When Sponsorships and Athletes Collide, Who Wins?

While a shoddily worded campaign, an untimely marketing ploy, a legal infraction, or an unethical manipulation can jeopardize the effectiveness of sports sponsorship, a poor activation can both threaten the safety of the athletes and negatively influence the results on the field of play in the process.

It sounds like a rare occurrence, but that is exactly what has happened twice this past week in the 2016 Tour de France.

Tour De France

This begs the question: should properties establish stricter standards as to what is and is not allowed in terms of sponsor activations, not solely based on promotional balance and marketing needs, but weighed against their potential to negatively impact the event itself?

Lex Sportiva – the term coined in recent years to refer to the jurisprudence of sports and its legal implications – thankfully, accounts for injury to athletes. In the fairness of competition, sponsors are typically held liable when their promotions run awry. When an athlete is injured by a rogue mascot-driven vehicle, or a falling banner, not only does the activation appear to have been negligently created, but organizers of the events themselves damage their credibility in offering a safe venue for the competitors. A mistake in sponsorship activation that creates unnecessary hazards does not belong in sports and that mistake can generate negative implications for years beyond any single event.

This past week, the Australian bottled water brand Vital’s sponsored inflatable banner, (referred to as the flamme rouge) that bridges across the race course, collapsed on the lead competitor when a spectator “accidentally” disengaged the generator causing mayhem. Lead rider Adam Yates was tossed from his bicycle, sustaining a gash to his chin, which required stitches. The organizers awarded Yates the time lost because of the sponsor-driven calamity and the entire incident served as embarrassment to an event still haunted by multiple doping scandals surfacing in recent years.

As if that failed sponsor activation was not enough, this past week saw leader Chris Froome finishing a stage of the Tour de’ France on foot after colliding with a press cameraman’s motorbike that was forced to stop due to uncontrolled crowds.

Horrific and failed sponsorship activations range from the slippery finish-line decal at the 2006 LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon that led to the disastrous fall and hospitalization of the winning runner, (Robert Cheruiyot), to a promotion at a Los Angeles Dodgers game in 1995 that forced them to forfeit to the visiting team when a crowd of over 50 thousand were given promotional baseballs which became dangerous flying objects both on the field and in the stands as fans vented their frustrations over two ejections in the ninth inning of the game.

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2006 LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon

While the sponsoring brand’s logo and artwork go through a vigorous vetting process, had anybody considered testing the traction of the street decals athletes would be running across? Similarly, had anybody considered that baseballs are meant to be thrown? On both counts the answer would seem to be a resounding “No”.

Fans attending the Dodgers game may have enjoyed themselves, but the narrative and merit of an activation hinges on its preparation and execution. Our years of research have shown that fans love clever sponsorships, but are cynical toward companies that impede competition or create a threat to athletes through their promotions. Although there are times when the decision to activate a promotion can be tricky, the line between an activation that goes too far and one that is on-point is sometimes blurred. Consider, for example, the Texas Legends basketball team that suspended a local auto dealer’s Kia Soul over their home court. While the promotion drew attention and the event went smoothly, we question whether suspending a 2,000 lb vehicle over the field of play and the athletes’ heads is a risk worth taking.

NBA Car

As our studies have proven time and time again, the difference between a horrific and a successful sponsorship is typically the result of an activation that is relevant to the attendee / target audience far more than those dependent on creative “risks” or “stunts”.

In our view, both sponsors and properties owe it to themselves to implement stricter standards for anything that comes close to the field of play.  Sponsors and properties should spend more time considering the “what if” scenarios to ensure there is no possible interference with the athletes, and consequently, no negative implications reflected upon the sponsor.

By contributing columnist: Jackson Davis

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