Significant moments offer great opportunity to develop new habits.

Research from The Office for National Statistics (ONS) this week showed that more than a quarter of people are considering changes to their career, relationships or home life after the UK lockdown.

The In, or more optimistically, Post COVID-19 world will alter many aspects of our lives. So it follows that the world of sport sponsorship will not be immune.  You only have to consider the huge number of cancelled or postponed events erased from the calendar and the bleak projections emanating from the Football Association to appreciate the financial strains the pandemic is placing on sport, its ecosystem and the relationships within it.

How sponsorships are conceived, activated and measured has always evolved. But, too often, they have been built on emotion and subjectivity; and bound by their own rules. The shutdown has shone an industrial-strength torchlight in every corner of corporate spending. Sports sponsorship spend is being scrutinised like never before – hence the pace of change and evolution has never been faster.

What the ‘new normal’ looks like is a question many in the industry are grappling with. Here’s what I’ve learnt working at the coalface of a number of different sponsorships over the last three months.

  1. The need to demonstrate value will enhance sponsorship

I’ve felt for some time that sponsors and rights holders don’t always appreciate the fact they are on the same side and need to be fighting harder to find value for each other. With the world watching in even greater numbers, now is the time.

If a brand can’t prove its association with a sport is delivering positively for its business and, ultimately, the bottom line, then why bother?

Answers such as: “Sport is a good metaphor for our business” or “We share the same brand values as the sport” might all be true, but they will quickly be followed by Boardroom responses such as: ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’

Similarly, if a rights holder can’t articulate how its sponsors are helping to grow the sport, or make it better, then where is the money going?

Recently we worked with a global sponsorship client to write ‘joint marketing initiatives’ into their contract with a rights holder. This is not a new practice per se, but one that will become even more important as partners become more focused on mutual collaboration that delivers for both parties.

  1. Digital sponsorship has the opportunity to prove its worth.

When live sport was paused abruptly, so were the activation campaigns of thousands of sponsors. Leaving them little to fall back on.

Which brought this research from WPP sister agency Two Circles, a data-led team who work exclusively for rights holders in sport, sharply into focus.

It found rights holders had under-exploited their sponsorship businesses by £12bn a year on average since 2014. This was despite sports sponsorship spend growing by 4% on average during the same period. The area responsible for this under-valuing? Digital assets.

At H+K we counsel and bring to life sports sponsorships for a host of high profile international brands and rights holders and two things have struck me in particular from the last few months.

First, the speed with which we’ve been able to pivot and run virtual events, involving players, pundits and the media. Taking these events to more people than would have attended physically, across more markets; but at much less cost.

And secondly, the more positive feedback and advocacy this has led to amongst the employees and customers.

Take this into account alongside events such as the virtual Grand National, the Zwift-hosted Tour de France and the fact we are now spending more than a quarter of our waking hours online; and this under-use of digital feels even starker.

Expect digital and physical rights to blend more seamlessly in future sponsorship deals.

  1. Data can show sponsorship impact like never before.

While it has always been sponsorship’s ‘holy grail’ to try and prove its ability to influence purchase and convert sales, the data actually used to illustrate success was largely impersonal and related to imagined TV viewing figures.

Not now. With the increased scrutiny and financial pressures, allied to new technologies, the data is more plentiful and being more closely interrogated.

“Who was watching or engaging? Where were they from? Have we re-engaged them?”

With every digital footprint sports fan leave, it’s becoming possible to understand not just how many are watching but specifically who they are; where they are from; and then whether the association had an influence on how they behaved towards a brand or event.

We proposed, negotiated and then activated a three-day sponsorship for a client around Amazon’s first-ever English Premier League broadcast in December 2019 and the depth of our data and analysis helped to prove the case for the investment in a way I’d not seen before. Refreshingly, I found myself talking about conversion and sales rather than just column inches and I’m convinced this will happen more and more – and in a way that’s not happened before.

So while the purse strings continue to tighten and the scrutiny intensifies, this is a significant moment for brands and rights holders to develop the right new habits, that can propel them and the industry into its most exciting chapter yet.