Sponsors Can’t Afford To Be Bystanders When Controversy Strikes

By Jim Andrews Dec 12, 2012

Sponsors Can’t Afford To Be Bystanders When Controversy Strikes

My WPP colleague Rob Norman has written a timely piece entitled “Is NFL Brand Safe?” which you can read at

Rob, a quick wit and graceful writer, makes a good case for questioning whether the NFL will be able to sustain its massive mainstream popularity in the face of challenges such as concussions from violent hits and character flaws afflicting too many of its players, not to mention other scandals and controversies.

However, his post does not address what sponsors and advertisers affiliated with the league, its teams and players should do, apart from be concerned about the “commercial threat” to their businesses.

In that spirit of self-preservation, it seems to me that sponsors should proactively tackle those issues head-on (analogy intentional) and seek to become part of the solution. It’s the same argument I made five years ago this month responding to another pro sport’s issues in an opinion piece for IEG Sponsorship Report:

I was rather disheartened as I pored over the abundant coverage of the Mitchell Report and what it will mean to Major League Baseball. Although I believe, as do many others, that the report on steroid and other performance-enhancing drug usage did not tell us anything we didn’t already know about the situation and will have little to no effect on fans’ enthusiasm for the sport, it was disappointing to see so many sponsors happily embracing that last fact and brushing aside the serious issues raised in the report.

Just because sports fans are willing to look the other way doesn’t make it right for sponsors to do the same. Smart sponsors should go where their consumers go, so I understand the rationale that says if fans are going to continue to pack baseball stadiums and passionately support their favorite teams, then sponsors should be there too. But when an issue is raised that demands attention–whether it is steroid use, criminal behavior or something else that threatens the integrity of the sport and also has wider societal repercussions–it is time for sponsors to be leaders, not followers.

Time for someone to wield their considerable influence with the league and players to ensure real reforms are made, just as John Hancock’s David D’Alessandro and others did with the IOC in the aftermath of the Salt Lake City bid scandal. Or even better, time for someone to take some of the millions they will spend promoting their involvement in baseball and aim them straight at the problem, perhaps by funding a program to educate teen athletes on the dangers of performance-enhancers. Troubled times often create the occasion for a true leader to emerge by tackling serious issues head-on and offering unique solutions to address them. It is a shame that to date, baseball’s sponsors have chosen to slap on the same blinders as the fans, instead of stepping up to the plate. With the season still three months away, it’s not too late.

It’s an even bigger shame that five years on, nothing of the sort ever happened. And unfortunately, as much as I believe NFL sponsors have the same opportunities today, I doubt any of them will seize the moment.


pro sports sponsorship strategy sports trends backlash


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Jim Andrews

About the Author

A 30-year sponsorship industry veteran, Jim is responsible for developing and sharing thought-leadership content based on ESP Properties’ groundbreaking work in the areas of sponsorship strategy, valuation, measurement, digital content, data-driven marketing and fan engagement.

In addition to identifying key trends and delivering his unique insights into the critical issues facing rightsholders and their commercial partners, Jim is the chairman of the Annual Sponsorship Conference, responsible for the program and speakers, as well as hosting and delivering the event’s opening address. He also is responsible for the company’s annual report and forecast of overall sponsorship spending, as well as its compilation of biggest spending companies and annual industry surveys.

A frequent media commentator and guest, Jim has been a featured speaker at hundreds of sports, entertainment and marketing conferences around the world.



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Heather Hellman 12/14/2012 3:26 PM
No they won't, because too much money is at stake. Look at Lance Armstrong, a brand himself supported by Nike who made millions. Fans have known for years that they (cyclists) all used performance-enhancing drugs for years. It became a joke and it was only a matter of time. Its failure on so many levels in so many sports.

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