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Will ‘The Hundred’ Be An Attractive Proposition For Sponsors

‘Embarrassing and shambolic… a total mess’.

No, not the England Cricket team’s performance against Pakistan in the First Test at Lord’s last month, but former skipper Michael Vaughan’s verdict on the England and Wales Cricket Board’s proposal for a new eight-team city tournament, dubbed ‘The Hundred’. It is fair to say that the announcement of a new 100-ball tournament – designed to appeal to a younger audience and attract new fans to the game – has not been an unqualified success.

Critics aplenty have been queuing up to lambast the move as a marketing gimmick, insufficiently distinct from Tewnty20 at just 20 balls fewer per innings, and a format too far for a sport already struggling to cope with T20, 50-over and Test cricket.

It certainly isn’t the ideal starting point for drumming up sponsor interest. But in that respect cricket has been on a sticky wicket for some time now. The ECB struggled to find a sponsor for Test Cricket, after Investec pulled out of their 10-year, £40m sponsorship deal three years early. Two pre-existing ECB sponsors – NatWest and Specsavers – have filled the void. That doesn’t exactly suggest brands are queuing up at the Grace Gates to be associated with cricket.

England’s abject performances on the pitch haven’t helped matters. Nor has the steady stream of negative headlines surrounding the sport over the last year – be it Ben Stokes charged with affray, Australia admitting ball-tampering, or the recent – strongly denied – allegations of English spot-fixing.

Against that backdrop, and the ECB’s very own chairman opining that ‘the younger generation, whether you like it or not, are just not attracted to cricket’, one might assume that ‘The Hundred’ will struggle to garner sponsor interest. But you would be wrong.

There are a few hurdles to overcome before ‘The Hundred’ is a fully-fledged proposition – consulting the players and PCA, finalising the format, gaining MMC and ICC approval – but many brands will already be eying up the opportunity. The tournament is a fresh, new opportunity, unencumbered by any previous sponsor baggage or legacy to overcome, which always plays well with prospective brands. In its previous incarnation as another T20 competition, it would have sat alongside another domestic T20 competition – the NatWest T20 Blast. Now it has differentiation, innovation, and a USP. For marketers it will be less about associating with a new format, and more about an original brand proposition.

That proposition includes both male and female competitions, and will benefit from the ever-increasing brand interest in women’s sport. It will be interesting to see whether the ECB unbundle the male and female strands for separate sponsors, although that could create marketing and logistical complexity, especially given the proposed double-headers. Perhaps a brand will make a portfolio play, much like Isuzu/Subaru with the Wales Rugby team, who have Isuzu on their home shirt, and Subaru on their away shirt.

Aside from the tournament instrinsics, brands will climb aboard if there is certainty about fan interest, and reaching the valuable family and youth audience that the ECB is purporting to target. Which comes down to the marketing, and broadcast platform. This is where the ECB has some trump cards. They recently signed a monster broadcast deal with the BBC and Sky – reportedly £1.1bn over five years – that includes this new tournament.

Creating a format that starts at either 2.30pm or 6.30pm and lasts only three hours was not just so that families attending could get home for kids’ tea or bedtime. Fitting broadcaster slots was arguably a far more significant consideration. The received wisdom is that cricket interest and participation fell off a cliff the minute cricket moved from Channel 4 and the heady days of our 2005 Ashes win, to hide behind Rupert Murdoch’s paywall on Sky. If you show it on terrestrial TV, they will come. Helpfully, the BBC will show 10 of the 36 games live on terrestrial TV, giving cricket – and its sponsors – much needed reach into bedrooms and living rooms nationwide.

The marketing muscle of Sky and the BBC is in the bag, and will help create the requisite buzz and anticipation. But the ECB have their own marketing chops. The Women’s World Cup in 2017 was a case study in engaging a new audience with the right marketing, and an accessible, family-friendly matchday experience. And ECB execs have made many a trip to the Big Bash in Australia, where there’s a ready-made blueprint on how to engage a family audience in a new competition.

In terms of the cricketing calendar, the build-up to new tournament couldn’t be much better, with a Cricket World Cup on home soil in 2019, marketing to the very same Big Eventer family audience that ‘The Hundred’ will be trying to capture. There should be a pretty handy (GDPR compliant) database from that marketing exercise, and some new cricket fan appetites to feed. Throw in a home Ashes Series in 2019 as well, and it is a pretty good time for those ECB execs to be out selling their wares.

