TicketManager | Time to Get Over Sports Marketing’s Inferiority Complex

When will the sports marketing sector finally decide that it is no longer necessary to repeatedly promote the fact that the medium works, i.e., that it delivers value to brands, properties, fans, etc.?

I’m not making an argument that we should stop talking about sponsorship, activation, client entertainment and other success stories. I have built a career, in part, by doing just that through content, training, consulting, teaching and podcasting that showcases best practices, case studies and gold standard examples.

I’m referring instead to the all-to-familiar habit of industry practitioners, researchers and even trade media to go out of their way to “make the case” for sports marketing in a way that professionals in advertising, digital marketing, PR and other sectors no longer find necessary.

When new forms of marketing enter the arena, they need to prove themselves. They rely on evangelists to bang the drum and deliver the proof points that demonstrate effectiveness. Along with many others, I played that role on behalf of sponsorship 35 years ago. When online advertising and digital marketing came of age a decade later, proponents of those media did the same thing.

But once they were no longer considered “new media,” the digital folks stopped playing defense. So why is it that we in sports sponsorship and event marketing have never stopped?

Before we get to a possible answer, and lest you think this isn’t still happening, consider a recent example from SponsorUnited’s latest LPGA Marketing Partnerships Report.

Amid a host of interesting and usable data across sponsorship, advertising and endorsement deals in professional women’s golf, the document includes the following as one of its Key Findings: “Brands sponsoring the LPGA are reaping up to a 400 percent return on their investment, thanks to the burgeoning popularity and visibility of women’s golf—while boosting brand recognition, consumer engagement, and sales in the process.”

That is a powerful statement. So powerful that the respected trade publication SportsPro headlined its story about the report’s release: “LPGA Sponsors Gain up to 400% Return on Their Investment.”

It was so powerful it sent me looking for the specifics deeper in the report. Who were these brands earning a 4:1 sponsorship ROI? As it happens, the finding is based on a data point from Epson’s title sponsorship of the LPGA’s official qualifying tour. “Epson…has seen a 400% return in media value on its investment, thanks to Epson Tour.”

Without getting into a debate about the merits of media equivalencies, a statement such as “brands sponsoring the LPGA are reaping up to a 400 percent return on their investment,” based solely on Epson’s results is something you would expect to find in a sales proposal for a women’s golf sponsorship package. It almost begs a “your results may vary” disclaimer.

Thanks to the “up to” qualifier it is technically accurate, but as a “key finding” meant to summarize the impact of LPGA partnerships, it is misleading. It implies that multiple partners are earning significant financial returns from their deals. That could be true, but we don’t see the data to support such a conclusion.

It’s also unnecessary. Women’s golf sponsorships are delivering value. A statistic revealing how much return sponsors earn on average might grab fewer headlines but would still be powerful and more accurate.

All of this is not to point a finger at the professionals at SponsorUnited and SportsPro, both highly respected and important sources of industry information. We have all been guilty, me included, of ginning up positive results to shine a light on sponsorship’s impact.

So back to the question of why we do it. Why after 40 years of sponsorship being codified as a distinct marketing medium, do we still feel the need to legitimize it?

Perhaps it stems from sponsorship’s unique ability among marketing segments to attract public attention, and in particular the media’s near obsession with covering partnerships gone wrong. It can sometimes feel that our business is uniquely singled out for critique in ways that other forms or marketing are not.

But that doesn’t require us to respond like a teenager on social media trying too hard to get people to like us. The actual facts of what sports alignments can accomplish for brand partners stand on their own without embellishment and we should be brave enough to let them.