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.

More woe for Coe


Big sponsorship news today is that, according to reports, Adidas is withdrawing its sponsorship of the World athletics governing body IAAF, because of the recent doping scandals.  That’s quite interesting.  Adidas, who are the first name on IAAF’s list of global partners, appear to have broken their ties three years before their fixed term contract expires.  What’s more interesting is that this is the same Adidas who still sponsor FIFA to the tune of much larger sums, despite the fact that most of FIFA’s executive committee is either under arrest or under investigation for corruption.  How damning is that?  IAAF is now a more toxic brand than FIFA.  Wow.  That’s damning.

It does give an insight into what it is the sponsor is actually buying with these partnerships.  The difference here is that FIFA may have become a byword for malpractice, but football itself is still a hugely attractive proposition.  Nobody supported their team any less enthusiastically this weekend because of the governing body falling ever further into disrepute.  In contrast the doping scandal in athletics calls the sport itself into question.  If your favourite athlete won a medal at the last Olympics or World Championships, you may now be wondering whether that was actually legitimate – or was it drug-fuelled?  Some athletes are calling for their performances to be upgraded retrospectively because they were beaten in major championships by ‘drug cheats’ – even though the cheating only came to light later.  It’s all up in the air.

Add to that the fact that athletics is nowhere near as attractive as a commercial proposition as football, in any case, and you can see why Adidas has concluded the positives no longer outweigh the negatives to justify a marketing investment.

What a tragedy after the sport was in the ascendancy after the fabulous London Olympics in 2012.   Lord Coe, the new President of the IAAF, will need all his powers of resilience to get back into credit. For the moment, the future looks bleak.