Are brands the solution to sport’s funding crisis?
The panel consisted of:
- Simon Shaw MBE: former England and British & Irish Lions rugby legend
- Tom Evans: Team GB World Trail Running Championships silver and bronze medallist
- Anabel Sexton: Founder/CEO of women’s sportswear brand Boudavida
- Claire Parnell: Founder of OnSide Communications and former Nike Director of Communications
caytoo: Do you think brands have a role to play in addressing issues around funding and “levelling the playing field” – be it directly or indirectly?
Anabel Sexton: Brands can have a big role here but I do think they need to think slightly differently about how they go about it. The traditional model of sponsoring an athlete and expecting sales to come is outdated. Particularly with women, sponsoring a finely-honed muscular woman, putting your kit on them and expecting the average housewife to be able to relate to it doesn’t necessarily equate. There are plenty of people who can relate to these women and are inspired by them to take up sport themselves, so I’m not rubbishing that at all but there are plenty of other women who just cannot relate. Brands have a responsibility to look at how they go about trying to do this, look to do it differently and look a bit creatively about how they try to talk to their target markets.
Claire Parnell: Absolutely, brands do have a role to play. Brands make strategic decisions to enter into partnerships with athletes, clubs and federations and they have to deliver against commercial objectives such as brand awareness, growth, driving product innovation etc. But they can and should also play a role in supporting and building sports; they can help the bigger sports address areas of inequality in their game such as women’s and disability sport, whilst they can also play a role in driving awareness and building fan communities in the smaller lesser followed sports. So, brands are definitely part of a bigger circle of people who are responsible.
Tom Evans: For me, working alongside a brand is quite important. Not just so the athlete can tell the story of the brand but also the brand can tell the story of the athlete. That’s what everyone loves to hear – the stories of the athletes who may have come from hardship or may have just discovered something completely new. It’s just having that platform upon which these athletes can then build their profile, because gone are the days when performance alone is enough to secure financial backing. There’s now so much social media and all of these different avenues for an athlete to create their own brand.
“So what I’d love to see from brands is one that’s willing to go on a journey, go on an adventure with an athlete to evolve as a brand and help the athlete evolve as a person and athlete.”
Simon Shaw: Brands need to be more creative with how they interact with athletes. I think the journey that Tom refers to is relatively easily done if brands invest more in future prospects. Such as those being relatively vulnerable in terms of whether they’re going to make a success of themselves or not but who could be utilised within the business as well. It’s giving them the opportunity to learn about the brand and the business and, at the same time, continuing what they aim to be – which is a successful athlete.
There is an avenue whereby brands can invest more in what they put out in terms of their straplines. Historically, a number of brands have said “we like to work with x sport because we share some of their values” but yet don’t necessarily invest in the people, they’ll only ever choose guys at the top of their game. They’ll sponsor an event, then say a couple of words at the end – but don’t actually invest in spending time with that athlete.
caytoo: Brands aren’t charities so what would they look to get back in return (the ROI) for any activity they undertook in addressing the funding crisis in sport?
Anabel: You’re absolutely right. Brands aren’t charities. They’re going to look to get a return. They’re investing and they need to see an upturn in sales, otherwise what’s the point of doing it? But once again there are different ways of doing that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sponsor an athlete and expect the sales to come.
“We donate 5% of every sale back into women’s sport. So we know our investment, our way of funding, is not an overt sponsorship.”
This is a backhanded investment that my customers can choose who to support, so that then creates a community of people that gives me great content to create that community and, in return, actually creates sales.
So, it’s a different way of engaging consumers and customers that is not quite as overt as the old fashioned way of doing things. That’s how I get my return of investment but for brands, of course, they need an ROI and getting that is tricky.
caytoo: Athletes obviously rely on their sponsors for income so how best do they balance their on and off field responsibilities? To illustrate the point, I refer to Jose Mourinho, the Manchester Utd manager, who complained his players were spending too much time on sponsor duties (they have 46 official partners) rather than on the training field.
Simon: That’s fairly extreme if athletes are being asked to spend time with each and every one of those. That’s over the top. From my experience we were never exposed to brands and sponsors to that extent. I always felt as a player to take nothing away from your legs, take nothing away from the energy you can then expend at training or on a match day.
