Sport Sidelined: A Synergy Snapshot of The 2015 General Election

As Ed Miliband stated, the 2015 General Election is set to be the ‘tightest for a generation’. With policy focus on heavyweight areas, and media attention revolving around the potential results and the resultant political permutations, you could be forgiven for growing weary of the wall-to-wall election coverage.

However, there has been very little attention paid to the topic of Sport. It's clear the seductive vision of the Olympic legacy promised in the 2010 UK General Election has not been realised. London 2012 brought more Team GB medals than any other Games, but participation levels in the UK are still falling, and yet Sport has been sidelined in the 2015 party manifestos. Within the combined 327 pages of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos, there were collectively 23 sentences referencing the subject. Not only is this disappointing, but it also seems illogical considering the impact Sport can have on on other policy areas, not least as physical inactivity is said to be costing our national economy £8.2 billion a year... 

We must therefore ask: what effect, if any, will the election have on the Sport and sponsorship industry? To find an answer, we pored over the party manifestos, and delved into the political news archives to establish which elements of pre-election party chatter around Sport would actually make it on to the election agenda.

A summary of the major points can be found in our infographic here

For a more detailed view of these key topics, please read on...

 Funding cuts leave door open for brands

Funding V2

In the weeks leading up to the 2015 General Election, much of the rhetoric has focused on each party’s approach to reducing the UK’s vast deficit (£101.8bn in 2014 alone). This need for collective belt-tightening makes cuts inevitable. With parties keen to ensure focus on the heavyweight policy areas, such as Education, Housing and the NHS, Sport has taken a back seat.

The prospects for sports funding, especially at the grassroots end of the spectrum, are poor. Whilst this is a worrying trend, any funding shortfall could open opportunities for brands to bridge gaps to provide capital, manpower, facilities and amenities. Work like McDonald’s grassroots football campaign and Barclays' ‘Spaces for Sport’ programme have shown that brands can provide vital funding, equipment and coaching where there is a real need. With cuts to be made, and a prioritisation of welfare services, sponsors could play a key role in keeping Britons active.

Manifesto game plans show limited football focus

Football V3

MPs are often accused of politicising football, but parties have comfortably avoided any such accusations around this election, by barely including the national game in their manifestos at all. Following the February announcement of the new Premier League TV deal, worth £5.14 billion, leading politicians wasted no time in adding their two pennies, but Labour's manifesto was the only one to mention the subject.

Miliband has pledged to ensure the Premier League delivers on its 1999 promise to invest 5% of its domestic and international television rights income into funding grassroots. Further, Labour look to mix pounds and passion with a proposal to enable accredited supporter trusts. The move would mean fans could hold their football club far more accountable by appointing and removing at least two of the directors, and purchasing shares when the club changes hands.

The trickle-down of funds from the new TV deal and the enhanced ability for fans to hold their clubs to account could mean an evolving role for brands. Sponsors' changing role within football can be seen in recent high-profile examples, including that of Ched Evans, where club partners successfully supported Oldham fans in their calls to cancel the signing the player following his previous jail sentence.

After their focus on 'Reclaiming The Nation's Game' at their 2014 conference, it was hoped that football may play a large part in the Liberal Democrats' manifesto, but there were discouragingly few references. One of the few sport-related pledges concerned an exploration of safe standing, a stance that is sure to please a number of fans. Given the popularity of such a policy among football supporters, it might be tempting for brands already involved in the sport to show their own support by influencing policy-makers on this topic.

Worrying times for alcohol, betting and fast food brands

Restrictions V2

Alcohol, betting and high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) brands would have been following the manifesto releases with a sense of trepidation, given the noise from major parties last year. Labour were most forthright in their views, referring to sponsorship of sports events by alcohol brands as 'potentially harmful' and calling for a debate on current rules. Their pre-election consultation on sport also included references to introducing a levy on betting companies, which could act as a new revenue stream for community sport. Additionally, a leaked document also proposed a 9pm watershed for TV adverts for unhealthy products that might appeal to youngsters – a policy mirrored by the SNP.

