Companies are using PR expertise to extend the reach of their sports sponsorships
Go to any NASCAR race, and you'll see driver jackets embroidered with patches from soft-drink and other sponsors, cars plastered with decals, and whole races - as well as championship trophies - that bear the name of a company.
NASCAR has quickly risen from a regional sport previously derided as watched only by the rural South to the second highest-rated televised sport in the country. This is a development that is not lost on the many Fortune 500 companies that include work with the racing series in their marketing budgets. Nor is it lost on NASCAR's fans.
Those who follow sports marketing say NASCAR has seamlessly tied in sponsorship to the culture. Terry Lefton, an editor-at-large for SportsBusiness Daily and SportsBusiness Journal, says the sport's fans understand that the marketers are essential to its existence.
"[The reaction is], 'Hell yes, I buy Tide because if they weren't there, I wouldn't have my team,'" Lefton notes. "Sports have powerful, deep-seated affinities, and marketers can rent those affinities."
Corporate sponsorship on the rise
NASCAR isn't alone. All sports have corporate sponsors, and it is a symbiotic relationship that has deepened over the years and given PR pros a huge opportunity to bridge experiences between clients and fans.
Tony Signore, CEO of Alan Taylor Communications (ATC), recalls when the firm was the only PR agency representing its clients at the World Series and FIFA World Cup events throughout the 1990s. But at the 2002 World Cup, Signore says, all of the corporate partners had their firms or in-house teams at the sites in Korea and Japan.
This change exemplifies how much corporations now value these relationships and the resources they devote to them. But companies haven't always been that savvy. Dean Bonham, chairman and CEO of Bonham Group, a firm that evaluates and negotiates sports sponsorship deals, says corporate CEOs previously viewed sponsorships simply as the procedure of cutting a check to a sport they played or enjoyed, hanging up a sign at the event, and visiting the hospitality booth every so often.
"In the past five years, companies have become more sophisticated about how they interact with customers and potential customers [through sports]," Bonham says. "Today companies invest in sponsorships with a much more detailed and sophisticated approach."
The sports partners also expect an in-depth approach. George Pyne, COO of NASCAR, told PRWeek.com in April that the organization has an annual conference where PR pros from the drivers' corporate sponsors hold a conference to discuss ways to leverage opportunities.
"The point was that we're all in this together. We've all come across different opportunities, so it was a time to share ideas," Pyne said at the time.
Today companies require the same ROI for a sports sponsorship as they do for any marketing initiative. No longer content with static signage at the ballpark, companies are tapping more PR firms to leverage their sponsorships.
In turn, more agencies have made sports an integral part of their business. Major firms like Ogilvy and Edelman have sports practices, and midsize firms, such as Dan Klores Communications (DKC) and Rogers & Cowan, have made it a key part of the integrated mix. ATC has built a multifaceted firm on its success in the sports practice. Specialist PR firms, such as Furman Sports, focus entirely on the discipline. Even sports marketing firms like Octagon get into the act, handling sponsorships and PR.
Sponsors take part in even the smallest of sports. Furman handles corporate sponsorship - and the ensuing promotion - of lesser-known sporting events like yachting, extreme sports, skiing, and cycling. For example, Jeep sponsors action sports like powerboating and snowmobile uphill climbing. But while Jeep-sponsored events are broadcast on NBC, other small sports don't enjoy such a platform, and CEO Tony Furman's clients still feel like TV is king. "If I get an AP article placement, I'm elated, but the magic word today [for clients] is still 'television,'" Furman says.
Regardless of the medium, Furman says that his clients value the PR aspect of sponsorships because of the smaller sports' narrow focus. "They want us to say, 'This is what we can deliver to you in the ways of PR,'" Furman says.
"There's been a shift in the direction of corporate sponsors looking to PR to exponentially boost sponsorships' value," DKC president Sean Cassidy says.
Tapping into fans' dedication
The space has grown in part because of research that shows sports fans are highly dedicated to their sports' sponsors and are more likely to patronize sponsors than the average citizen, says Jeff Shifrin, EVP at Octagon.
Further, many PR pros assert that fans will see their presence at sporting events as a welcome addition, not an intrusion, as long as they're creating positive relationships.
"If I see an ad for Ameriquest on the nightly news, I'm less likely to patronize them than if I'm at the Super Bowl, and they're recognized as the sponsor," Bonham says.
The Bonham Group negotiated a contract for Ameriquest to sponsor Major League Baseball's (MLB) 2005 All-Star Game, which will be held in Detroit on July 12. Ameriquest then went to ATC to work on initiatives to leverage that sponsorship. For this game, ATC created the "Key to Your Dream" sweepstakes, where a winner will get the keys to the Ameriquest Stadium, home to the Texas Rangers, and get to see the 2005 MLB All-Star Game with two retired baseball stars.
An experiential approach, such as giveaways, product samplings, or contests, allows corporate sponsors to find success with marketing initiatives that focus on a particular cause, community, or nontraditional demographic.
"There is a larger diversity than when we started," says Bryan Harris, managing partner at ATC, noting how sports marketing used to be skewed almost totally to men. "Pushing diverse messages and [targeting] the Hispanic and female markets [is now] more important."
Cassidy says that the goal of cause-marketing campaigns is to make sure they are creative, newsworthy, and a positive experience for the consumer.
"The consumer media is more favorably inclined to cover initiatives that serve a public good," Cassidy says.
DKC has worked with client New Balance's sponsorship of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's Race for the Cure. New Balance created the Honorary Team New Balance runners, made up of either a breast cancer survivor or a relative of one, which runs in the race. DKC works to attract media coverage of those runners.
"We seek ways to maximize the value of sponsorship, but also enhance awareness of the cause," says Scott Miranda, EVP and head of the sports division.
ATC also works with Levitra, which uses legendary football coach Mike Ditka as a spokesman, urging men to go to the doctor to inquire about erectile dysfunction issues.
Lleyton Hewitt, third-ranked tennis player and Octagon client, auctioned off Yonex rackets to benefit UNICEF's tsunami relief fund. In this situation, Hewitt contributed to a relief effort close to his Australian home, which involved Yonex, his equipment sponsor, and Yonex's Australian distributor.
The power of a strong brand
While some brands and sports seems perfectly matched - Yonex and Hewitt, football and beer, and financial institutions and golf - Signore posits that companies with strong messages can position brands nearly anywhere.
He offers Gillette as an example. Its slogan is "The best a man can get." Signore says that sponsoring something that displays excellence makes sense, no matter the sport. So the company partnered with soccer great David Beckham, who will give a private training session to the Gillette customer who proves why he is the world's best dad.
ATC managing partner Mark Beal says that a sports star advocating for a cause or brand is a powerful combination. But it must speak to consumers.
"You can impact brand image when [an athlete] speaks from the heart, as long as it has relevance," Beal says.
In a world where the 30-second ad's appeal is waning because of technologies like DVRs, PR pros will be looking to ramp up their experiential initiatives for clients. And the leagues and teams see this as a win-win situation.
"In the past, you didn't draw crowds if you weren't winning," Signore says. "The game could be 11-1 [now], and the fans still want to stay because there's so much going on. Win-loss percentage is only part of the equation."
Like any other vibrant industry, the sports PR world is afflicted by a talent crunch. Gregg Elkin, communications head with the Texas Rangers, spoke with PRWeek about what to look for in potential professionals.
PRWeek: Curricula aside, how can colleges better prepare potential sports PR practitioners?
Gregg Elkin: Sports information (SI) offices are the best starting place. The experience of learning how to write releases and game notes, dealing with coaches and athletes, and helping the media is invaluable.
PRWeek: How did you get started?
Elkin: I began in the SI office my first day at the University of Iowa. I was given many tasks, learned the business, and applied those lessons in real time. I couldn't do my job today without that background.
PRWeek: Is journalism a good gateway to enter sports PR?
Elkin: The writing aspect of journalism is obviously a good fit, but in sports PR, it's better to have that daily experience of working with coaches and players. You advise people and see that counsel put into practice. You don't get that interaction as a reporter.
PRWeek: What characteristics make up a solid sports PR pro?
Elkin: A lot is thrown at you every day from media [and] players. A person who can handle simultaneous tasks, different personalities, and situations that need decisive action will get far.
PRWeek: What red flags tell you a person may not be suited for sports PR?
Elkin: Many intelligent people enamored with sports wish to get into sports PR, but don't have the background. If someone has invested the resources to go to law or business school, why do they feel they have the experience to enter sports PR? It's a tough transition.
PRWeek: What advice would you give someone looking to enter sports PR?
Elkin: Get into your school's SI office or intern at a nearby professional team. You need that experience to move to the next level. Learn how to do what everyone in the office does, and do as much as possible. And remember: The only stupid questions are ones you don't ask.
- Gideon Fidelzeid