Those sales presentations could well include images of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya and the like. India’s cricket authority, the BCCI, which bans its players from overseas T20 tournaments to protect the primacy of the Indian Premier League, are considering making an exception for the Hundred because it is played over 100 balls, not 120. The inclusion of those superstars and their IPL stardust is a sure-fire way to fuel fan, and sponsor, excitement.

Ultimately, a lot comes down to the price tag at the end of those sales presentations. The ECB’s revenue expectations should be mitigated by the coffers swelling from the £1.1bn broadcast deal. Attracting brands who will help market the tournament and engage the right audience - straight from that Big Bash playbook – should be prioritised over a fat cheque.

So, will there be a ton of brands clamouring to be associated with the new short format tournament? Assuming the ECB play the long game, one hundred percent.

Synergy Spotlight

The 2017 ICC Women's World Cup, the oldest and most prestigious international women's cricket tournament, is back on home soil after 24 years and England have booked their place in the final at Lord’s on Sunday. They will be challenging for the trophy in front of a capacity crowd of more than 26,500, with the ICC having delivered on their bold commitment to achieve a sell-out.

At Synergy we recognise how important it is to not only hero the women on the pitch but also the women behind the scenes making it all happen.  So we are delighted that this month our spotlight is on Zarah Al-Kudcy, Head of Marketing for ICC Global Events.

1. Your career in 1 sentence/1 paragraph?

From communications in a sports agency (Fast Track), to communications and marketing at a governing body down under (Athletics Australia), to marketing in the world of broadcast (Sky Sports) to global event marketing (Rugby World Cup, ICC Champions Trophy and ICC Women’s World Cup).

2. What is the highlight of your career to date?

Being part of the team that delivered the most successful Rugby World Cup in history. And now being part of the team that sold-out Lord’s for the ICC Women’s World Cup Final!

4. Describe yourself in 3 words.

Motivated. Motivator. Sport.

5. What is the key to your success?

I’m obsessed with sport! We never stop learning from different sports, different markets and different people.

6. Who inspired you and why?

I can’t pick one person, partly because I’m indecisive but also because so many people have inspired me over the years. From my Mum who always told me I could do anything (even when I told her I was going to make Wenger sign me!) to the colleagues I’ve had over the years who are now great friends. And of course, some of the sportsmen and women I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

7. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

At risk of being a cliché, I have always been a sucker for a marketing campaign and when I was younger I was really struck by Nike’s ‘Make It Happen’ – it’ stuck with me ever since.

8. What advice would you give to your younger self?

Be patient and worry less! Everything happens for a reason.

A Dose Of Reality At The ICC Champions Trophy

I’m worried I have a problem and I think you might be worried that you have it too. Surely, it’s an issue that has crossed the minds of everyone who works in marketing. You see, having been in the industry for 5 years now, I’m concerned that I might be losing my grip on reality.Whenever I engage with sports and entertainment – be that at an event or experiencing content – my mind is trained to look for the marketing. I actively seek it out and try to make sense of it. Why is this brand advertising here? I wonder what they paid for that shirt sponsorship? What is the story they are trying to tell consumers? How is their campaign messaging building over time?

This isn’t how a normal person thinks. A normal person, to be frank, doesn’t really give a damn. True, they notice to an extent what brands are saying and doing but, I suspect, only when it is highly relevant to them and is absolutely unavoidable.

There is clearly a danger here for marketing professionals, bombarded as we are with marketing content. The industry press is full of ideas that are derivative of other brand activations; you’d be forgiven for thinking that as a profession we gain more inspiration from case studies than new, deep audience insights.

If we fail to think as consumers we will create work that, despite being clever and creative, doesn’t always relate to ‘normal’ people on a genuine level. Forget what will look good in the industry press or win awards, what matters is that the reality of consumers’ lives is front and centre of our thinking. We must try our very best to see the world through their eyes and ‘be’ the consumer… and last Monday at an ICC Champions Trophy game (Bangladesh vs. Australia) I tried to do just that. Let’s call that version of me Punter-James versus the one speaking now, Marketing-James.

What follows is an account of what I mentally noted down as Punter-James. I’ve attributed times to make it easier to follow. But of course, Punter-James was watching the cricket, chatting to friends, and drinking beer, so these specific times are largely fictional.

13.00:
Exited Oval train station. Every advert space is taken up by adverts for an Asian TV channel. Totally irrelevant to me but certainly noticeable due to the sheer amount of it.

13.20:
Entered the ground via the Vauxhall end. Went to the first beer stand by the gates, a mobile one. The only beer served is Kingfisher lager. Weird, not something I’d choose but it will certainly do.