Athletes, certainly in my sport, seem to utilise less and less of their minds, than they ever used to. In the amateur days and early days of professionalism, people used to go to university and combine that with full time sport but now we see that less and less. So, therefore there’s a hell of a lot more time these athletes have on their hands and it should be utilised in the best way – one, using their brains and two, helping grow the sport. OK, you can’t expect everyone has to go out and coach kids because that is time on your feet but it can be done in other ways.
Tom: For me, trail running and ultra-running is a relatively small, quite long sport, so just any opportunity I’ve had – whether it’s for a quote in a magazine or doing a small podcast – is just a great opportunity to grow the sport and also myself in it.
Having that opportunity from potential sponsors or magazines or brands coming to you is important. But as well, you’ve got to be incredibly proactive because you have a lot of times in between training sessions where you’re able to either write a blog or record a podcast or what have you. I think it’s a combination on the athlete and the brand’s responsibility to work together in producing that content to grow the brand, the athlete and also the sport.
caytoo: So other on the other side of the coin, what would brands look to get back in return (the ROI) for any activity they undertook in addressing either of the two issues?
Claire: Brands and athletes need to be aligned and an open dialogue is key. Both need to be respectful of each other and see the partnership as a collaboration. This could be knowing what an athlete is passionate about inside and outside of sport, the music, or fashion, or entertainment they love for example that helps brings storytelling and the narrative of the partnership to life. Brands and athletes need to give each other time to get to know each other, and align and fundamentally understand what both parties want to achieve as part of a successful partnership.
Brands must respect that athletes are athletes, but in return the brand needs the athlete to be respectful of the team behind the brand that are working super hard to unlock access, to create content in an interesting way to drive the partnership and deliver value.
It comes back to that very initial collaboration decision, that strategic thinking from the brand that asks “does this athlete or sponsorship fit our organisation or brand goals?”But equally the athlete needs to be honest and transparent and ask themselves “does this brand fit me and my values?” That’s when you can strike that collaboration and begin to activate and achieve some great things.
Anabel: I’ll simply give an example from my experience of the best and most inspiring occasion. When I worked at TaylorMade and Adidas golf, we’d just signed a young lad called Justin Rose. He turned up, using one of his sponsor days, at our sales conference. And, bless him, he stood up on stage in front of a roomful of global sales reps and asked them what he could do to help them meet their quarter four numbers.
He just totally got it even though he was very young and just turned professional. We signed so many golfers who just took the kit, took the money and their sponsor days were a real pain in the behind for them. Then you had Justin, who was just so inspiring as a youngster. Whether that was his father, who managed him then, who educated him, I don’t know, but he got what we wanted out of him, why we’d sponsored him.
caytoo: There’s a major funding issue in sport in that many athletes (some say 40%) face bankruptcy within five years of their playing career ending. Simon, what did you do to address this? Tom, what are you doing?
Simon: I was lucky to play in both the amateur and professional eras but I had a major injury in 1995 where I nearly lost my foot and from that day onwards I thought, “this is how fragile my career could be.” So I needed to be thinking constantly what the next step would be and what else I could be doing to make sure the rest of my life is planned out.
But I think sportspeople are very vulnerable. From the outside looking in you’re all earning fortunes and, therefore, as you are relatively ill-educated, people think you’re easy prey. So they can take advantage of that and ask you to invest in numerous projects. Sportspeople are ill-advised in that respect. Agents are concerned with the immediacies of contracts. You need to have a fall back, and I don’t think many athletes think about this during their playing careers. Also, you become very accustomed to the lifestyle, but unfortunately it’s about moderating what you have when you have it.
Players are thrown lots of investment opportunities and I think that’s probably the area that they think about more than necessarily starting their own business or going into a career after sport. Whereas, my generation spent nearly every lunchtime coming up with a business idea or opportunity, it was constant.
After my injury I really started to think about what I could do if I wasn’t a rugby player, which was an incredibly difficult question, and still is!
“Making the transition away from professional sport involves having a balance, such as maintaining your education pathway, not separating yourself from your fans and being able to network a room and speak to people from all backgrounds, as every conversation is an opportunity.”
