Amazon’s rugby sponsorship reveals a sport in trouble

Sports sponsorship is a hoot.

Once upon a time, corporations would simply lob money towards the Chairman’s sport of choice, and the reward would come in the form of tickets, hospitality and opportunities for mingling with your idols. Oh yes, and there was probably some kind of sales benefit in there too, but it’s terribly difficult to measure exactly, so we won’t worry unduly about that.

Not so much nowadays. The commercial imperative for sponsorship is, at least in part, based in science. Marketing teams can seek out sports or teams whose audience matches their desired profile and identify a partnership that makes sense, both in terms of targeting and in terms of brand values. The targeting bit is obvious – match the people who might buy the brand with the people who love the sport or the team – but the values equation is more subjective – find the team or the sport that reflects the values your brand, or your people, aspire to.

Red Bull is the most obvious (and probably the best) example of this. The high energy drink has been associated with adrenaline-fuelled events since its very early days. The fit is perfect. Betting brands have a clear overlap with football teams – say what you like about the ethics of that.

F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi

When there’s a good match between a brand and the sport it sponsors, it really does cheer me up. Guinness‘ long-running sponsorship of rugby union is another beauty, which has also spawned a wealth of great advertising.

But rugby union has been strangely missing from the wish-lists of major corporations in recent years. The rugby authorities have been famously conservative over the years, and I’m sure they could have liberated a whole lot more money if they were less discriminating. This does them credit – they need some of that because they have been lurching from one PR crisis to the next over recent years.

It seems to me, rugby is a hugely attractive sports partner. Not only is the audience attractive (it’s Britain’s 6th biggest sport with a passionate, affluent and highly educated following); it’s also a sport with a tradition of dignity, fairness and high moral values. That’s important because it means that (with a very small number of high profile exceptions) your brand ambassadors won’t turn up in the headlines, having dome something unmentionable, which would now be reported ad nauseam, under your brand’s logo.

As a fan or a brand user, it affects you both ways. Just as you want your brands to find the right sports and teams to be friends with, you also want the sports and clubs you care about to have good, decent, reputable sponsors.

So, as I watched the autumn international rugby series recently I experienced a sinking feeling. The series (or at least the broadcasting) was being supported by Amazon Prime.

Amazon is one of the modern world’s necessary evils. Whatever we feel about its failure to pay tax, its abusive workplace practises and its monopolistic status, it is bloody useful.

But in terms of corporate reputation, there’s hardly any company on earth I admire less. And I’m not alone in that perspective.

So I really don’t want to see Amazon climbing on the back of my favourite sport. Rather than improving the reputation of the brand, this association actually diminishes the reputation of the sport. It’s that bad.

I’m worried that, with its rigorous (and excellent) sales and marketing evaluation, Amazon will see the value of its rugby partnership and follow up this toe in the water with further, more substantial, rugby sponsorships.

For my part, I just say “please, God, no”.

It’s intersting to see what happens when fans take this further. In the German Fußball-Bundesliga, fans of some clubs were so disapproving of the backers of their team, they effectively boycotted the team.

It led to RB Leipzig, the team supported and, pretty much created, by Red Bull, to become what many have called “the most hated team in the league

Which is ironic, because, as I mentioned earlier, I see Red Bull as a shining star in the world of sports sponsorship.

But sport can be tribal like that. It’s irrational and its complicated.

I am pleased to announce this announcement, which will be announced next Monday

When did it become the norm for Governments to trail their announcements a week in advance?

On the surface, it’s a pretty odd way to go about things. You formulate a policy, debate it, refine it and agree it internally, then you leak it to your friendly lobby journalists, who will write it up and broadcast it in all the fine detail, a week ahead of your ‘official’ announcement.

I saw a perfect example this morning. The Politico website (along with every other major national news outlet) writes on Tuesday that the Prime Minister will announce the next set of coronavirus post-lockdown measures the next Monday. Politico goes on to describe the measures in step by step detail. The story is attributed to ‘a No. 10 official’. They have a paragraph on what the PM will say, when he will say it (in the House of Commons at 3.30 on Monday) what will and won’t be included and how he will fend off questions. Then there is analysis with comment from other sources, on all sides of government and opposition. It is rigorous, considered and has clearly been laid out in detail, in a series of meetings and documented releases.

I’m sure there was a time when announcements were just announced, but that was long ago. These days it is part of a universal protocol, which has grown up over time.

I asked some former Government communications experts about this. I assumed that it was a tried and trusted ‘best practice’ adopted as official policy. It would feature in any standard training for young government comms people. I was somewhat surprised to learn that, on the contrary, this leaking of policy ‘in advance’ is highly illegal and is still ‘officially’ frowned upon…. despite being universal employed by every UK government department, including the Prime Minister’s office in 10 Downing Street.

Isn’t that just a classically British way of working? There’s an official rule book and there’s a working protocol and the two have no point of contact. It has all the twisted opaqueness we have come to expect from the workings of the British constitution.

So why does it happen?

Some observers describe it as ‘drawing the sting’ from the announcement. Since all the discussion has happened in advance, when the matter is officially launched, there is unlikely to be any great surprise or outrage. And any serious reservations can be headed off in advance, negotiated away or rehearsed. In extreme cases, the announcement could even incorporate new elements to see off objections raised.

So in many ways it’s a way of avoiding any nasty surprises.

It is also part of the daily currency of the lobby. Career politicians have this symbiotic relationship with lobbyists and journalists where each pre-warns the other of forthcoming events so they can get ahead. The back scratching is selective so journalists need to play nicely in order to keep getting briefed while politicians benefit from their patronage and the story may lean in their favour when it’s written up.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Like much of the British system, its opaqueness is troubling, but it works to the advantage of the government of the day – usually.

Some will object that it cuts parliament out of the process. If the House of Commons hears an announcement on Monday which has been shared with the whole country the previous week, it tells us something about their influence.

Occasionally it gets out of hand. The recent blood bath in the PM’s office (leading to multiple resignations / firings and bitterness all round) came to a head with government aides briefing and counter briefing to undermine each other, in a way that makes a seven year olds’ playground spat look dignified. The same principles of press patronage and lobby briefings were at play, but nobody was playing nicely.

News management can often look a bit Machiavellian. I recently had a drink in one of those Westminster pubs where the dodgy deals are reputed to be done. It’s all dark cubby holes and quiet corners where hushed conversations can take without being overheard. It reeks of the covert worlds of Hogwarts or His Dark Materials. Which makes it, all at once, seedy as hell but strangely intoxicating.

Like so much in the, increasingly opaque, British system of government.