Scandals have plagued athletic sponsorships, but savvy marketers know how to bet on the right talent
As sports continue to become more relevant in the lives of consumers, so, too, does the need for effective sponsorships and partnerships between athletes and brands. Unfortunately, for every model athlete, such as Tiger Woods or Peyton Manning, there is a Koren Robinson (Minnesota Vikings wide receiver who recently got his second DWI in two years) or Floyd Landis (Tour de France winner who failed a drug test) waiting to see how big a mess they can make of everything.
Even Marion Jones, America's sweetheart during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, recently tested positive for the blood booster erythropoietin at June's US Track and Field Championships. Jones has been under suspicion of illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs since she was named in the infamous BALCO hearings.
Despite the negative headlines, which include failed drug tests and drunk-driving incidents involving NBA, NFL, and MLB players, Peter Land, GM of Edelman's sports and sponsorship practice, doesn't see a trend that would indicate brands are shying away from sponsors.
"I don't think anyone should be scared away by anything that's been covered in the media," Land says. "I just think you have to be a little more diligent and vigilant about your research and understand if it's the right person delivering the right message at the right time."
However, never knowing what someone is capable of doing or saying makes navigating the sponsorship/partnership road a tricky and sometimes costly endeavor.
Meltem Tekeli, a New York-based sports marketing and sponsorship consultant, says sponsorships are a growing necessity. They are also a double-edged sword.
"Companies are drawn to sponsorships because consumers have such a strong affiliation [with] athletes, and [they] are a powerful means [of connecting] with current or potential customers," she says. "Positive or negative, you'll have that affiliation, but you'll also take the risk that, if something goes wrong with the sport or athlete, the customer will take that personally because they feel strongly about it."
Tekeli says the debacle Landis created for hearing systems designer Phonak- his team's sponsor - perfectly exemplifies the high-risk/high-reward situation sponsorships represent. After becoming a household name during and immediately following the Tour de France, the company's name was mentioned along with the words cheat, synthetic testosterone, failed drug test, and Landis in many news reports regarding his failed test. Phonak kicked Landis off the team and, shortly thereafter, dropped sponsorship of the team altogether.
Marketers can at least take comfort in the fact that the leagues that the athletes participate in begin addressing issues of impropriety and substance abuse early in a player's career.
Greg Aiello, VP of PR for the NFL, enumerated the policies the league had in place via an e-mail interview with PRWeek.
Aiello said that the league "fully briefed" rookies on its substance abuse program at its rookie symposium, where athletes are described the risks of alcohol abuse and informed that engaging in such activity could jeopardize their careers.
"NFL players are held accountable for alcohol-related violations of law, which are covered by the NFL substance abuse program," Aiello said. "Our teams and players also have participated in many initiatives through the years to promote responsible drinking."
While marketers can't predict the future, they can do due diligence.
Tekeli recommends that a brand speak to its various agencies, conduct Lexis-Nexis searches to find out how an individual has conducted him or herself over the years, "speak to former sponsors who have been involved with this person, and speak to this athlete's representative and get an idea of how he or she conducts themselves as a sponsor representative," she says.
Edelman does such research through a proprietary database it keeps on athletes and celebrities. The database has entries ranging from news stories to coverage of the last time an athlete or celebrity was on Today.