However, upon manifesto releases, there was barely a mention of marketing restrictions in any of the aforementioned industries. This does not mean these policies have been forgotten, rather, they appear to have been temporarily sidelined, due to the focus on 'safer' traditional policy areas. Given the impact any fresh legislation could have on brand advertising and sponsorship approaches – as well as marketing budgets – companies and rightsholders in the firing line will have to keep their eyes open.

A lot to learn on school sport

Schools V2

A minimum of 2 hours per week from Labour, £150 million investment a year from the Conservatives and half a day a week from the Greens. These are the manifesto pledges made by the parties on the subject of school sport. The immediate question is, of course, what on Earth do they all mean? Comparing these disparate units of measurement is an almost impossible task, and that’s before chucking in extra layers of confusion, such as Labour's rebuttal that the Conservatives' promise actually represents a reduction of current funding, when taking inflation into account.

The lack of a substantial commitment by any party ensures that schools still remain fertile ground for sponsors, as Lloyds Bank National Schools Sports Week programme has shown, and brands that can best understand where funding gaps will arise, once the anointed party has implemented their policy, will be best placed to create fruitful partnerships.

Closing the gender gap

Gender V2

The push for equality within sport, in terms of both participation and representation, is gathering pace, with FIFA’s No to Racism and Sport England’s ThisGirlCan campaigns being just two high-profile proof-points. But whilst all parties vocalise support for women’s sport when prompted, the Conservatives were the only party to clearly put pen to paper, pledging to push the number of women on national sports governing bodies to at least 25% by 2017. The Green Party included a more vague reference to ‘setting targets for participation by women’.

The silence was particularly disappointing from Labour, who had put a primary focus on the subject within their pre-election sports consultation. Within the party's ‘More Sport For All’ document, there was even suggestion of a government fund incentivising commercial sponsorship of women’s sport.

Such silence presents sponsors with the opportunity to bridge the gap on gender policy. The profile of women’s sport is growing, but investment accounts for just 0.4% of the value of all the sponsorship deals and just 7% of total sports media coverage. As outlined in Synergy's NowNewNext article on the subject, brands can make a real difference within women's sport if their activity is grounded in appropriate insights. Savvy sponsors with existing partnerships stand to benefit the most. Our advice to the (right) brands not already engaged would be to get involved whilst you can.

Tories target American Sport

US Sport V2

Increasingly popular in the UK, it was never going to be long before US sport landed on the political agenda. Referenced in the Conservative manifesto, David Cameron aspires to increase UK links with the major US sports, with a long-term view of franchises based in the UK. More than 600,000 people have already attended each of the previous two NFL events on Regent Street, and the Jacksonville Jaguars have long been rumoured to become a permanent NFL London-based franchise. On top of this, Britons have already witnessed regular-season NBA games on home turf as the Global Games Schedule expands overseas.

The globalisation of sport, as discussed in Synergy’s NowNewNext report, is happening fast. It seems that a Conservative government would be prepared to turbo-charge this process. Sponsors need to be ready for the opportunities - and challenges – that this will bring.

Minority parties explore major changes

Minority V2

Despite UKIP repeatedly referencing their support for ‘unifying a British culture’, the promise may be somewhat inhibited by a pledge to abolish the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as part of their streamlining measures. Given the department’s crucial role in administrating UK sport at every level, including a major role in delivering the Olympics, the policy seems potentially ill-judged.

Another policy that stood out from the manifestos was the Green Party’s position on horse racing. The proposal for a whip-free Grand National, and consequent ‘full review of the sport’ would represent a step towards the event being cut from the sporting (and sponsorship) calendar altogether. With £80m bet every year by the British public and 600m TV viewers globally, the policy would have widespread impact.

These more outlandish promises might be laughed off in almost any other election campaign, but given the likely delicate balance of power, concerns are justifiable, especially if either party were to grab power under a coalition or alliance.

Conclusion

Boiling 500+ pages of manifesto down into a seven-point snapshot was easy. Not because the Synergy Insights team comprises some of the brightest sponsorship brains in Britain (although this may well be true), but because sport and sponsorship have largely been sidelined by the UK political parties. While our seven snippets show that the parties have not been totally silent, one thing is emphatically clear:

Sport could use sponsors now more than ever.