Tom: No, I’m not really doing anything at the moment. I’m just looking for really good brands to have a partnership with and who want to be a part of my journey, to invest in me and buy into my goals and vision. Not just in the short term with my performance, but also in increasing participation in running. Rather than just jumping in with any brand, it’s important to actually take your time. This year I’ve really taken my time signing with brands, to make sure that any brand I get into bed with is one I want to stay in bed with.
Claire: On that note, I think there is an absolute need for a platform like caytoo to exist to enable a two-way conversation so brands can better understand athletes so they can help support them to build their pathway for life after professional sport. In businesses, for sponsors, governing bodies, organisations that are involved in sports there are different parts of their businesses that the athletes would add great value to, but also that the athlete would learn a lot from having visibility of – be it mentoring employees or employees mentoring athletes to keep that partnership living well beyond professional sport.
caytoo: The lack of commercial revenue going into women’s sport is an issue gaining greater traction on an almost daily basis. What do you think of the issue? How it can be solved?
Anabel: It’s fair to say that there is some traction in women’s sport, there is more press coverage and you hear more about it. There’s more televised coverage which is all really exciting but I think it should be noted that this hasn’t happened in isolation. This is a result of decades of people working tirelessly to make this happen. And what we’re experiencing now is the cumulative effects of all that hard work. Its organisations like Women in Sport, the Women’s Sports Trust and all those individuals who’ve just campaigned on their own to promote women’s sport.
So, it’s a really exciting time right now. But we are nowhere near where we need to be. Look at the gender pay gap in sport, it’s so ridiculous. But for me the main thing that can be done is to focus on the media coverage because with media coverage of women’s sport, sponsors are likely to be interested in getting involved and the moment a sponsor is involved, then a female athlete can become a professional at their chosen sport. This then starts to create role models for youngsters. This in turn leads to increased participation. Then you have more people interested in the media coverage, and so it goes around. So, the most obvious place to start is the media coverage.
What’s really encouraging at the moment is that you can listen to sports coverage and women’s sport is no longer an add-on at the end, but is a central part of the news feed. It’s the norm to report on the successes and failures of women athletes. But it all starts with the media coverage to start that virtuous circle I’ve just outlined.
Claire: There’s some great examples of media coverage and momentum behind women’s sport recently. The impressive and game-changing Women in Football #WhatIf campaign and the tangible progress there is that growing women’s sport isn’t just about what happens on the pitch. It’s about every part of women’s sport and creating opportunities in that sphere – be that communications, broadcasting, marketing etc. Then there’s the fantastic #ShowUp campaign from Sky Sports, who are driving the attendances at women’s sport because what sponsors need is eyeballs. So if young fans or potential fans of women’s sport are following teams or athletes or are actually in the stadium, then that’s a really great shift.
From a brand perspective there’s now an opportunity for generation one and generation two sponsors to continue to drive awareness and investment in women’s sport. There’s the Disney’s and SSE’s of the world who are doing a great job building new sponsorships focused on women’s sport and creating something from scratch. Then there’s the likes of Mars who have re-entered contract conversations with The FA to include all of their footballing properties – not just the men’s senior game, which is really significant.
“So it’s now down to brands to strategically support and invest in the women’s game from the bottom up, drive media coverage and storytelling, and build fan audiences, and you are looking at something incredibly exciting.”
Simon: One of the issues is that people immediately choose to watch men’s rugby but not necessarily women’s rugby, for whatever reason, and that’s partly why sponsors don’t get involved because of the spectatorship.
Quite frankly, I would lock the doors after an England men’s game and make everyone watch the women’s game because it’s an incredibly open game, an incredibly skilful game. I was a naysayer but then saw what they were able to do on a rugby pitch which was incredibly good to watch.
But it needs to be watched and that is ultimately what it comes down to – women’s sport needs to be watched. I never understood, for example, why Wimbledon’s centre court is as busy for the women’s final as it is for the men’s and why that wasn’t the same in other sports? I think it comes down to the fact that people just aren’t exposed to it as much – but when they are, they realise how good it is.