Finding Your Niche in Sports Sponsorship 

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Ahead of this years SportAccord Convention in Thailand, Mark Harrison, CEO of The T1 Agency, shares his experience, insights and advice on the changing face of sports sponsorship and how to make an impact through niche opportunities. Sports Sponsorship will be a key topic at this years Convention on the 15-20 April, where you can join Mark and GlobalSportsJobs to continue the conversation.  

There is an old expression in Sports Marketing that nobody ever got fired for sponsoring the Olympics - look at Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Samsung to name a few.

Unfortunately, many small properties out there know this reality all too well. Despite crafting compelling and creative pitches, these properties are often rejected by marketers reluctant to take a risk with a more niche property. It is often too easy for marketers to resort to professional sport properties, multinational events, or traditional hosting opportunities where large audiences, significant media coverage, and internal familiarity make these properties highly attractive. 

But the tide is turning. Various market forces and trends are seeding opportunity for niche properties to gain ground with corporate sponsors.  An understanding of those trends paired with a sound strategy will accelerate this moment for those properties willing to expend the effort. 

For example, we partnered our client Dairy Farmers of Canada with our national Canadian Women’s 7’s Rugby team. The opportunity for both the brand and the property aligned with the strategic platform for Dairy Farmers to support women in sport. But more importantly the brand team behind the partnership was talented, had funding to support the sponsorship, and was unhindered by other partners. As medal winners in the 2016 Olympics, the Women’s 7’s Rugby team provided significant credibility to supporting the movement. 

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I see three major trends that are creating opportunity for niche properties:

  1. The rise of ‘Globalization’ is driving the importance of ‘Localization’ in almost a parallel fashion. This will increase the value of culturally or regionally relevant properties to connect with home audiences. 
  2. Technology will actually impact smaller properties more than their larger counterparts. Most disruptive technologies are aimed at small businesses. The Airbnb of sponsorship is coming and, when it does, niche properties will have unprecedented access to brands and greater leverage in business exchanges.
  3. The ‘Consumer of the Future’ is the ‘Prosumer’. The ‘Prosumer’ is the private individual, who in addition to consuming the product, is also producing content or monetizing from your property. Too many properties fight these individuals. A niche property should assemble a network of them to build critical mass. 

One niche property that has taken advantage of each of these trends is Crankworx, a mountain biking event that quickly became the world’s largest mountain biking festival. Despite it being a highly localized event catering to a specific segment of sporting industry, Crankworx managed to grow and cultivate a strong and loyal tribe of fans from around the world. It’s no surprise that sponsorshipX, an international sponsorship forum organized by the T1 Agency, has decided to partner with Crankworx for the 2018 edition of their conference in order to give sponsorship professionals a chance to experience this growing trend first-hand.

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Given these trends I would recommend that a niche property take the following steps to equip themselves to compete for significant partnerships:

  1. Craft a tighter value proposition. What does your property really stand for? Are they a sport or are they a community builder? Leadership Development Course? Team Building Expert? 
  2. Build up your unique storytelling capabilities. Consider your property a studio where stories should be curated and have the world as its audience. But you need to stray away from the cliché stories that are told too often.
  3. Understand your consumer journey. Sponsorships are too often focused on delivering an experience and then amplifying that experience to get results. Develop a robust understanding of how your fans hear about, plan to engage, anticipate, and share your property to unlock true sponsorship value. 
  4. Focus on profit. How are you making money for your partners? How are you measuring this? Leads? Earned media value? Reduced employee turnover? Every conversation regarding investment must be accompanied by a demonstrated plan to generate profit. 
  5. Focus on the prospect, not the company. Understand that individuals are the ones making sponsorship decisions. Those individuals have advisors, bosses, and stakeholders. Although it may take more time, it’s important to adopt a long-term approach to building trust with the individual in question. Position yourself as an industry expert, not a salesperson. 

A recent example of a niche property that I have seen put this into action is The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). The GAA has doubled down on their value proposition by reclaiming the titles of their national events that were formerly sold to corporate partners, like Guinness who formally titled the All-Ireland Hurling Championship. This shift has allowed more sponsors to leverage the cultural collection of the GAA resulting in deals with partners such as Littlewoods, Ireland’s leading online retailer. The GAA became Littlewoods’ first sports sponsorship in Ireland to integrate its corporate excellence in online retail, fashion, and innovation with GAA stars to create a compelling campaign for its private label brands. 

If you’re unsure that your property can attract significant attention, you should remember that at one point eSports was considered a niche property. 

This article was written by Mark Harrison, CEO of The T1 Agency. Mark will be speaking in this years SportAccord Convention happening in Bangkok, Thailand on 15-20 April 2018. Find out more about this year's SportAccord Convention here.
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