Art & Commerce: Sports Run Amok

Dogfighting. Point shaving. Steroids. Doping. What the hell has happened to professional sports? And as marketers and advertisers, what can we do about it?

In the past two weeks, professional sports have been rocked by a perfect storm of credibility—shattering allegations, illegal activity and abhorrent behavior. The three most successful and high-profile leagues in North America—MLB, the NBA and the NFL—are facing issues that could severely damage their multibillion-dollar businesses. The Tour de France, recently the playground of American sports hero Lance Armstrong, is now an international joke. And amid growing concerns, even the last bastion of “clean” sports, the PGA Tour, is likely adding a drug policy in the immediate future.

Is anything pure anymore? Are we relegated to fly-fishing and shuffleboard for sports marketing options?

Sports governing bodies will try to isolate blame on a single individual (the QB, the ref, the slugger) and reassure fans and corporate America that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with their product. Except that there is. Even David Stern, the ever-upbeat commissioner of the NBA, is mired in what he describes as “the worst crisis” he’s faced in 40 years.

For the past two decades, corporate America has poured billions of dollars into sports media, sponsorships and endorsements. And generally speaking, it’s been a good ride for the leagues, advertisers and fans, providing entertainment, revenue and brand exposure.

The previously slow drumbeat of athlete arrests, drug scandals and excessive lifestyles has hit an unimaginable new low. Certainly, for every Michael Vick, there’s a Peyton Manning. For every Barry Bonds, there’s a David Ortiz. But in general, the world of professional sports has become a treacherous arena for advertisers and marketers.

How will fans react? Are they willing to assign blame to a few bad guys and still feel good about their teams and advertisers? Or do they become jaded and begin to lose faith and passion for professional sports? Technology has reached a point where arrests, rumors and graphic details of athletes’ transgressions spread with lightning speed and intensity. Corporate sponsors are identified and targeted for boycotts and protests with ease. It’s viral sports marketing at its most dangerous.

So what options are there for brands looking to be defined through professional sports? The most extreme and risky is to simply get out altogether. For some (Budweiser, Pepsi, GM, Visa, etc.), that’s a daunting challenge. But for brands that have smaller investments with teams and athletes, it’s time to take a hard look at what sports properties they’re associated with.

The best place to start is developing an exit strategy for sponsorships and endorsements in case a scandal calls your association into question. Surprisingly, few corporate sports investments have worst-case scenario strategies in place, even though it’s relatively easy to develop them before disaster strikes. What to do:

Have an escape hatch. Most major sports investments can (and certainly should) have out clauses, based on morals, behavior and numerous other performance criteria. At a minimum, even sponsorships that can’t be severed can be deactivated by pulling PR, advertising and media, essentially disappearing from the public eye.

Leverage sports media. Using professional sports primarily as a media vehicle is less risky than using athletes and sponsorships to define or promote a brand. As an example, running a 30-second ad during an Atlanta Falcons or NBA game is certainly less troubling than being an official sponsor of the Falcons or NBA. Does that mean that Sprint should pull its clever Peyton Manning ad campaign? Probably not. But should it have a plan in place in case he’s stopped for DUI or some sort of off-field criminal activity? Absolutely.

Consider alternatives. It’s likely that pure entertainment properties will provide safer alternatives to professional sports. There’s no guarantee that Kelly Clarkson or Paul McCartney won’t somehow damage your brand. But there’s certainly a lot less risk there. Does a movie promotion provide the same exposure as an NBA team sponsorship? Done well, it certainly does. Just ask 7-Eleven if it would rather be associated with The Simpsons Movie or the NBA.

Sports marketing used to be fun; the cachet of associating with sports outweighed any possible concerns. As marketers, we can no longer look to professional sports as an easy, passion-filled way to reach consumers. There are mounting risks and challenges. But there is still significant opportunity and exposure to gain through professional sports. It’s clearly a new world for sports marketing. Moving forward, when working or advertising in professional sports, it’s prudent to prepare for the worst and then hope for the best.

Jon Hickey is svp, sports and entertainment marketing at IPG’s Mullen.