Athletes: how much do they really help brand sponsors flex their muscles?

BIG Partnership senior account executive, Michael Scobbie, dicusses what brands should consider before asking athletes to sign on the dotted line of a sponsorship deal.

With Wimbledon and Euro 2016 just gone and the Olympics underway, the world’s elite athletes are front and centre. Though if you’re a corporate sponsor of an athlete in Rio, you’re well-advised to keep schtum until the Games are done.

One noticeable omission from this year’s Wimbledon roster was former champ Maria Sharapova, who was unceremoniously dumped by the sport for two years after being found to have taken a banned substance. Sharapova may never make it to the top of the women’s tennis circuit again, but she’ll still enjoy hefty sponsorship fees from Nike.

But what determines whether or not a brand sticks by a world-famous athlete who’s seen to have done wrong? Nike, Puma, Adidas and others are part of a fiercely-competitive market place, so big-ticket names are part and parcel of a sports brand’s position on the world stage.

If Sharapova makes a comeback in two years and wins Wimbledon, Nike may judge that any flak they receive for standing by a supposed cheat will be outweighed by the rewards of being associated with her at that time. It has long-established form for sticking by its athletes whose behaviour attracts the wrong kind of headlines. Brand ambassadors are a PR tactic. Sport captures the imagination of billions of people and gives brands an incomparable platform to reach this audience. The best way to do this is to leverage the heroes who win the hearts and minds of spectators.

How brands deal with the difficulties and opportunities created by their ambassadors can in itself become a PR minefield to navigate. Any business considering sponsoring an individual (from sport or another arena) should carry out proper due diligence, measuring up a person’s reliability and volatility.

When someone becomes an ambassador of a brand, both their personal and professional lives take on added weight. This has been further complicated by social media. Now, brands have to be seen as something that an athlete uses in everyday life, whether it’s posting an Instagram photo wearing a Tag-Heuer watch or tweeting about new training gear.

So if a brand is going to invest in a sporting hero, what are the key things to bear in mind?

Do your research

Even if an athlete seems squeaky clean, scrutinise their background closely before entering into any agreement. You might need to stop short of going through their bins, but make it clear that full disclosure over past (or any ongoing) indiscretions is a pre-condition of your support.

If they muck up, don’t seize up

Whether it’s issues affecting their personal life or professional career, have a plan of action in place to deal with any contingency. Standing by and doing nothing can often look worse than decisively standing by someone who’s made a mistake.

Added value

Weigh up how much an ambassador contributes to the overall brand. Endorsement isn’t necessarily enough – does millions in sponsorship equal millions in value to the business?

Elite athletes continue to offer an invaluable way for brands to reach (and potentially make) millions through sport. And so long as the athlete doesn’t do anything to bring their sponsor into disrepute, they can keep on counting the paydays. Now, where did I put my golf clubs…