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Opinion: Do the ‘Right Thing’… for Your Sports Business

Jean Willers, Managing Director of Nielsen Sports South Africa, makes the case for adopting a socially-responsible approach to your sports sponsorship, because it’s not just the ‘right thing to do’, it’s also good for business.

The business of sport has always commercially benefitted from the passionate fan base that supports teams, leagues and events to generate value for sponsors and partners.

So, when social causes and global issues start resonating with fans and followers — in particular a younger demographic — rights-holders, agencies and brands have to take notice.

According to Nielsen Fan Insights Research (2020), almost half of the younger population globally say they now have a greater interest in brands that act in a socially responsible way.

Is anyone actually ‘duty bound’ to do anything?

According to one of the dictionary definitions of ‘duty bound’, it refers to being “morally or legally obliged to do something.”

Accordingly, the business of sport might not be legally obligated to include elements of purpose, but the moral obligation has never been clearer.

Including elements of purpose is not just the right thing to do morally or ethically, but also the sensible thing to do, strategically. It is imperative for any marketer to take notice and have an understanding of the growing influence of CSR and the fact that sponsorship is a highly significant channel for these messages.

According to 5WPR’s ‘2020 Consumer Culture Report’, for audiences in the millennial demographic, it’s crucial for brand managers to demonstrate that they align on social issues. For these young consumers, 83% want companies to align with their values and 76% want CEOs to speak out on issues they care about.

Globally, brands are reacting with new marketing approaches, with sponsorship objectives leaning more towards purpose and community benefits. Of the top 20 global sponsorship brands by spend in 2019, 90% have made an active shift in their sponsorship and advertising messaging over the past five years, according to research conducted by Nielsen Sports.

While the industries most heavily engaged in sponsorship have not necessarily changed, the products and messaging of their activation have changed significantly. Whether related to health, fitness, sustainability, poverty or race, purpose-led marketing has become an entry level requirement for sponsoring brands.

Gone are the days where CSR and ‘doing good’ initiatives was something done by brands attempting to reverse the impact they were having on the environment or society at large. Every activation, campaign and decision made by a rights-holder, brand or agency has to consider if they are adding value to the society we live in.

As can be seen in the below examples, ‘doing good’ campaigns are becoming part of the DNA of every global brand:

Sportswear and recycling/climate change (Adidas & Parley)

In 2015, Parley for the Oceans – an organization that addresses environmental threats towards the oceans – first announced its partnership with adidas.

Since then, adidas has produced millions of pairs of shoes made with recycled plastic waste from beaches and coastal regions.

In 2020 alone, adidas and Parley collected almost 7,000 tonnes of plastic waste within the framework of this partnership, which was used in the manufacturing of around 15 million pairs of shoes.

In 2021, adidas aims to produce around 17 million pairs of shoes using this waste – proof that adidas is not just a supporter of Parley, but a true collaborator and partner.

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Sportswear and racism (Nike – ‘Don’t Do It’)

In 2020 Nike released a special advert with the slogan: “For Once, Don’t Do It”.

The phrase is a twist on the sportswear brand’s trademark catchphrase: “Just Do It” and in this instance was in reference to combatting racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Nike going on to explain further by saying: “For once, Don’t Do It. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us. Don’t make any more excuses. Don’t think this doesn’t affect you. Don’t sit back and be silent. Don’t think you can’t be part of the change. Let’s all be part of the change.”

FMCG and athlete activism

Towards the end of last year, Procter and Gamble (P&G) renewed its partnership with the International Olympic Committee.

The latest deal takes the two parties up until 2028 and the renewal included an ‘Athletes for Good Fund’, which issues grants to athletes instigating social and environmental projects.


Indeed, brands are increasingly seeking rights-holders who can provide them with the platform to promote their own values, such as sustainability.

Nielsen Sports’ calculations suggest that rights-holders with a sustainability agenda can expect sponsorship revenues to increase by as much as 11% over the next three to five years, whilst those that don’t could face a reduction of 6%.

Brands are refocusing efforts on purpose-driven sponsorship strategies, while athletes are now setting the agenda through direct communication with fans. Athletes are no longer holding back and are speaking up about social issues using their personal communication platforms. Athletes are calling out brands and sponsors that are not aligned with their values and morals.

Brands are no longer only judged by their products or services, but by how they treat their customers, employees and communities. Sponsorship can be used as a powerful tool if executed correctly, but in order for any CSR strategy to be successful, it has to be authentic and demonstrate clear alignment with the rights-holder.

Therefore, the sports industry is ‘duty bound’ to include elements of purpose in all future campaigns, strategies and activations.

That’s just good business.

If sports industry players don’t include these elements of purpose across everything they do, they will be called out directly on social and digital media platforms, not only by the fans, but by the athletes as well.

Sport Industry Group
Sport Industry Group

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