Vodacom’s Senior Soccer Specialist, Sibongile Mthimunye, took up the role in March this year, having spent 11 years at the Premier Soccer League – most recently as Sponsorship Manager.
Q: Describe your job and what your primary focus and areas of responsibility are?
A: Vodacom has an impressive array of sport sponsorship properties, of which the soccer portfolio comprises Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. Ensuring that these sponsorship portfolios meet business and sponsorship objectives lies on my shoulders. This includes all marketing strategies and on a day to day basis I manage our relationship with the clubs to ensure successful campaigns for both parties. The commercialisation of sponsorship plays a large role, so we are constantly evolving. Content has become a key pillar of what we deliver and understanding how consumers engage with our platforms. My primary focus, and that of Vodacom, is to engage with the fans – we bring the fans closer to their passion for soccer and to their heroes. In tapping into the passion of the fans, we find unique and innovative ways of integrating Vodacom. It can be quite a task to manage the rivalry between our two teams. This requires that I, and the team that supports me, are innovative and creative in our thinking.
Q: How did your previous role as Sponsorship Manager at the PSL prepare you for your role and what did you learn from it?
A: In my role at the PSL I was the rights-holder, which meant I was responsible for the delivery of commercial rights for all the league partners across all the teams. This taught me to be neutral – a key characteristic I need in my current role – considering the fact that I manage Vodacom’s relationships with both Chiefs and Pirates. When you move from rights-holder to sponsor, the industry is the same – you are just looking at it from a different perspective. The biggest learning so far for me is around the strategy, reasoning for selecting a property to sponsor, content creation and development, as well as the commercialization of the sponsorship.
Q: What do you regard as your ‘big break’ in the sports industry?
A: I was at the PSL for 11 years – I started there as an intern. Moving into a corporate environment was my biggest break. This role is my biggest break. I volunteered at the Vodacom Challenge for a number of years and it always felt that I was meant to somehow land up at Vodacom. In my early years as a student I got to experience many of the Vodacom soccer sponsorship campaigns, which I believe influenced my decision to stay in this industry, and it is fitting that I now find myself at the helm of Vodacom’s soccer sponsorship.
Q: Do you have a favourite sport and favourite team, and what’s the history behind your support of this team?
A: I have always loved football. As for having a favourite team, this is a difficult question, as I have learnt to be neutral. Before working in the soccer industry, I did support a team. But now, I’m NEUTRAL. My Dad actually influenced me to support a certain soccer team when I was growing up – a team from the Vodacom Challenge actually. I enjoy listening to soccer commentary on radio – my Dad would switch on the TV with no sound and we would listen to the radio commentary instead. That’s how I grew up.
Q: There don’t appear to be many black women with senior roles in the South African sports industry. Would you agree with this and do you believe the industry is sufficiently transformed?
A: I believe it is transforming, but it’s not going to happen overnight. I was pleased to see one of the female referees at one of the big games the other day, so we are seeing some improvements, and we can only hope that we see more and more women taking their place at the top table of the sports industry.
Q: Beyond the obvious of them being the two biggest clubs, with the biggest supporter bases in South Africa, why does Vodacom sponsor both Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates?
A: It’s all about the fans. It’s about what the two teams bring to the table – the most passionate sports fans, fans that have a rich history through generations of soccer supporters. Soccer is a culture and a community, and it is a passion point for the majority of South Africans. We want to tap into that passion and we want to bring fans closer to their heroes.
Q: How would you summarise the impact COVID-19 has had on Vodacom’s ability to leverage its sponsorships of Chiefs and Pirates?
A: We at Vodacom never put our tools down during lockdown. We had to be creative, we had to do things differently, and we had to tap into a different passion point through soccer. As an example, we used the voices of the soccer heroes to encourage fans to stay positive during tough times and to encourage South Africans to adhere to the lockdown rules, and to stay home and stay safe. I am incredibly humbled and honoured to have been involved in Vodacom’s campaign to take a stance against gender-based violence – this was our focus during lockdown, as this was a social issue that came to the fore during lockdown. We continue to stand against gender-based violence and Vodacom has provided a helpline for any women who need support. We had to be innovative and adapt, with regards how we delivered messages and support to the fan during this time.
Q: Once sport in general is back up and running fully, post-COVID-19, do you anticipate change, in terms of how it is run, consumed, commercialised etc?
A: I think everything has changed and everybody thinks differently about how they go about their business. So, for sure., things will change. Right now though, we don’t know what’s going to happen and how it will impact what we do, but what I do know is that we are flexible and we can adapt to whatever changes may need to be implemented. We’ve learnt that in the last few months. Whatever happens, we know we will have a country of passionate soccer fans, and we will be there with them.
Q: How do you see the approach to sponsorship changing, post-COVID-19?
A: We may amend our tactics and we may amend how we do things – definitely more digital and content-focused – but what won’t change is our approach to our fans. The love we have for the fans will not change. Only how we engage with them. Vodacom is a purpose-led organisation and I do believe that we should focus a lot of our strategies on doing good where we can. Whatever we do, it will be about “inclusion for all” – it will be about connecting people. What we have learnt over the past few months is that human beings need to feel connected. It will be for us to ensure that everyone feels included and connected.
Q: Which sports organisations – either local or international – do you believe are getting it right, in terms of marketing and commercialising their product, and why?
A: Any time I see a focus on purpose and giving back, it makes me believe in a brand more. Creating that emotional connection with the fans and giving back is a strong touch point for any brand. I believe that Vodacom is on the right track when it comes to this across all our sponsorship properties. We support a number of initiatives and are privileged to be able to help those in need. Once you get the purpose right – once you build that trust with people – you can build brand love. Vodacom focuses on addressing many of the sustainable development goals, including zero-rated education platforms, feeding schemes and gender equality matters.
Q: Where would you like to be, career-wise, in 10 years’ time?
A: I want to be seated at a table of sports industry professionals where the women outnumber the men. I want to see more women around me in leadership positions in the game of soccer and other sporting codes.