 

Sources

Conservative Party https://www.conservatives.com/manifesto

Green Party https://www.greenparty.org.uk/we-stand-for/2015-manifesto.html

Labour Party http://www.labour.org.uk/manifesto

Liberal Democrat Party http://www.libdems.org.uk/manifesto

SNP http://votesnp.com/docs/manifesto.pdf

UKIP http://www.ukip.org/manifesto2015

Gambling Watch UK http://www.gamblingwatchuk.org/

Office for National Statistics http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/index.html

Sport England https://www.sportengland.org/

Sport and Recreation Alliance http://www.sportandrecreation.org.uk/

Sports think tank http://www.sportsthinktank.com/

 

A Synergy Blog presented by Microassets Ltd*

*Microassets Ltd. is the world-leading provider of small ‘features’ within a bigger sponsorship asset, including content, giveaways, challenges, stats and in-game moments than can be sold to a Presenting Partner.

On a recent trip to New York, Tim Crow and I had the pleasure of going to Madison Square Garden to watch the New York Knicks take on the Indiana Pacers. Anyone who has followed the NBA this year knew that we were unlikely to witness a basketball masterclass or a win for the home team. Rather, we were going for a first-hand experience of US sports marketing and sponsorship activation. And where better than in one of the world’s most iconic sporting venues?

We certainly got more than we bargained for. Here’s what we found (and I promise I’m not making any of this up):

  1. We were told to collect our tickets at the North Concierge presented by Lenox Hill Hospital. I have no idea if the South, East or West Concierge had different presenting partners
  2. The game was part of an NBA-wide Latin Night presented by Sprite which “celebrates the growing support of NBA fans and players across Latin American and U.S. Hispanic communities”
  3. In an early time-out break, we were treated to the Cub Reporter presented by Hi-Chew, a neat little segment where the big screen showed a kid interviewing Roger Federer. The best bit: all the Pacers’ players were looking up and watching it rather than listening to their coach
  4. There was a controversial “out-of bounds” call. Luckily, we had the Official Review presented by Chase to make sure the refs made the correct decision
  5. The entertainment kept coming at the end of the first quarter with Dance Like a Champion presented by Norwegian Cruise Line. Two members of the audience had a (admittedly hilarious) dance-off for the right to win a big cardboard cut-out of a ship and a cruise with the sponsor
  6. As always, there were plenty of celebrities at courtside including Jesse’s dead girlfriend from Breaking Bad, the big dude from Blind Side, one of the inmates from Orange is the New Black, and Mahoney from Police Academy. We saw them all courtesy of Celebrity Row presented by Douglas Elliman
  7. The T-Shirt Toss presented by Kia showed us exactly what lengths people will go to catch a promotional t-shirt that is probably worth about $1
  8. Clearly, they just couldn’t blast enough t-shirts into the crowd with their measly “one-at-a-time” t-shirt cannons. Thankfully, there was the Mega T-Shirt Machine presented by Foxwoods, which, as the name suggests, raised both the quantity and distance of the t-shirts blasted quite considerably. It was a bit strange, though, that it was presented by a different sponsor to the standard t-shirt toss
  9. The Madison Square Garden has hosted some remarkable events in its history. Garden 366 presented by SAP gave us a taste of some of them on the big screen. I still haven’t worked out why it’s called “Garden 366” though – maybe the number of days in a leap year?
  10. The Knicks City Kids presented by Hi-Chew were an awesome troupe of young dancers/cheerleaders throwing some shapes to Carlos Santana (it was Latin Night remember), MC Hammer and others
  11. It is always brilliant to see your MSG-related tweet on the big screen. Luckily, Tweet Your Message presented by Duracell Powermat could make that happen, presumably while your phone was being charged
  12. The Half Time Highlights presented by Chase reminded people how and why the Knicks were losing again
  13. The Half Time Scores (from around the league) presented by Douglas Elliman reminded people that the Knicks weren’t going to make the play-offs
  14. There was another controversial moment and this time the referees could turn to the Official Review Replay presented by Delta. Wait, I though Official Reviews were presented by Chase?
  15. There is no doubt that US rightsholders do a huge amount of positive work in their local communities. In one of the breaks during the third quarter, the big screen told us all about one of these initiatives: Community Assist presented by Garden Veggie Snacks
  16. While we were all lucky just to be there, there was one fan that was even more lucky than the rest of us: the Lucky Fan presented by Sprite. I’m not sure what he or she won…maybe a year’s supply of Sprite
  17. The 3rd Quarter Stats presented by Delta reminded us that the Knicks were still losing in pretty much every statistical category
  18. We found out what was happening in the night’s other games with Scores from Around the League presented by Terra Vegetable Chips. Wait, I thought Scores from Around the League was presented by Douglas Elliman?
  19. As the tension ramped up and the game neared its conclusion, we had the Final 5 (minutes) presented by Foxwoods. It probably would have helped had the game been a bit closer
  20. At the end of the game, the best play of the night was awarded the Drive of the Game presented by Kia
  21. It was also important to remind people not to drink and drive which is why we had the Good Sport Designated Driver presented by Bud Light
  22. Trees for Threes presented by PWC made sure that we could all go home with the knowledge that there would be a tree planted for every three-pointer made during the game
  23. Finally, on our way out we walked past the Lexus show cars. They looked great but they looked lost. Why were they there? How could fans experience them? How were Lexus capturing leads?
  24.  

