Following Liverpool striker Luis Suarez’s refusal to shake hands with Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, as their two teams clashed for the first time after the Paraguan forward’s ban for racially abusing Evra, the Merseyside club’s sponsors Standard Chartered was reported to have held ‘robust’ talks with the club. They are not the first sponsor to review their deal following a sporting controversy, with Tiger Woods seeing many of his brands run for the hills when his image as a family man was tarnished. Chelsea FC and England's football team have also come under scrutiny due to the actions of captain John Terry, with sponsors being questioned over their support and beliefs as a result.
Sporting controversies seem to be part and parcel of life, as athletes live a more lavish lifestyle. But how much control are sponsors having in the running of clubs and teams in the current economic conditions, where money is scarce, and brands have become all the more wary of the possibility of being embroiled in a media storm through association?
Pippa Collett, managing director of Sponsorship Consulting says that some brands are having more of a say as they look to move their deal away from simply being a ‘badging exercise’ and share their impressions of what is going on as a partner.
“It’s just like judging a man by the company that he keeps…why would you align yourself with somebody and then not be prepared to say when you thought things were good or when things go the way you didn’t think they would,” adds Collett who believes that brands are becoming more aware that they are backing a group of human being, who are not under their own employ.
But is the power of the sponsor growing in other sports? Jill Inglis, global PR manager at whisky brand Whyte & Mackay, says that it works closely with F1 racing team Force India, which it sponsors, but the relationship is very much about brand exposure, with branding on the car, team wear and driving suits.
“The team keep us in touch with anything that’s happening or anything that might affect our brand and then we make a call on anything individual. We can only advise as a sponsor what we think would be better for our brand and how our brand fits into a particular crisis,” explains Inglis.
As to how the company would react should a team it was sponsoring become embroiled within a controversial situation, Inglis adds that each situation would need to be considered, but clearly Whyte and Mackay, like most companies, would rather avoid being engulfed in anything harmful to its image.
“If the situation is going to seriously damage a brand, I don’t think that any brand would want to stick with a team or sport, because that would damage their reputation. In extreme circumstances you would need to pull your sponsorship.”
Kevin McQuillan, director of sport at communications agency Material Marketing, adds that many sporting organisations are struggling to find sponsors in the present climate, with Football still very much ‘king’ within the UK. He does however highlight the success of Andy Murray as growing interest in sponsorship within Tennis, and cites the recent growth in interest in Darts, now selling out arenas across the UK, as also witnessing a greater sponsorship interest.
However, some football clubs have yet to fully buy into sponsorship deals in the same way that most other sports have, due to football players retaining a great deal of power and influence, that means the club may be unable to guarantee their complete co-operation. Top players also fail to consider commercial sensitivity for their clubs when carrying out their actions too, judging by the events of recent years.
As to how clubs react, commercial impact is more of a concern when scandal hits than ever before, believes McQuillan; “Where you do start to see an influence is that one of the club’s primary concerns in the aftermath of an incident is what the commercial effect could be now. In the years going buy there was more concern for the loss or happiness of the player, now there’s a realisation in the current climate that a club can ill afford to upset a sponsor, particularly a headline sponsor at that.”
Sponsorship is a vial component to all sports, including Premier League football. But footballers and top level sports people are always likely to be caught up in controversial circumstances, living in the public eye as they do. Pippa Collete advises that sponsors prepare for their reactions under differing circumstances and try and use fore-site of any eventuality. She adds that no longer does a company issuing a ‘no-comment’, statement in an attempt to distance itself from a scandal through its sponsorship association - they must now be seen to act and show concern to protect themselves and their brand.