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THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON SPORTS SPONSORSHIP

In our latest alumni guest article, class of 2007 alumni Claudio Ballor shares how COVID-19 is impacting the sports sponsorship world, discusses the rise of eSports during this time of crisis, and encourages us all to remember ‘it won’t be dark forever’. 

COVID-19 and Sports Sponsorship
Image via Claudio Ballor

When I agreed to write an Alumni Guest Article for AISTS, I thought I would be writing about dealing with sponsorship for a sports marketing start-up and the differences from a multinational agency. But then the world went upside down, and somebody rebooted the planet we used the know. One of the first to realise this was the people I work and live with – Italians.

I have had the unfortunate opportunity to see first-hand the impact of COVID-19 on our personal and working lives. There is a surreal silence in the streets here, broken only by the sounds of ambulances and the giant efforts hospital personnel are making to try and save as many patients as possible from this invisible enemy.

While those lifesaving efforts go on, the sports industry is facing its own challenges.

CONCERN IS NORMAL, BUT WE ARE NOT ALONE

Our industry – an industry based on events, happenings, matches, vis-à-vis meetings – has faced one cancellation and open-ended postponement after the next. It has been a true domino effect and the world has watched us at every step.

Many assumed we were exaggerating, others believed we reacted too softly at the beginning. Here in Italy, an entire sector of the national economy has been impacted – a sector for which the country has true passion.

We have been left crunching numbers with no feasible solution in sight: from the top football leagues to the amateurs and school kids playing for fun, a pen stroke appears to have deleted it all. It has left all us puzzled about the next steps and what will be left after this.

But we are not alone. We share the same destiny with almost all other industries stopped by government decrees. Every three days there are new stricter limitations. We are at curfew already, but it seems to never be enough.

In my world of sports sponsorship, we share the same limitations as our counterparts; those on the other side of the fence, the companies that used to talk and negotiate and buy our sport rights.

After the first few days of disbelief, they themselves were left scratching their heads looking at an uncertain horizon.

EMBRACING A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

COVID-19 and Sports Sponsorship
Image via Claudio Ballor

But – in some ironic way – COVID-19 has levelled everybody: big budgets equal small ones, and those still willing to invest in sports partnerships seem to have only one weapon available: eSports.

The situation has revealed to enterprises that something called Electronic Competitive Gaming exists, it’s available, and it’s actually working to entertain the younger generations who will be their clients of tomorrow.

This might not be much of a consolation for the hundreds of millions of euros lost in major events – it’s more of the ‘David vs Goliath’ narrative of the coronavirus sports era. But it is an interesting development to watch, with organisations such as Nascar announcing new e-gaming TV events within one week of the COVID-19 Pandemic. In fact, it became the most-watched esports TV show, ever.

There are other changes happening too. New rules for our industry are being reconsidered as I write; from the ban on betting advertisements to the negotiation of salaries for the top football players in order to let the system survive, to the next Serie A football multimedia rights bid.

It’s been a month-long earthquake and the sports world will inevitably be changed, both here in Italy, and everywhere else.

But it will not be dark forever. We will leave our homes one day, here in Europe but also everywhere that COVID-19 has made a reputation for itself. And sports will be a major part of the world’s recovery.

COVID 19 AND SPORTS SPONSORSHIP – WITH CHANGE COMES OPPORTUNITY

In Italy – one of the least digitalised countries of the western world – we will see an improvement in the use of digital tools, marketing will become more aware of customers’ needs because we will have realised that they should be listened to, and when we get through this, we will be better professionals and, hopefully, better human beings.

Any dramatic change of the status quo, a crisis of such an impact, will leave the door open to uncountable difficulties but also opportunities; new products will gain space in consumers’ minds, and sports marketing and sponsorship will be asked to take good note of it.

Even more pronounced will be the growing reliance on software, which will be pushed at a time when we will rediscover simple gestures like hugging and shaking hands.

Competence will count for more, in a nation where it’s not always been considered the most important asset of job seeking.

Social media will reinforce roles in our society and become even more of a promotional tool for sports teams and stars.

Today, it’s a race of who helps the most, who contributes to society, who can shine in front of the fans who are forced to stay at home. It is a welcome and unified CSR effort. Tomorrow we will see these same actors commercialising goods to an even more loyal fanbase, fortified through these hard times. At the same time, teams will have more than today competitors within their own ranks – as athletes will keep using their own social profiles to promote products and services.

There are questions too of course. And perhaps the biggest question is how quickly after this people will be willing to travel again. Travel will need to re-establish itself as a trustable practice before this happens.

How long will it take to gain people back for the cycling classics, the CR7 performances and every other event small and large in-between?

While we may not have an answer yet, as sports taught us all: it doesn’t count how many times one will hit the floor but how fast and steady will stand up again.

About Claudio Ballor

Claudio Ballor

Claudio graduated in 2007 and spent nine years in marketing and media at Infront Media. He now works for start-up sports agency Vamos Group as a Sports Marketing Consultant. Before taking on an international career in sports management in 2007, he spent over 10 years in the communication area. Claudio is also active in sports research.

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