Sponsorship in sports:
From consolidation to reinvention

Sponsorship is the financial or material support given to an athlete, a team, a sports venue, or an event by an advertising partner in exchange for various forms of visibility where a positive transfer of image and values should take place. Prominent in sports since the middle of the last century, sponsorship now has to reinvent itself in the light of digital technology which can bring a better understanding of the audience and therefore more suitable visibility strategies for advertisers.

Sports sponsorship is a long-standing practice. The roots of today's sponsorship can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. The famous Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, in 65 BC, used a gladiatorial fight to promote his image to the Roman citizens. Almost 2000 years later, in 1861, the British catering group "Spiers and Pond", whose economic activities were initially unrelated to sports, sponsored the first tour of the English national cricket team “All-England Eleven”, when it went to Australia to play a series of matches. The group estimated a return on investment of £11,000. McDonald's, in the following century, associated its brand with major sporting events, such as during the Olympic Games of 1976. In France, the food brand "Fleury-Michon", which was little known in 1970, saw its notoriety grow strongly in 1982 following the sponsorship of the skipper Philippe Poupon in offshore sailing races.

What is sponsorship?

The 1970s and 80s marked the appearance of modern sponsorship and the effervescence of sports sponsorship. In defining what sponsorship is, it is important to differentiate it from patronage. Patronage is "the discreet presence of a partner in an event; the patron does not seek media exposure for advertising purposes like the sponsor, but rather non-market relational links relating primarily to the notion of donation." (Bouchet & Hillaet, 2009).

Sports sponsorship, on the other hand, has a clear focus on profitability and return on investment. "Sponsorship involves the same actions as patronage; however, unlike the latter, the company clearly wishes an increase in reputation or image. Thus, it is a direct profitability that is desired” (Desbordes, 2000). In other words, "[s]ports sponsorship is a communication technique that aims to persuade the participants and spectators of a sports event of the existence of a link between this event (and/or the sports entity involved in the event: club, team, individual, stadium, etc.) and the advertiser, in order to promote the company, its products and its brands, and to reap the benefits in terms of image” (Tribou, 2015).

The brand is key in sports sponsorship; a brand is a "sign" that allows a company's products or services to be distinguished from those of its competitors. Sponsors, on their part, wish to increase "brand awareness" and thus establish brands that are strong, taking advantage of the positive image transfer provided by sports entities (Gwinner and Eaton, 1999; Quester et al., 1998). The objective is to make the brand name known to a given public.

Sponsorship makes it possible to establish an emotional link with the consumer through shared values. It can also help to increase the level of products’ sales (Desbordes and Richelieu, 2017). Finally, sponsorship is as well used by a company for internal purposes by, for example, organizing events with sponsored athletes for employees, such as autograph sessions or friendly competitions. This helps to improve workplace morale and shape the company culture (Tribou, 2015).

What forms can sports sponsorship take?

Sponsors’ choices depend on the means companies have and the economic risks they are prepared to assume, resulting in four possible forms of sponsorship (Walliser, 2010). A company can choose to sponsor an athlete. Sponsorship, here, can lead to high visibility if the athlete is known worldwide. Thus, if she/he spreads good values, this will have a favorable consequence for the company because it will reflect a positive image of it to the fans of the sponsored athlete. However, sponsoring one player may not be enough. Therefore, a company may choose to sponsor a team, allowing it to gain greater visibility because all players will be wearing jerseys with the brand name on them. Nevertheless, the performance of the chosen athlete or team is a key success factor for the sponsoring company.

Sponsoring a sports club, has three advantages over sponsoring individual athletes. First, the risk of physical or psychological failure is spread among all the members. Second, the sponsor benefits from a multiplier effect of its message because the whole group wears the equipment. Third, the sponsor can also have access to the sports club's databases, which can be of commercial interest.

A company can also put its name on a sports venue. This allows the sponsors to have a higher visibility in and all around the venue, and also being cited by all the media covering the events taking place in it.

Finally, a company can directly sponsor a sporting event. This allows the sponsor to reach a wider audience as the brand will reach not only the participants and spectators of the event but also the audience watching it through media. "Associating a brand with an event limits the risks associated with supporting individuals because, regardless of the winner and human failings, the sponsor is guaranteed to be seen throughout the event and therefore to benefit fully from the media fallout" (Tribou, 2016). Nevertheless, there are certain risks that can thwart the objectives of an event sponsor. The main one is poor impact of the chosen event: "Sponsors run the risk of a 'non-event' which can result in deserted stands or disastrous media coverage." (Tribou, 2016). Also, media coverage of certain sporting events may be limited due to competition from other programs. This can lead to a loss of visibility of the sponsor. The venue where the event is held is important in terms of the target audience. Finally, the frequency of the event must be taken into account. It is interesting to sponsor a one-off event because it can make an impression but can be risky if it fails. Sponsoring an annual event is less risky and represents a sort of rendezvous between the sponsors and the public.

The visibility of sponsors can be achieved through physical or digital activations. Activation " can be defined as operational modalities of implementing sponsorship on the event field with the aim of connecting fans (or direct audience) with sponsors' brands" (Maltese & Danglade, 2014).

What are current trends?

According to the 2022 Global Sports Marketing Report by Nielsen, sports sponsorship increased by 107% in 2021 compared to the same period in early 2020. Analyzing 100 partnerships in 7 markets and 20 different industries, findings demonstrate also that sports sponsorship drove an average 10% increase in fan purchase intent. One year earlier, Nielsen's "Trust in Advertising 2021" study stated that 81% of global respondents “fully or somewhat trust sports sponsorship as a communication medium”.

The 2022 Global Sports Marketing report specifies that “in the sports industry, sponsorship efforts have moved from simple brand awareness to actually converting consumers into customers. In 13 industries measured by Nielsen during the pandemic, the increase in purchase intent outpaced brand awareness among fans exposed to sponsorship. As brands return to more balanced marketing efforts in many sectors, Nielsen expects the pace of this trend to slow, but sponsors and rights holders have structurally improved their ability to generate fan calls to action.

When we take a look at the overall landscape, Nielsen’s report underlines that the crypto-currency sector “has amplified its sponsorship presence more than any other sector over the past two years, reflecting its increased exposure in other areas of the media landscape, such as television and social media”. This may well suggest that it will become the next main sector in terms of sports sponsorship.


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Desbordes, M., & Falgoux, J. (2007). Organiser un événement sportif. Eyrolles.

Desbordes, M., & Richelieu, A. (2018). Marketing du sport: Une vision internationale. De Boeck supérieur.

Gwinner, K. et Eaton, J., (1999), “Building brand image through event sponsorship:

The role of image transfer”, Journal of Advertising, 18 (4), p.47-57.

Nielsen, (March 2022). 2022 Global Sports Marketing report.

Quester, P. G., Farrelly, F., & Burton, R. (1998). Sports sponsorship management: a multinational comparative study. Journal of Marketing Communications, 4(2), 115-128

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