We couldn’t quite believe the sheer intensity of the brand bombardment that we had just experienced. But when we told one US sports marketing veteran about it, his response was simple: “Welcome to America!”

Really? Is this the direction that sports marketing in the US is heading? Is the Madison Square Garden a template for the future or a relic of the past? Will the future just be an endless collection of semi-meaningless assets like “The FedEx Air and Ground Players of the Week” (NFL), “The Dominos #DomiNoNos” (MLB) and “The Dunkin Donuts Dunks of the Week” (actually that last one doesn’t exist, but it probably should)?

The appeal of this model for rightsholders is obvious. It’s about carving up rights into smaller and smaller pieces and creating saleable “micro-assets” out of thin air – basically money for old rope. Who can’t see the appeal of that? But that’s only if you see sponsorship as a zero-sum game – a transaction rather than a true partnership.

The best way for rightsholders to create more value for themselves is by focusing on creating more value for their sponsors, and then figuring out ways to tap into that incremental value; not by coming up with more and more things to sell them. And the plain truth is that this model isn’t particularly good at creating value for the sponsors.

First and foremost, and at an incredibly basic level, with 16 different brands all vying for a bit of attention at this particular event, there are simply too many brands present without enough whitespace between them. The problem isn’t the number of brands per se, but the fact that they are all basically doing the same thing (sticking their name on a particular feature), meaning that none of them are really memorable. Without scrolling up, try to remember who the presenting partner of the mega T-shirt machine was, or what Terra Vegetable Chips sponsored.

Great sponsorship needs a Big Idea: a powerful insight that connects the brand to the audience via the asset they are sponsoring, and an activation campaign which brings that Big Idea to life through different channels, over time and in new and interesting ways. But frankly, it’s really hard to see how any of the items on the list above connect to a bigger, more meaningful insight or are part of a broader, more engaging activation programme.

Sure, there are some obvious connections like the fact that the ‘drive of the game’ was being presented by a car company or that the two assets involving children are presented by a brand of chewy sweets. In fact, I’m pretty certain that someone, somewhere has come up with a logical justification for all of them (“We dance on Norwegian Cruise Line Ships so we should sponsor Dance Like a Champion”; “Trees for Threes rhymes with PWC” etc.)…but, in truth, none of them help to tell a meaningful and compelling brand story that the audience cares about. Because, to do that, you have to go beyond the obvious.

Also, it was hard to see how any of the activity we saw in the building was part of a broader campaign. Clearly, Sprite’s Latin Night was part of a bigger NBA-wide sponsorship property, but nothing happened on the night to give it that sense. Is there a PR or social media component to Douglas Elliman’s celebrity spotting? Do Chase have a campaign around helping people make better decisions which their sponsorship of the video review brings to life? Do Delta use stats in any of their other marketing communications?

If the answer to all these questions is “no”, then what’s the point of even doing them? The fact is that none of these “micro-assets” are big enough to stand on their own, so if they aren’t part of a bigger campaign, they are just tactical media buys that reach the 18,000 people inside Madison Square Garden.

Surely that’s no template for the future.