Digital lifestyle: sports marketing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 9:12am

So explosive has been the impact of social media that sports journalists long ago swapped their little black book of contacts for accounts on micro-blogging websites, and frequently get their breaking news direct from comments from sports stars now too distant to interview.

However, there's increasing concern that sports stars are indirectly being silenced by sponsors. Having enough cachet to act as product endorser is the point where many athletes start to earn serious money, but the very sports events that make them famous often have separate agendas. Does the old world need to catch up?

"This year has so far provided lots of lessons in how sports marketing is evolving," says Tom Scourfield, a partner at law firm CMS Cameron McKenna. "The key theme being that event organisers will now go to great lengths to protect official sponsors from innovative stealth marketing techniques."

He's talking about "guerilla" marketing stunts from brands who sign no deal with event organisers, yet try to surreptitiously raise their profile in whatever way they can. The prize being a global television audience.

This is what happened at the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, which was held during the summer in the Ukraine and Poland, and televised live to a global audience of 1.1 billion.

Immediately after scoring during a 3-2 defeat to Portugal, Denmark striker Nicklas Bendtner lifted his shirt to reveal the name of bookmaker Paddy Power on the waistband of his green underpants; hardly an iconic image, but organisers Uefa clearly felt it had been ambushed by the Irish company. They promptly found Bendtner guilty of improper conduct, banned him for one match, and fined him €100,000 (HK$1 million). "Players risk being fined more for undermining official sponsors than for violent misconduct on the pitch," says Scourfield.

Banning advertising by individual athletes is a constant battle, but it's not without casualties. London's 2012 Olympic Games organisers tried to prevent all athletes from using Twitter to endorse non-official sponsors. "Some American athletes staged a Twitter protest against the rules, which they felt prevented them from maximising earnings at a time when their profile was at its highest," says Scourfield, who believes authorities will continue to ramp-up efforts to silence all non-official brands.

The stakes are high: global media agency MediaCom predicts that at least 60 sponsors will spend more than US$2 billion in the run up to the next two major global events - the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. For both events one name tops all sponsors' lists: Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele. Hours before his brief appearance at the London 2012's closing ceremony, the Brazilian great signed a deal with MediaCom that will see him used as the face of both events.

The deal will see Pele take part in television commercials and product endorsements. Tellingly, that week he'd opened his Weibo account, attracting 40,000 followers without a shred of publicity. He may be atypical social media material - a sportsman 35 years into retirement is unlikely to go viral - but Pele's iconic status is unrivalled.

"Pele is still considered by many fans - including the Chinese - to be the best soccer player in history," says Xavier Daurian, managing director of Havas Sports & Entertainment China, of the man also appointed as the official World Cup Ambassador for 2014. He certainly has an aura; I've never seen such a respectful, adoring group of journalists than at the press conference where Pele announced his MediaCom deal.

However, Pele's appearance in commercials in the run-up to 2014 is likely to be a last hurrah for traditional sports marketing, with most of that activity destined to go online, if it hasn't already.

One of the most digital-savvy brands is Nike, whose ads are now almost always preceded by a Twitter marketing push using a hashtag. Nike's extensive array of sponsored sports stars includes hurdler Liu Xiang, ice skater Kim Yuna, Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney, sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross and "blade runner" Oscar Pistorius.

Daurian says the importance of social media and online advertising cannot be understated. "It took radio 38 years to reach 50 million users in China, television 13 years and the internet four years," he says.

"It took Weibo less than one year to reach this number of users … and now, five years after its creation, Weibo has over 300 million users."

The endorsement dollars follow. A 50 per cent increase in online advertising spending in China last year saw it overtake print media.

The trend is that brands reluctant to become official sponsors of major events go directly to the stars themselves, who use the power of their brand, often on micro-blogging platforms, to get the message out in ever more creative ways.

Respected and adored the world over, personal endorsements from Pele seem long overdue, but his fans are unlikely to be upping the noise factor on Weibo or Twitter. The careers of upcoming stars, such as Chinese gymnast Li Xiaopeng, however, are certain to be played out on social media. Let the battle of the brands and the stealth marketing games commence.