TicketManager | Of Sponsorship Definitions, History, Playboy and Volleyball Gods

My last blog post suggested that the definition of sponsorship was due for an update. Based on the visits, views and social media engagement received, the topic sparked a lot of interest, and—I’m happy to report—most of the responses and comments agreed with the direction I proposed.

Since many also asked me to actually draft and publish an augmented definition, here it is, including the original and the addition in italics:

Sponsorship: A cash and/or in-kind fee paid to a property (typically in sports, arts, entertainment or causes) in return for access to the exploitable commercial potential associated with that property. While sponsorship can be a simple transaction of cash, products or services in exchange for rights and benefits, it works best when the target audience recognizes the corporate partner as playing an essential role in bringing an event to the public, enhancing the audience/fan experience, providing critical funding for operations or otherwise forging a stronger connection between people and their interests and passions.

Revisiting the idea of defining sponsorship for the first time in decades, combined with a host of astute observations on the subject received from many colleagues and contacts across the industry, points out just how far the business of sports and event marketing has come.

It would be a vast understatement to say that in the early-to-mid ‘80s no one outside of a handful of pioneers was putting the amount or quality of thought into what sponsorship was and what it could be, as compared to the insightful comments, emails and texts in my inboxes this week.

Back then, sponsorship needed not only a definition, but much rigor and refinement before it could earn its place at the marketing table. Thanks to the efforts of those pioneering marketers, those developments came relatively quickly and within a few years the industry matured greatly and became much more professional.

But the stories from the early days remain legendary, among them one recounted by the great writer Mike Sager, in a piece titled “Volleyball Gods” that was published in Playboy in July 1985.

I first stumbled upon the article when looking through the “Beach Volleyball” file during my first week as a new writer for IEG Sponsorship Report in 1987. Something about the craziness described within convinced me I had definitely chosen a fascinating field to report on and helped spark my interest in the details behind the banners, promotions and commercials.

In profiling the early stars of professional beach volleyball—Karch Kiraly, Sinjin Smith, Mike Dodd and other “gods”—Sager discusses the 1984 players’ strike at the Jose Cuervo World Championship, the first in a series of steps that would ultimately lead to the formation of the AVP a few years later.

The dispute over pay and control between the players and promoter Event Concepts had the tour’s sponsors caught in the middle, brands that included Cuervo, Miller High Life and Coppertone.

In Sager’s tale, automaker and tour sponsor AMC/Renault takes center stage, as top pro Tim Hovland, refusing to take to the sand at the final event in Redondo Beach, commandeers the company’s on-site motorhome and won’t leave. This is after he attacked a fellow player who crossed the picket line, spitting and cursing at him, all the while draped in a Renault towel.

Following the assault, the Renault marketer who signed not only the tour sponsorship deal but also a personal services/spokesperson agreement with Hovland threatened to take away the Renault Fuego Turbo the company gave the former USC standout. Before he could, Hovland jumped in the car and stashed it in a garage about six miles away, then returned and took up residence in the motorhome. Meanwhile, the Renault rep—identified only as Wally in the story—phoned his bosses in Detroit and told them to cancel their plans to fly out for the tournament.

Although labor disputes and bad behavior will never be eliminated, sports and sponsorship have definitely come a long way from the colorful days of Wally, the Hov and the Fuego Turbo.