The sponsorship industry is resilient and up to the challenge

Author: Simona Kruhar Gaberšček | Read time: 7 min

Jill Downey is Managing Director of Core Sponsorship, a marketing communications company based in Ireland that specialises exclusively in sponsorship consultancy. In recent months, they have prepared two in-depth reports on the impact of the new coronavirus on the sponsorship industry, “Covid-19 Sponsorship Impact” and “The State of Play Post Covid-19”. Jill Downey talks about insights and advice to brands and rights holders on how to best manage their sponsorships in this testing time.

SPORTO: Irish sponsor brands such as Electric Ireland, AIB and Guinness are among the award-winning sponsorship activation projects in recent years. They are structured, goal-oriented and strategically strong. What is their true secret in your opinion?
JILL DOWNEY: I think, in all the cases you have mentioned, there is obviously a great fit between the brand and the sponsorship and really smart teams who understand how to leverage partnership well, driving the activation campaigns, but for me, the key differentiator is the deep insight into the fan or customer that has ignited these sponsorships and ensured their success.

Your agency provides research and insights from the Irish sponsorship landscape. How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the market in Ireland?
Like everywhere, it was a shock to the system and sponsorship was no different. For many, activation spends were either wiped out, diverted to other priorities or put on hold until there was more certainty – or until activity resumed. The biggest impact was on new deals in the market. The year started positively, buoyed by a strong end to 2019, but once the pandemic hit, the number of new deals has slowed considerably. I don’t believe we have quite seen the full extent of the impact to long-term deals yet.

AIB and #TheToughest at SPORTO 2017 conference

How did sponsors in Ireland react in the first phase that you define as “adaptation”? Were they prepared to continue working with rights holders even in this highly volatile environment or did they withhold their budgets immediately?
Adaptation was all about dealing with the sudden shock and looking inward at your own business to understand how to adapt or pivot priorities at pace. In many cases, sponsorship was not at the forefront of people’s minds, it was all about the safety of their people and managing the impact on the business. However, in the majority of cases, the relationships between sponsors and rights holders are strong, and support for each other was the first priority.

Sponsors shouldn’t get out of the relationships for the short term, as you state in your “Covid-19 Sponsorship Impact” report. According to different studies across Europe, rights holders were more pessimistic about losing their sponsors. How can they make sure that they won’t lose as much in the long term?
I think if Covid-19 has taught us anything, there are no assurances I or anyone can offer, but I do know that enduring partnerships are based on strong and balanced relationships. The rights holders in Ireland who have kept clear and consistent lines of communication open with their sponsors have thus far survived the incredibly testing time and are reasonably unscathed. Rights holders have also had to be realistic and flexible with contracts and, under the deepest of pressure, there has been some nice tactical creative thinking.

I think if Covid-19 has taught us anything, there are no assurances I or anyone can offer, but I do know that enduring partnerships are based on strong and balanced relationships.

Your advice for sponsors is to be patient and proactive, knowing that rights holders will fulfil their contractual obligations in the near future. While it is hard to predict when the situation will return back to normal, what is your advice for brands in the meantime? Should they still plan their activations, not knowing when they will be able to carry them out?
At the time, this was written in April, the intention and hope from all was that contract obligations would be delivered in full or, if not in full, with additional supporting elements, including to make up the value lost. Elite sport is (thankfully) continuing in Ireland for now and we expect to see increased interest in sport as our second lockdown is in full effect. This will help.

Secondly, for many sponsorships, though not for all, your support goes beyond the team and the tournament you sponsor. Musgrave brands, SuperValu and Centra, demonstrated this beautifully in Ireland. Both are sponsors of the GAA (Gaelic Football and Hurling) and the GAA are embedded in every town and community in Ireland. These brands teamed up with the GAA to create “Club Together”, an initiative to support the vulnerable members of the society and ensure groceries were delivered to the elderly when they were cocooning.

Can you share some other examples of sponsors’ creative solutions and activities during this period?
In addition to the Musgrave example, there are two others that have really stood out to me. The first is Three Ireland [the telecommunications and internet service provider operating in Ireland, A/N] and their new shirt sponsorship of Chelsea – which is not an Irish sponsorship but created by the Irish agency Boys+Girls in conjunction with Nexus Studios. They created a virtual jersey, which fans could try on via AR and was available exclusively on the WhatsApp platform. This is how to innovate a major new sponsorship jersey launch in July, amid all the challenges of Covid-19. And of course, they had the club’s massive social following to lean on to get the message out. This speaks right to the heart of what Three is all about, connectivity.

The second is AIB and “The Toughest Summer”. This is a build on their The Toughest GAA platform, but told through the lens of the impact Covid-19 had on the games and the contribution and importance of the GAA to the communities they serve, and how they really stepped up to support their communities across Ireland during ‘the toughest summer’ ever faced by the sporting organisation. The summer is usually a time for the All Ireland Championships, where county fans of GAA are thrilled by action and players take to the field to battle it out and represent their county with pride. None of that was possible this summer and yet the spirit of the GAA and its role in society was never so evident. From famous former players like David Brady setting up phone chats for those isolating to Camogie player Caitriona Cormican working as a doctor on the front line, “The Toughest Summer” showed Ireland that the tougher the challenge we face, the stronger we become. In addition, AIB and Rothco hired the renowned sporting documentary maker Ross Whitaker, recognising that only his exceptional story-telling craft could document these unprecedented times in this way.

Your company created the National Sponsorship Index (NSI) that measures the vitality of Ireland’s leading sponsorships across sport, music, venues, culture, cause and community, ranking them from 1 to 50, weighted against commercial impact and rated against fans or audience. The first place is currently occupied by “Darkness Into Light”, an amazing project created by Electric Ireland (EI) in partnership with Pieta House. Edel McCarthy, Group Sponsorship & Brand Manager at EI said in the interview for SPORTO that “opportunities in purpose-driven sponsorships are only being scratched at the surface.” Would you agree?
I agree whole-heartedly. Purpose is going to be front and centre for brands and this is evident in how brands are organising their teams, for example McDonald’s appointing their first Chief Global Impact Officer to lead a newly created global team focused on purpose. And speaking of Electric Ireland’s “Darkness into Light”, how they coped with and pivoted during the pandemic was truly stunning. With no event taking place and demand for Pieta’s services more important than ever, they again rose to the challenge, creating the “Sunrise Appeal”, which raised an incredible 4 million euro for the suicide prevention charity Pieta.

In “The State of Play”, you stated that fans are aware of the important role of sponsors when sports come back. Is their view of sponsors more positive now, during the pandemic? If so, how can brands use this to their advantage?
There is an increasing understanding of the importance of sponsorship and the role a sponsor can play in the overall experience of a fan. Fans, too, have a more in-depth understanding of the business of sport and can recognise that when ticketing revenue has ceased and broadcast revenue is under threat, the only constant might be the sponsorship revenue. A sponsor’s job is to add value to the fan experience; if they continue to do this, they will not go far wrong. They should demonstrate their commitment and support during these times, which should translate into goodwill in the future.

There is an increasing understanding of the importance of sponsorship and the role a sponsor can play in the overall experience of a fan

In both reports, you also emphasised the importance of understanding the fans. Is social listening enough to understand their attitudes and desires?
Research, research, research! Social listening is a great tool to use to understand the chatter and conversations online, but it should be supported with primary research and more in-depth studies into fan behaviour and more understanding of how your strategy is resonating with them.

In autumn, we have entered a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is spreading even more quickly than in spring. Would you change any of the predictions or advice from your reports if you were writing them now?
I think we are all still counting the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic and it will be a while before the true scale of this is understood everywhere, but also in sponsorship. Brands, businesses and sporting organisations will need to do what they have to do to survive and to enable them to thrive in the future.

Brands, businesses and sporting organisations will need to do what they have to do to survive and to enable them to thrive in the future.

There is a powerful thought in your report: “Survival of the fittest is the name of the game now. It’s time for brave and bold activation plans which can live whether or not the ball is kicked.” How resilient is the sponsorship industry in Ireland and Europe in your view?
The industry has shown remarkable creativity and resilience of late, but has been leading and innovating in broadcasting, merchandising, fan experiences and beyond for a decade or more. I think it is more than up to the challenge.


The interview was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 15 (November 2020).