Sponsorship has become distinctly unfashionable; today, most brands, rights-holders and agencies would rather discuss partnerships.
While it may simply be semantics, partnership better reflects the way in which modern rights-holders and brands are working more closely to achieve mutual benefit.
In the 80s, tiered sponsorship models brought order to a previously ad-hoc market. This need for structure and category exclusivity remains, but brands are now demanding more bespoke rights.
'Rights-holders have typically been focused on sales, but not cared who they sold the property to,' says Tim Crow, chief executive at sponsorship agency Synergy. 'Now rights-holders are thinking more like marketers. They are increasingly looking at what they can offer sponsors.'
Robin Fenwick, managing director at sponsorship consultancy Right Formula, agrees. 'Many rights-holders have used a typical three-tier model of title sponsors, sub-sponsors and suppliers, with standard allocated rights for each tier,' he says.
'Today, this is dying out, as all sponsors require bespoke solutions to meet their needs in order to obtain the best value for money. Partnership is quickly replacing sponsorships due to the personalised nature of the deals.'
The industry has been building credibility for some time, enjoying a growing slice of marketing budgets as increasingly sophisticated measurements and analyses replace deals done at the whim of a company chairman.
Yet as the economy crumbled a year ago, many brands, such as Royal Bank of Scot-land, were publicly criticised for their extensive sponsorship investments. Mean-while, financial outlay on other marketing disciplines, such as advertising, online and direct, passed safely under the radar.
'Sponsorship became the poster boy of the recession,' says Crow. However, he goes on to point out: 'If people notice it, then doesn't that show that it works? Nobody was looking at advertising and other marketing.
'Whatever people say about the recession, people still love sport, music and film. They seek escapism. Brands that can facilitate this through sponsorship are in a great position.'
Furthermore, the well-documented financial difficulties facing filmmakers and music owners have sent them running into the arms of sponsors. This year the UK Film Council took the unprecedented step of seeking brand partners, while music's biggest players are also actively seeking strategic partnerships.
Sponsorship has weathered the fiscal crisis better than many other marketing disciplines. Premium properties have continued to attract sponsors, with AON and Standard Chartered Bank's record-breaking sponsorships of Manchester United and Liverpool FC, respectively, providing two prime examples.
However, even before the downturn took effect, there was an oversupply of sponsorship opportunities. This has seen mid-ranking events and properties struggle to secure deals.
'Events such as World Cups and the Olympic Games have no shortage of partners,' says Steve Martin, chief executive at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. 'The middle tier will struggle if they have no unique selling point. So people are trying to reinvent themselves.'
While Twenty20 cricket remains the standout case study of sports reinvention, recent launches such as Sony Ericsson Run to the Beat and F1 Rocks with LG, both of which fuse sport and music, illustrate brands' appetites for innovative and entertaining sports properties. Barclays leapt at the chance to tie up with the ATP, which overhauled the image of the men's tennis game and changed the format of the World Tour to a year-round competition.
Usain Bolt, arguably the world's most marketable sportsman, will no doubt spearhead the International Association of Athletics Federations' Diamond League next summer, which ranks athletes' performances.
Shaping the deals
The downturn has driven a trend toward shorter-term deals and more value-in-kind agreements, but it has also acted as a catalyst for an accelerated rate of change.
'There is no longer a cash, badge, dash strategy that we saw before, but rather attempts to make sponsorships more meaningful,' says Pippa Collett, managing director at Sponsorship Consulting. 'Although we are seeing fewer deals, they are better thought through, with more work at grass roots and CSR.'
Sky's sponsorship of elite and mass-participation cycling has been exemplary. In 2008, few batted an eyelid when Sky unveiled its sponsorship of the British cycling team. The broadcaster did its homework, and two months later, Britain's cyclists were the toast of the Beijing Olympics, its stars now endorsing anything from Kellogg to greener energy.
The media company's support at elite level will broaden next year when Team Sky debuts at the Tour de France. While it may seem ironic that a television company is aiming to move its audience from the couch to the saddle, the increased media coverage of its mass-participation cycling events - recently rebranded as Skyride - has been applauded and the aim of the nation-wide series is to put another 1m cyclists on the road by 2013.
As government anti-obesity initiatives, such as Change4Life, gather further momentum in the coming years, mass-participation events will continue to deliver a cost-effective route to consumers.
Virgin's £17m title sponsorship of the London Marathon, unveiled in May, seems a shrewd investment. 'I was surprised that Flora left [the sponsorship], given its long-standing relationship, but Virgin has already moved quickly to establish equity in the event,' says Mike Parker, director at Velocity Sports & Entertainment. 'It has been working hard since the announcement was made.'
Damage to the industry has been largely self-inflicted. Banks and the government have not been the only institutions to lose public confidence, as the integrity of several sporting institutions has also recently been called into serious question.
Rugby union's 'Bloodgate' scandal, coupled with allegations of race-fixing in Formula One, have done little to reassure brand partners. No doubt such skull-duggery has gone on for years, and perhaps recent revelations only scratch the surface, but the media spotlight is glaring brighter than ever.
'What's really worrying for brands is that they spend their lives trying to make themselves more trusted,' says Adam Wylie, managing partner at integrated agency 23red. 'However, this can also represent an opportunity for brands.'
The Olympics, Rugby League World Cup, Commonwealth Games, Rugby Union World Cup and, with any luck, the 2018 FIFA World Cup will all be hosted in Britain in the next 10 years, heralding an unprecedented era of opportunity for the sponsorship industry.
'We are at the eve of a real ramp-up in activity once the Vancouver Winter Olympics are over,' says Bob Heussner, senior vice-president and head of Games marketing at Octagon. 'It is rare for worldwide Olympic sponsors to do anything in the summer Olympics host country before the conclusion of the preceding Winter Games.'
Such opportunity will create a cluttered market, but rights-holders that are bold with their products and brands, and have the courage to stand out from the throng, will have plenty to look forward to as the economy slowly returns to normal.
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk