Game on: how SMEs are using sport to their advantage

Sports sponsorships are often considered the domain of big business. It’s certainly true that some are expensive – and these are the ones we see in the headlines. International Olympic Committee tie-ups and FIFA World Cup deals start at US$100m, Manchester United’s most recent shirt sponsorship deal with Adidas is worth $1.28bn and Nissan has paid $250m to be the official automobile brand at the 2016 Rio Olympics. These brands are paying for a global property that will reach huge audiences worldwide.

While resources are limited for many smaller enterprises, there may well be untapped opportunities to get involved in local sport sponsorship as a cost-effective marketing and public relations vehicle – without having to break the bank. This can be a win-win, with significant benefits for businesses – while local and amateur athletes and clubs find relief from persistent funding shortages.

However, whether you’ve got millions or ‘just’ a few thousand pounds, sponsorship will only be effective if done strategically. To provide you with some inspiration, we interviewed three UK companies about their experiences with sports and the positive impact it’s had on their business.

 More than just charity – get something out of giving back

For the businesses we spoke to, getting involved with sport stemmed from a genuine commitment to supporting the local community. Paul Macbeth, MD of Macbeth Insurance & Financial Services, explained: “We have a strong heritage as a Reading-based business and we’re looking to build a legacy – investing in the local sports stars of tomorrow sits with this business goal.”

Opus Energy’s Marketing Manager Lynn Morrison echoed this sentiment: “When we became serious about wanting to do more sports sponsorship, our primary driver was to be charitable – seeking an opportunity to really make a difference to an athlete’s ability to succeed. Finding an Olympic hopeful from the local area turned out to be the best solution, and we started sponsoring Daniel Keatings, (gold medal winner in the 2014 Commonwealth Games) back in 2009.”

Sports marketing can also be a creative solution to a business problem, as Graham Thompson found when his clothing company, Xamax, was suffering from a dip in orders during the recession. “It started as a business survival strategy – we had to reinvent ourselves and so we targeted local sports teams – providing them with Xamax-branded kit at half price in return for recognition as a club sponsor.”

 Stay locally focused for targeted growth

Xamax has found sports sponsorship to be the most cost-effective way to promote itself and drive new business. Providing their products and investing time to build local relationships in the community has seen their brand awareness grow organically as a result of extensive branding of clubs and events, as well as significant press coverage. “We’ve stayed out of the professional game,” he explained. “It’s been more effective to stay with local amateur clubs to engage with members and families – you can’t go to an amateur rugby league tournament in the North of England without seeing Xamax everywhere.” And the impact on the business has been phenomenal – pushing kit orders from £0 to £750k in three years. In fact, it’s been so successful that Xamax has had to introduce new production techniques to cope with demand (which also won them an Innovation in Business award).

As well as gaining traction with customers, Opus Energy found their activities helped them to recruit high quality candidates in a highly competitive environment “There are several call centres in Northampton (Barclay Card, Nationwide) and the competition for employees is fierce. We think that it is important that people know our name and see us a strong member of the community and we’ve used the athletes and our sponsored charities to do this.”

Work strategically and find the right fit

If you’re working with limited budgets it’s key to manage your involvement strategically as a genuine investment in your brand and business in order to get the most out of it.

“Making sponsorship work isn’t just about getting your logo out there,” said Paul Macbeth. “First you need to stay focused and ensure that any sponsorship truly supports your values. Then it’s about investing in your relationship with your partners. We spend time with our athletes and support them in other ways, like mentoring. We also sit down and draft an agreement of commitments from both parties – that way when it comes to the end of a yearly arrangement you can measure ROI against your objectives.”

Graham Thompson added that it’s important that you “don’t consider sponsorship as a charitable gesture – use it as an opportunity to grow the business. Ensure you have a clear objective and strategy, and follow it through – don’t just treat it as a donation and forget about it.”

 Final thoughts on making the most of it

Graham Thompson: “Don’t underestimate the personal benefits – it’s a chance to make new contacts and friends in the community, an opportunity for employees to interact with people, and for the company as a whole to feel better about itself. It would also be beneficial for businesses to work together – you can get greater reach and ‘bang for your buck’ if you pool resources.”

Paul Macbeth: “Play to any sporting strengths of your employees. For example if you’re all football players, there’s no point in supporting the local rugby club because when it comes to networking or attending any events you’ll be clueless. It’s critical to make yourself available too – many sporting events take place over a weekend or in the evenings so it’s important to have the resources and time to send someone along to these.”