Cuba: Opportunity in the Midst of Challenges

When it comes to sponsorship, Cuban athletes as well as other aspects of the sports industry, could benefit from the recent renewed ties with the US and the talk of lifting the US trade embargo.
When it comes to sponsorship, Cuban athletes could benefit from the recent renewed ties with the US and the talk of lifting the US trade embargo.

Just three months ago, President Obama’s announcement that the US and Cuba plan to restore diplomatic relations has created a unique opportunity for US businesses, in particular event and sports sponsorship.  Major brands like AMEX, Nike, and Coca-Cola are waiting anxiously on the side lines to take advantage of opportunities as soon as the US trade embargo is lifted. This will not happen immediately or promise to be an easy transition, but offers prospects to change Cuba’s sporting industry.

All professional sports in Cuba were banned in 1962 and with the US trade embargo in place, US Companies have been forbidden from capitalizing on sponsoring all sporting events, Cuban athletes and facilities. Instead of advertising billboards surrounding the ballparks, portraits and slogans of Castro dominate the fields. No sodas or alcohol have been available at sporting events, and local food options have been scarce. Equipment is outdated and falling apart. Athletes keep a meager 20% of their salaries with the government pocketing 80%. Admission to games is free or for a nominal fee – Cubans come to simply enjoy the game.

“Sport is the victim of limitations of the embargo,” said Tomás Herrera Martínez, the director of international relations for Cuba’s sports ministry and a bronze medalist in basketball at the 1972 Munich Olympics. “Sport is one of the main rights of the people, but sometimes there have not been enough resources.”

For a country where sponsorship has been non-existent for the past 50 years, huge benefits exist for all those looking to get involved in Cuba’s sports and events market.  Infrastructure improvements and resource availability for hosting events will become possible. For example, if a financial service like AMEX sponsored the Cuban national baseball team, they could have the opportunity to bring banking basics to a large portion of the country through an in-person experiential form of marketing. IT companies could provide sponsorship and provide access to internet services, a foreign concept to most Cubans as less than 5% of the population has internet access.  Sporting events will help stimulate the economy and provide more jobs for Cubans. This could start as early as 2016 with a few Major League Baseball teams interested in an exhibition game during spring training.

Companies in the food and beverage industry will look to provide sponsorship and make their brands available at all sporting events too. Huge opportunities exist for sports merchandise as well as concessions at the stadiums. Coca-Cola, for example, is anxious to enter one of its last untouched markets. Like Cuba, Coke was banned in Myanmar for many years, and recently obtained its license to operate by creating value for the overall Myanmar economy.  It’s likely that Cuba’s new investors will look to Coca-Cola for guidance on entering a new market with due diligence and responsible business conduct.

Sponsorships could also provide important resources for the athletes, such as updated equipment, proper nutrition, and fair compensation. Just recently it was announced that Cuba’s Athletics Federation is now allowing athletes’ autonomy over sponsorships. The federation’s choice of brand for all athletes, regardless of their preference, has been German owned adidas until 2 years ago when track athletes started wearing Nike. This change has opened a door for US companies to sponsor Cuban athletes and increase their brand awareness in this emerging market. Nike is on the forefront of this change but Under Armor is looking for the next window of opportunity as these sponsorships spread to Cuba’s other most popular sports, baseball and boxing.

Despite doubts and obvious challenges with the Cuban government, economy, and infrastructure, this will be the new journey in sports and event sponsorship for US businesses.  Prospects will just have to be patient.

photo credit: Cuba Havana via photopin (license)
photo credit: Paralympics 2012 – 35 via photopin (license)

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