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The best cold weather athletes will congregate between February 9-25 in PyeongChang, South Korea, for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games. And one thing is certain: As at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, the athletes and the world will be in for a treat. If any country can top their magnificent Seoul Games, it is the South Koreans.

(Full disclosure: I worked with high-ranking Korean government officials during the Asian Games. During the lead-up to the Seoul Olympics I traveled the world with them as a media advisor and during the games helped manage media, social and political concerns.)

But sports marketing sponsors should now be wary about their multi-million dollar investments in worldwide sports mega events, based on the unsportsman-like happenings at the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in 2014, the ongoing doping charges against Russian athletes, FIFA finally admitting that bribes were accepted in determining World Cup city hosts, the problems at the Rio Summer Olympics and the USA Gymnastics’ continuing sexual abuse revelations.

PR risks of sports sponsorships

Image source: Mike Mozart via Flickr

The press no longer protects miscreant athletes. The stories of recurring problems of prominent athletes accused of unsportsmanlike conduct are no longer limited to tabloids. Mainstream print and TV broadcasts cover bad behavior of athletes in detail – sometimes with glee. More importantly, sponsors of tainted athletes and sporting entities have become part of the story and crisis PR people are unable to prevent it. Add in uncertain TV viewership and increasing costs of marketing rights – and the risks escalate for sports sponsorships and athlete endorsements.

The Changing Sponsorship Game

People who make the decisions to spend millions of dollars on sports sponsorships often refuse to accept that times have changed. Many sports stories are now better suited for the business sections or police blotter reports. But that actuality is largely ignored as public relations and advertising agencies push clients to align with sporting events, despite the fact that more targeted promotions might produce better results.

In my opinion, public relations agencies advocate for sports tie-ins because it doesn’t take much creativity to craft a publicity-oriented program around an event that the media automatically covers. It’s what I label “doing what’s best for the agency, not doing what’s best for the client.”

Before committing to fund agency-recommended sports publicity and marketing programs, clients should consider that negative stories were an inherent part of coverage on the Sochi Olympics before, during and after the game’s conclusion; threats of terrorism and Putin’s anti-gay laws made headlines for weeks in all media outlets. Long-planned brand promotional plans had to be curtailed because of outcries against Russia’s policies.

Media inquiries about sponsors’ reactions to protesters’ anti-Russian actions became an added unwelcome PR aspect of the Sochi games. Corporations that normally try to avoid being involved in controversial political and social issues became part of the story. Instead of trying to gain coverage for brand promotions, PR people had to issue statements about their client’s position regarding the Russian laws. Problems at the Rio Olympics, FIFA and U.S. Gymnastic misdoings made headlines in 2016 and 2017.

Because the IOC largely ignores the political and social situations in countries that are awarded the games, there’s always the possibility of history repeating. In fact, the Nov. 29 edition of the New York Times included a story about FIFA’s World Cup, which will be held in Russia beginning in June, headlined, “Fans Warned about Racism and Homophobia in Russia.”

Sponsor Problems in the U.S.

Sponsors of U.S. sports have learned that negative media coverage is not limited to international sporting events, as it once was. The falling (or uneven) ratings of NFL games are a constant media story, as is Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones’ dispute with other NFL owners over the contract extension for commissioner Roger Goodell. Adding to the negative coverage, Papa John’s CEO blamed its declining pizza sales on the NFL’s inaction against football players’ protests during the national anthem.

Now, the politicalization of sports has reached a feverish pitch. Fueling the crisis is President Trump’s ongoing attacks on NFL players’ protests during the national anthem. This will become an even bigger story and PR problem for sponsors and the NFL as the Super Bowl game draws closer. While surveys show that most Americans agree with the president, more than 40 percent disagree. Coverage of these stories has once again exposed what the NFL and other sports entities have always attempted to conceal: That sporting events camouflage the big business aspect of sports and that politics always affected sports.

Adding to the national anthem controversy is the fact that NFL teams are largely composed of African-Americans and that the president has singled out some African-American athletes and broadcasters by name, as the New York Times reported in a front page story on Thanksgiving Day.

For many years, sports marketers just shrugged their shoulders at the negative publicity that the events they were sponsoring received because they were never part of the story.

For decades, sponsorship stories were relegated to ad trade books and advertising and marketing columnists of major print pubs, which reported on the cost of “buys” and their advertising and public relations programs. In those days, many marketing execs, who controlled the PR budgets, told me that my priority should be getting coverage in the advertising trades and the ad and marketing columns of major dailies. Negative aspects of the sports scene were omitted from media coverage, even on the sports pages. Now, sports have lost their protective journalistic covering and are treated like any other big business with a plethora of “gotcha” stories. Sponsors have become a frequent part of that negative coverage.

Vet Athlete’s Past and Opinions

During my nearly 35 years on sports marketing accounts including almost  25 years at Burson-Marsteller, I always counseled clients to make certain that any athlete or celebrity they are considering as a spokesperson has an untarnished past and is well-liked by the media, because the media is the vehicle for gaining client publicity. Now clients and agency personnel also have to be aware that an athlete may comment on Twitter or to the media about social or controversial issues, upsetting clients and consumers.

Athletes, in the past were easier to “control” because they needed the extra money to supplement team salaries. Because of increased salaries and the strength of their unions, athletes no longer are fearful of commentating about issues they believe in, making it more difficult for their sponsors.

Because controversy is now a frequent element of the sports scene, sponsors should realize that it’s time for new sports sponsorship thinking.

New Playbook for Sponsors

Here’s what sponsors should consider:

  • When divvying up budgets, marketers should consider that the media no longer covers up the transgressions of once untouchable mega-stars and that major sport organizations are under constant media scrutiny.
  • Companies should always demand that their agencies suggest other more targeted advertising and publicity possibilities to complement their sports sponsorships.
  • Companies also should consider reducing sports sponsorships budgets and use some of the money on “good citizen” PR programs that will receive positive publicity in both social media and traditional news outlets. That can produce a “good corporate citizen” image that may help offset a portion of any problems resulting from tie-ins with athletes or sports entities that generate negative coverage.
  • Sports sponsors should recognize that effective social media attacks can derail sponsors’ long-planned multi-million dollar promotions. Even brilliant promotions are not a defense against activists groups.
  • Sponsors must recognize that politics will forever be part of the sports scene and sponsors can become part of the story at a moment’s notice. They should be prepared for such an eventuality.
  • Sports marketers should prepare a crisis PR plan. They should ask agencies to investigate possible problems that may occur at a sports venue or because of an athlete spokesperson’s comments or behavior and include in all programs suggested client responses if necessary. The program should also contain a fast-response plan.
  • Sponsors should make certain that sports fanatics are not part of a PR account team. The team should consist of publicity-oriented personnel with marketing and corporate experience, who have knowledge of sports but view sports promotions as a selling tool and corporate good-will vehicle.
  • Sponsors should realize that despite the cost of rights fees and sport organizations’ efforts, there is no way of preventing successful ambush marketing programs, which are covered despite their not being “official” sponsors.
  • Most important: Sponsors should keep an open mind to alternative promotional opportunities.

Together with the traditional media’s increasingly negative reporting about sports and athletes, there is more than enough evidence to throw out the old sports marketing playbooks and demand new sports marketing thinking from PR and marketing firms.

Arthur Solomon, a former journalist and media adviser to high-ranking government officials, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at