James Bartold, Group Director Brand Partnerships Bastion Experience responds to the question – How does sponsorship play its role in driving brands and events back to consumers?
Bartold recently joined Bastion Experience from the North Melbourne Football Club where he was Head of Sponsorship, Events and Commercial Strategy. Prior to the Kangaroos, James worked as a management consultant across private and public sector clients, and has held roles as a journalist at the ABC and AFL.
It was Sunday, March 22, part way through the third quarter of the Round 1 clash between North Melbourne and St Kilda, when we began to hear rumblings of how COVID-19 might shut down the rest of the AFL season. Just hours after the game, my world in the sport and entertainment sponsorship industry took a giant turn as Gillon McLachlan put a hold on the 2020 AFL Season.
The AFL wasn’t alone. There wasn’t a sponsorship calendar across sporting codes, arts and music events in Australia that wasn’t decimated once COVID-19 took hold. Sponsorship agreements require many people to ideate, strategise and execute, and with these agreements in jeopardy – so too were many of the jobs that supported them. 24 hours after the news, we made exceptionally difficult phone calls to friends and colleagues to let them know they would be stood down without any set date of return, decisions that of course were not made lightly. With a rapidly changing health and economic landscape and the loss of sponsorship revenue, we worried that the individual clubs, if not the AFL, NRL and all codes themselves, would fold due to the financial ramifications.
Sponsorship agreements needed to be salvaged – and quickly. Much of what we had contractually agreed to with our partners was off the table. Sponsors combed their agreements for deliverables, and rights holders were challenged to respond with things they didn’t even know they had at their disposal. But as the proverb goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and from the ashes we saw an incredible change. Live was replaced with digital, signage with virtual, events with webinars – everywhere change was happening at breakneck speed.
For too long sponsorship has been viewed by some as a simple equation – focus on how many people see my brand. But as COVID-19 has uncovered, there’s a wealth of opportunity bubbling under the sponsorship surface. Sponsorship, when value aligned and clearly thought out, plays a crucial role in elevating the human experience. And isn’t that what all marketers strive for?
Sponsorship is at its best when it aligns to joy. Sports and events bring people joy; you’d be hard pressed to find a sporting team that doesn’t reference this somewhere in their strategic plan or values. But as sponsorships were transferred into a digital, non-live arena; the sponsors who have remembered this, have been the real winners. Carlton Draught took their sports partnerships local by pushing fans to get around the closed pubs and instead reserve their drinks for when they could next head to the venue and no doubt drink several more pots. The F1 couldn’t have the joy of the pit-lane, but their partner Zoom quickly helped to put fans as close as physically possible. Dettol made it safe to shine a cricket ball, and Nike made me enjoy shopping even more with an AR changeroom with all my favourite fan-gear.
These sponsorships, and hundreds more, prioritised joy. They understood what consumers were missing and genuinely tried to re-imagine it for them. Consumers don’t want to be sold to, they want to be heard and to have a solution presented to them. I’m thirsty; yes I’d like a delicious beverage. I’m tired; yes I need the bed that Steve Smith slept in because it’ll make me play cricket like he does. As Australia moves towards a new COVID-19 normal, we’re going to need joy as much as we did when we were trying to find it between home-schooling and our 13th online trivia night. Yes, vaccination rates are climbing, venues are creeping towards capacity, and we have more freedom. But our Bastion Insights research shows that people are still worried about returning safely with 68% saying a vaccine passport should be required for any sporting or entertainment event in the future – just behind taking a cruise ship. Many have become used to consuming sports or music in another way; and some don’t want to go back to how it was. Sponsorship will be crucial in helping brands navigate this shift.
All thanks to our joy-led sponsors, the gap between live and virtual has crept exceptionally close. Fans are more engaged and personalised experiences are expected. Just look at Crypto companies in the last six months. They’re not just wrapping signage on a chicane, they’re creating new collectibles and non-fungible tokens for fans, creating currencies within e-sports, and new revenue streams for rights holders. And that’s just the start.
So what’s next in 2022. While I don’t have a crystal ball, I do see an opportunity and believe successful brands will utilise sponsorships differently. They will look at agreement deliverables as a blank-slate; they’ll push boundaries in activation across digital and live and not recycle ideas; and they’ll dig deeper into the emotional connection their sponsorship provides them with a consumer.
If they do that; what’s next is truly exciting. If sponsorship is focused on joy, it’s going to be a very powerful way to help brands and events make people feel good again!
 “Adapting to the New Normal: National Update”, Think Wide Narratives, Bastion Insights, September 2021.