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BT hopes to set 'new bar' for sports sponsors via FA disability and women's initiatives

BT wants to “break down barriers” to playing and supporting the beautiful game

Following the wildly successful 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup, and against the backdrop of an increase in the viewing and participation of disability sports, BT has unleashed a nuanced and ambitious strategy that will underpin its five-year sponsorship deals with the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish football associations.

Its marketing team hopes the blueprint will ensure consumers see its brand as one that “breaks down barriers” to playing and supporting the beautiful game.

Last year, the telecoms giant announced a £50m partnership with the FA in England, filling the gap left vacant by Vauxhall two years previous. Since then it's also become lead commercial partner to its Scottish, Welsh and Irish counterparts, inking a deal with each body that will run until 2024.

To bring these partnerships to life, BT has unveiled ‘4-3-3’; a strategy that seeks to unite the four home nations, targeting three communities (disability and para, grassroots and women’s football), with the aim of reaching three goals:

  • develop tech that enables these groups to play and engage with football
  • create closer football communities through digital and football initiatives
  • and inspire a new generation of girls and women to participate in football, on and off the pitch

For BT’s director of marketing communications, Pete Jeavons, the fresh approach provides the advertiser with the opportunity to “set a new bar” on sports sponsorship, beyond having its logo being embroidered on every home nations kit.

“Brands sign sponsorship deals for different reasons,” he told The Drum. “You can do it because we want awareness, or as a branding exercise.

“That’s not a problem we have at BT, so for us it’s about using this sponsorship as a vehicle for the brand to play the role of a national enabler… it’s not just a badging exercise.”

So what does BT actually plan to do?

Among the brand’s commitments are leveraging its partnerships team and working with innovation hub Plexal to develop a “new format” of disability football for those who can’t play with their bodies but could potentially play with their minds.

When it comes to programming, BT Sport will also screen the FA Disability Cup in June, marking the first time the championship has been broadcast live. It has also committed to creating a docuseries around para football, with one already in the works about visually-impaired players.

At a grassroots level, BT will offer 200 clubs across the country a package of BT services and training.

Finally, to boost the women’s game, the brand is hoping to involve 50,000 women directly into the grassroots eco-system via the FA Playmaker online course. It will also offer bursaries and mentoring schemes for those wanting to progress in football coaching. The brand will also provide more opportunities for women and girls to follow their ambitions for a career in sports broadcasting.

From a marketing perspective, BT will communicate these goals under the umbrella of its ‘Beyond Limits’ positioning, which was recently launched by Saatchi & Saatchi with the aim of showcasing how it helps families and communities across the world. To align its business with this proposition, BT is already in the process of recruiting 900 home tech experts and is addressing the digital skills gap in the UK with a free training programme it’s offering to 10 million people, companies and schools.

For Jeavons, however, promoting the FA partnership won’t necessarily mean a big uptick to the marketing budgets the brand has already committed, instead the business will call upon its broadcasting division to bring some of the goals, and their progress, to life.

“Because we’ve got a TV production arm to some of the business, making that stuff is actually incredibly cost-effective. It’s less about pumping cash into things and instead asking ‘how do we use the vast organisation we have?’” he says.

“The digital skills element is such a big part of our CRS arm of the business anyway, so integrating it into these type of things isn’t about incremental marketing investment, it’s about aggregating the message and making it greater than the sum of its parts.

“We’ll have stuff that we’re doing that we will prioritise marketing investment against. But the things that really excites me is mobilising the machine that is BT and making the most of the bits that we have got.”

What will success look like?

Advertisers like Mars first made the foray into supporting the FA England women’s and disability teams in 2018, a sign that big-ticket brand deals were evolving to cover more diverse ground and a reflection of a growing appetite from fans for more inclusive coverage and investment.

The latest play from BT marks a further shift and one that is in line with BT’s ongoing internal transformation.

“Rightly, or wrongly, [women’s and disability teams] have always taken a backseat role to the elite elements. The wonderful performance of the women at the World Cup and that real build of awareness has been fantastic for the game.

“Whether brands have come to it later in the game than they should have, it’s still a positive thing that it’s now front-and-centre of brands’ thinking.

While there are hard KPIs around how many people sign up to BT’s FA initiatives, marketing KPIs include brand perception and what role people perceive BT playing in bringing together the nation.

“It’s less about the monetary benefits and how many people’s lives we can positively affect through those initiatives.”

Jeavons, who also oversees the EE brand, rules out the suggestion that BT’s sister business (which is the lead partner for Wembley stadium) could pop up in some of the FA initiatives.

“Naturally Wembley and some of this FA stuff will have some synergies but there are two very distinct strategies for the brand. This [sponsorship] will perform a specific role for BT, while EE is focused on connectivity.

“They’re separate but complementary at the same time.”

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