13.45:
Seated and now with empty glasses. Agreed that the beer was surprisingly good. Shall we get another? Yes definitely. Nice enough to buy in the future. Better than Cobra? Not yet sure.

14.30:
An advert for Oppo mobile phones flashes up on the big screen. Who are they? Asks one friend. No idea, I say. Don’t give them a second thought. Second pint is going down nicely – quite smooth, better pace myself on this Kingfisher stuff.

15.35:
A friend cracks out the M&S snacks, some bacon and cheese sausage rolls. Deliciously unhealthy. I really should shop there more often.

16.10:
Another Kingfisher? Whose round is this?

17.00ish:
Bangladesh are all out. I notice that when there’s a wicket, a car covered with lights in the far corner flashes in different colours. Guess it must be a Nissan given all the branding around the ground. No clues as to why there is a car pitch-side within range of a big 6. Reminds me of a school match where the windscreen of a parent’s unfortunately parked Jag was smashed.

17.05:
It’s raining and, after a few minutes wishing it away, we head inside the ground. Battled the queues for a coffee. They’ve run out of milk. Acrid and black it is then.

17.30:
Back out for the Australia innings. One friend, a little bored, is inspecting her ticket. “I’ve never heard of MRF Tyres” she says pointing at a tiny logo. You and me both.

18.30-50:
It’s raining again, hard, so we head home. Oval station is overcrowded so we walk down to Stockwell instead. A very wet end to the day.

And that’s it. Those were Punter-James’ interactions with brands on a rainy Monday at the ICC Champions Trophy.I’ll be honest, it was a sometimes a little hard to keep Marketing-James from invading my thinking. I had to stop myself remarking that (interestingly?!) Kia, title sponsors of the Oval, had their branding removed for tournament partner Nissan. And now, back in the office, it’s obvious that the Oppo and MRF Tyres sponsorships are targeting the global, largely Indian, TV audience through signage. Likewise, that Kingfisher was only on tap because they are official partners of the ICC Champions Trophy.Punter-James didn’t comprehend these things though. Naming rights partners on certain historic stadiums often don’t get cut-through – to him this had always been The Oval. The unrecognisable brands in the stadium were merely white noise. Irrelevant. The Kingfisher beer was if anything a nice surprise, he couldn’t remember what lager is usually on tap.In all honesty, the one positive sponsor experience I took from the day was that Kingfisher lager is pretty good. It was effectively a pourage deal, however, and I learnt nothing more about the brand. Perhaps some level of relevant experiential activation would have deepened my ties and sentiment towards them. Punter-James will likely still get a Cobra next time he has a curry.

In fact, that day I came across no real experiential or targeted social touchpoints – I appreciate that this Monday group game wasn’t the biggest draw and my experience may be unreflective of more important matches. However, there were clear times where Punter-James might have valued a brand stepping in; for example, during the breaks in play for rain. On a very basic level, a branded umbrella or poncho would have been massively appreciated. But more than this, a brand could have truly owned that moment. Instead of milling around for a coffee, Punter-James could have been engaged by a compelling experiential activation – one which took his mind off the weather and conveyed a strong, relevant message about that brand.

True, Nissan were doing something but it took Marketing-James to trawl through the industry press to work it out. If you’re wondering, it was, “An intelligent car that connects fans to the excitement of the live matches by reacting to the big moments in real-time.” It is a moot point how many fans felt connected to a car with flashing lights. This activation is reportedly part of a larger global campaign; although, Punter-James left the Oval none the wiser about this and with no inclination to explore it further.

I’m not saying this was a particularly scientific or objective exercise. Nevertheless, doing it reminded me of three key lessons:

  1. In all likelihood, consumers won’t have seen your previous marketing activity. A logically phased plan looks great on a page but the majority won’t experience it from start to end. When they do dip into it, however, a brand must grasp that moment.
  2. That moment where a brand interacts with the consumer – whether that is experiential, through content, on social etc. – must engage their passions and/or needs in an authentic way.
  3. By understanding consumer journeys and touchpoints, in this case across a day at the cricket, brands can make these interactions happen at the most efficient times and places. This could impact the sponsorship rights they negotiate and budget they allocate. For example, to create an experiential area that comes to life when it rains.

These lessons can only be enacted when you make every effort to truly understand your target audience. At Synergy, we work hard through qualitative and quantitative means to uncover deep insights about consumers. These insights form the basis of creative strategies across every channel.

Occasionally, however, it is good to go a step further and channel your inner Punter. Trust me, Marketing-You will be grateful. Compared to our perfectly formed marketing bubble, reality is a far more inspiring place.