How brands are pivoting sports sponsorship in the face of COVID-19

Menulog, Boost Mobile, Colgate and Telstra are just some of the brands rethinking their sponsorship of sports as the unprecedented crisis hit. CMO explores the marketing strategy behind their thinking


Brands spent somewhere well above $750 million sponsoring sporting events and clubs in Australia in 2019. That number was on track to be bettered in 2020 thanks to the benign economic climate and the Tokyo Olympics.

Then COVID-19 ran rampant, social lockdown was imposed, and the Olympics – and almost every other sporting contest you can think of – was postponed.

No sport meant no exposure for sport sponsors. And for some brands, that led to an immediate re-evaluation – and even cessation - of their commitments.

According to director of Publicis Sport & Entertainment, Ashley O’Rourke, while the early days of the crisis saw many brands questioning the value of their sponsorships, ultimately the vast majority have stuck with their commitments.

“It would have been very short-sighted to pull funding from sports partnerships purely as a cost saving exercise, because fans’ memories are long and they are going to remember those brands who abandoned their passions,” O’Rourke tells CMO.

But while many sponsors maintained their relationships, they have also been racing to ensure the money spent isn’t dead money by repurposing campaigns and assets to achieve some of connection with fans. And the results is a plethora of mostly digital campaigns, usually based around user-generated (or in this case, player-generated) content.

One example is the Australian Dice Football League, hosted by Andy Lee and presented by Telstra, where prominent AFL footballers compete head-to-head by rolling a dice to determine the game’s score. According to Telstra’s senior sponsorship manager,­ Will Koukouras, the goal has been to bring out the competitive spirit of the players in a fun, unscripted environment, while providing opportunities for fans to engage with their heroes.

“So far we’re really happy with the way the concept has been received by the players - some of whom have brought their competitive spirit to an entirely new playing field - and most importantly, footy fans,” Koukouras says. “The great thing about this campaign is that it has time to grow and evolve with no two matches alike, and the unscripted nature of the matches hopefully gives fans an authentic, sometimes drama filled experience.”

Rewriting the script

Telstra is not the only AFL sponsor that has had to rethink its relationship. Colgate entered discussions for its inaugural sponsorship arrangement with the AFL long before the COVID-19 crisis hit. So when it became clear social distancing would lead to the seasons being postponed, Colgate and its agency, Wavemaker, had to find alternative means to derive value from the partnership.

“The reality here is some brands will need to revisit their partnerships strategies and adapt to ensure they are meeting their objectives while remaining visible and relevant,” says Wavemaker’s business director, Alexia Antonis. “We have also had to be agile and pivot. What we had thought the season was going to look like isn’t where it is now, and we are determined to see it through and remain relevant.”

That pivot has been from high-quality content to user generated content featuring the sponsorship’s various ambassadors, including AFLW star, Tayla Harris.

“There have been challenges with regard to accessing talent, so we are working remotely and asking talent to shoot their own content and send it through for us to edit it,” Antonis says. “But we are very much still working as we would, it’s just the execution is different.”

One fortunate coincidence has been the emphasis on positivity within the campaign, with Colgate having become the ‘official smile’ of the AFL. “It was fortunate the message was more relevant than ever during this current period, but it was always planned to be that way,” Antonis says.

Hospitality ecommerce and logistics company, Menulog, is another brand which had planned to dip its toe into sporting sponsorships in 2020, through a partnership with the NRL team the South Sydney Rabbitohs, only to have COVID-19 throw its plans into disarray.

“We have had our eye on a number of sporting codes for a little while, the main reason being sport and the meal occasion are a natural fit,” says marketing director, Simon Cheng. “And the Rabbitohs are a really impressive outfit. We have aligned goals through their strong focus on community and 30,000 members and really strong grass roots programs.”

The COVID-19 shutdown has, however, seen the cancellation of several programs Menulog was developing, especially in relation to the Rabbitoh’s junior teams. But Cheng says he has been keen throughout to find ways to stay connected to the team and its fans.

“We had to reshape to have more online and virtual elements rather than the physical elements,” Cheng says. “The original plan was to be the front of jersey sponsor for a number of the junior leagues and we are not doing that anymore, so we have a much heavier social media plan to create more engagement in the online world with members.

“With these sorts of partnerships you need to play the long game. The whole strategic intent behind this particular one is the natural fit between the two different industries, and so it is about making Menulog synonymous with that live sport meal occasion.”

Up next: How Boost Mobile, Menulog and others are rethinking consumer engagement as sports continue to be impacted, the role of digital, plus how the current crisis will change sports sponsorship in the long term

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