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Analyzing Sponsorship at the Crossroads of Sports and Business


Sports sponsorships have come a long way since 1972, when Rich Products paid $1.5 million for the right to rename the home of the Buffalo Bills as Rich Stadium.

These days, one doesn’t just pass through any old gate to see the Giants play; to get into MetLife Stadium, look for the Bud Light, Pepsi, or Verizon gates.

If done right, sponsorships can be beneficial for all concerned, said John Fortunato, PhD. The professor of communication and media management at the Gabelli School of Business specializes in sports sponsorships, sports media, and crisis management.

“Companies are branding themselves and communicating themselves to the larger audience,” he said. “Sponsorship continues to be a huge part of achieving those brand goals.”

Fortunato explored the topic in his book, Sports Sponsorship: Principles and Practices. (McFarland, 2013), and continues to research the ways in which sponsorships have grown more sophisticated and tied to social causes.

He recently wrote an article for the Journal of Brand Strategy in which he examined how MasterCard partnered with Major League Baseball in 2011 and 2012 to convince consumers to use their MasterCards to fight cancer. The company donated a penny to the Stand Up To Cancer charity every time its card was used in restaurant. The successful campaign raised $8 million.

“It was a well-thought-out sponsorship activation,” he said. “There’s a great social responsibility goal that MasterCard achieved: giving $8 million to cancer. But the company also did it in a way that ensures product usage.”

A sponsorship also works if it demonstrates a brand’s core competency. At the 2014 Winter Olympics, BMW redesigned the two-man bobsled for the men’s and women’s U.S. Olympic teams. The company promoted its role in the redesign through commercials during the Olympics and in a documentary that aired on NBC, and the teams medaled in the sport for the first time since 1952.

Incorporating brands into actual events (such as the Olympics) is an example of the evolution of sponsorships, said Fortunato. Since sports are one of the few remaining pursuits in which TV viewership is virtually DVD-proof, he says there’s really no end to sponsorship possibilities.

“Nowadays no coach does an interview without a backdrop featuring some branding. The bullpens now get painted and branded,” he said. “Advertisers are always looking for ways to weave the brand into a broadcast.”

To get a sense of how sponsorships could evolve, consider the court case Jenkins v. NCAA, in which students have challenged the rules that say they can’t be paid to play college-level sports. If the students win, Fortunato said, there will be a free-for-all because colleges may need to ask sponsors to help secure star athletes. He explores this possibility in an upcoming article in the University of Denver Sports and Entertainment Law Journal.

“If you’re (University of Kentucky coach) John Calipari and you have a player deciding between Kentucky and Louisville, well, Louisville’s an Adidas school, and Kentucky’s a Nike team. Could it be that you call up Nike and say ‘Let’s sweeten the pot a little so we can get this guy?’” he said. “The money is going to come from somewhere.”

Soon, Fortunato is publishing an article on the NFL’s reaction to concussion-related injuries in the Journal of Conflict Management. The league has called for everything from increased children’s education on proper tackling techniques to the hiring of a neurologist for every team.

There’s a body of literature on how corrective actions can help an organization overcome crisis, he said, and just as McDonald’s has to constantly deal with the issue of obesity, the NFL will have to address concussions for the foreseeable future.

Issues such as these also find their way into Fortunato’s classes in crisis communication and sports media.

“I’m able to talk through not only the theory, but also the campaigns. Here’s the academic component of it, here the research, and here’s what the companies are doing,” he said.

“Does it match up? Does it make sense? Is there a missed opportunity? That makes the education more valuable.”


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