Cash in the Ashes: the fine balance of sports sponsorship
The rain came a day too late to save England’s blushes at The Kia Oval. We got to celebrate anyway yesterday, as Alastair Cook lifted the little urn after a successful – if gloriously unpredictable – Ashes campaign. As his players rightly enjoyed their moment in the sun, spraying Veuve Cliquot and swigging Cobra and Peroni from the neck, I was reminded of some slightly different scenes a couple of weeks earlier at Trent Bridge.
This, remember, was the true moment of triumph, a match that saw England steamroller a much-fancied Australia side and secure the victory that meant the Ashes would be regained. The team that was whitewashed Down Under last year had bounced back in emphatic style. The players were entitled to celebrate, and, having been given the dubious privilege of a virtual visit to their dressing room, we were witness to some entirely understandable exuberance.
What struck me, though, was the beer, which had been carefully anonymised. In anticipation of the famous victory it had been someone’s job to remove all branding from every single bottle of lager, presumably because no brewer had stumped up enough to become official beer supplier to the England team. Cue a lot of chuntering and muttering of “bloody silly” from me – and some withering looks from my long-suffering girlfriend, who doesn’t much enjoy “sport ball” at the best of times.
I do get the principle. I understand that I get to enjoy elite sport in large part because of the investment of sponsors – and I know they expect exposure and exclusivity as a result. I even appreciate that persuading a lager brand that it needs to align itself with a famously posh sport may have been a challenge, although apparently one that was overcome by the time we got to The Oval. But it was still bloody silly. I’d love to know which particular contract would have been broken by allowing passing glimpses of a Carlsberg label or two during some cheerful post-match interviews.
In the grand scheme of things this is, of course, laughably trivial, but it’s a small illustration of a wider problem: the undue influence brands can have over the sports they support. Take Nike, headline sponsor of USA Track & Field. In return for its annual $20 million investment the brand gets to dictate what all US athletes wear at official functions, no matter what personal sponsorship deals they may have negotiated (or what they may simply might fancy wearing when they eat their breakfast). One athlete has had enough, so the 800m title at the World Championships in Beijing will be contested without six-time national champion Nick Symmonds.
And this is not a new phenomenon. I had dinner a few weeks ago with someone whose job it is to check the clubs that professional golfers carry in their bags to ensure they’re sticking to the letter of their contracts. Most golfers apparently regard her presence as a necessary evil in a sport that arguably hinges on equipment more than most. The firm she works for has been making sure the pros stick to their contracts for about 70 years.
Sport comes first
The value of sport, though, is in the integrity of the competition. Anything that gives me pause – that makes me doubt that what I’m watching is anything other than the participants doing their best to win – is going to make me less likely to watch in future. And that, presumably, is the last thing a sport or a sponsoring brand wants. I don’t give a toss what beer someone drinks when they’re winding down after a match but I do want to know that elite athletes have not been artificially excluded from a race because they refused to wear a particular logo, or that a golfer is not using clubs he doesn’t really like because someone made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
It’s a fine balance, of course. Sports need sponsors to survive. Sponsors feel empowered to make certain demands in return. But the minute these demands impact the purity of competition the sport begins to lose its value – and sponsors themselves run the risk of suffering negative publicity.
And lest we forget, England cricket has had its own brush with this kind of thing. A few years ago it sold its soul to a chap called Allen Stanford, who stumped up millions to fund the “Stanford Super Series”, an annual Twenty20 match between England and a team of Caribbean all-stars. To say this experiment failed to win the hearts of minds of the viewing public would be something of an understatement. Stanford is now serving a 110-year prison sentence for operating a massive Ponzi scheme.
That’s all behind us now, though. The England team is playing an exciting new brand of cricket – an expression you hear a lot these days, mainly, I suspect, to annoy the old guard like Geoff Boycott. And – in Waitrose – it has a headline sponsor credited with many grassroots initiatives, who must be particularly delighted that the focus is no longer on whether Kevin Pietersen should be playing. Its sponsorship is paying off too: in the week following the win at Trent Bridge, bottled beer sales in its stores were reportedly up by as much as 49%.
So well done, England. What are you drinking?