponsorship Landscape 

While sponsorship of women’s sport has increased, and we applaud those who have invested in women’s sport, we can’t help but question how authentic these sponsorships really are. Are brands and big corporations sponsoring women’s sport to tick the right boxes as a result of societal pressure, or do they really believe in the power of associating with women’s sport?

The Covid – 19 pandemic caused havoc within the sporting industry in general in 2020 and the effects will be felt for many years to come. Women’s sport definitely drew the short end of the coronavirus stick, with a host of different sporting codes cancelling their 2020 seasons. Sponsorship in women’s sport is very limited as is and with the reality of severe budget cuts, brands are likely to have even less money to spend on sponsorships in 2021 and beyond. 

However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. In the long run, a shift in where and how budgets are allocated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic might just be the wake-up call that the industry desperately needs to adjust their approach when it comes to women’s sport sponsorship.

Brands are under pressure to find creative alternatives with unlimited marketing budgets being a thing of the past. Add to that a drastic change in consumer behaviour in the last 6 to 12 months as a demand for authenticity and accountability comes to the fore, suddenly brands need to find ways to connect to their audiences in a meaningful way at a fraction of their previous budgets. With women’s sport sponsorship rights tending to cost a fraction of the men’s equivalents, brands have the option to step out of their comfort zones and own the stage by investing in women’s sport for commercial benefit.

What’s next for women’s sport? 

Visa’s 7 year deal with various UEFA Women’s Football properties and Budweiser’s award winning partnership with the NWSL, creates hope and optimism for the women’s sport sponsorship landscape. Authentic, long-term investments from big brands have the power to revolutionise the future of women’s sport. These types of sponsorships will lead to more media coverage, more role models for fans to look up to, higher earning for female athletes and ultimately additional sponsorship revenue for teams, leagues and rights holders. 

Apart from taking a large, progressive step in the right direction towards creating a gender-equal sporting future, sponsoring women’s sport makes good business sense for relevant brands. In addition to positive sentiment through association, it also presents exciting commercial opportunities for brands – particularly those with smaller budgets. Coupled with a global rise in women’s income levels and propensity to spend, sponsoring women’s sport provides brands with a perfect opportunity to earn their share of heart and wallet.

The world’s best female professional athletes give it their all on a daily basis to compete with and beat the best. Isn’t it time for the sponsorship industry to hold itself to these same standards?


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