Sports Industry Spotlight: Key Partnership Lessons

Below is an abridged version of the full summary that Sports Industry Spotlight attendees receive as part of their package. To learn more about the session and to register for future panels, click here.


The latest edition of Sport Industry Spotlight delved into the world of partnerships between brands and teams or individual athletes, discussing talent management, identifying sponsors and creative activations.

Each Sport Industry Spotlight session is based on a category from the Sport Industry Awards 2020, this time focusing on the individual or team partnership award.

The panel consisted of Michael Yormark, President, Roc Nation Sports International; Matt Gentry, managing director, 77 Sports Management; Mark Osikoya, Associate Vice President, Global Partnerships, NBA (EME); and Jenny Smith, Head of Events, Sponsorship and Communications, Volvo UK.

As with all Sport Industry Spotlight sessions, the topic was driven by attendees, through a series of interactive polls and questions from the floor, and moderated by Alex Coulson, Managing Director, Sport Industry Group.

Authentic and shared story

Partnerships between brands and athletes can be a powerful tool for both parties to get across the message they want to send to fans and consumers, but the panel agreed that the best partnerships happen when the two share a story. as well as the same objectives.

Understanding this link between the athlete and the team or brand is crucial to the success of the partnership, not only because of its authenticity, but also because it makes sense to the target audience.

Smith from Volvo explained how important it is to be clear about your own goals for any partnership: “If you can’t immediately connect yourself as to why your brand would work with this person or this team, then you have to think ‘how the hell do people who don’t have this relationship with my brand, how are we going to tell this story?’

“It’s very subjective, so you really have to be clear about your goals and why you’re working with this rights holder or individual. What you absolutely need to be clear about is the story you want this person or brand to tell, and if you can’t, you’re making it harder for yourself. And you also expect others to understand what you’re trying to say, and if you’re not clear on that, how can you expect others to be? »

Smith also spoke of the importance of the help of a good outside agency when it comes to activating these partnerships, while acknowledging that the best relationships have an “expiration date” and that it is crucial to keep things fresh.

Roc Nation’s Yormark spoke about South African rugby captain Siya Kolisi, an athlete Roc Nation represents, to illustrate the need for authenticity as well as a defined narrative: “Whether it’s Siya Kolisi and Dove, it’s a relationship that speak to the personality of these individuals, and that is what makes them successful.

“We don’t impose any potential opportunities on any of our celebrities. It has to work for them, it has to work for their goals. Matt [Gentry] brought up the word “passion” – and he’s right – he has to feed the passions of fame. As we all know, it’s not easy to get celebrities to close those deals in the first place and then complete all the deliverables. The best way to make sure the relationship is strong and productive is to make sure it’s genuine and that the customer really wants to embrace the brand and work with the brand.

This authentic relationship is further amplified when talking about individual partnerships by the fact that athletes are human beings with passions and interests outside of sport.

Gentry spoke about his work with Andy Murray, whose interests outside of tennis are well known, but how, in the case of his interest in wildlife conservation and sustainability issues, there were perfect partnerships to be had “It’s more about personality and their passions as humans,” he said.

“Then it’s about the business reality of the sport they’re in and how they can work together. There’s a good example of a deal we made with Andy [Murray] and Jaguar around shared passions. He is a WWF ambassador and was the first person to have a Jaguar iPace delivered. He would never drive anything but an electric car again. We didn’t have to give him briefing notes or chat with him beforehand because he could just go out there and talk pretty convincingly about why he was doing it and what it meant to him. The simplicity of it shows that it’s a good deal and a good connection to the brand and a partnership with a shared DNA.

The power of the athlete

From a brand perspective, an athlete’s values ​​can make them appealing, especially if it ties in with a story they want to tell.

The authenticity of the talent itself can be a key driver for brands, not only to tell the stories they want to tell or to create powerful metaphors. In the case of the NBA, it is the athletes rather than the sport that play into the broader cultural phenomena of basketball in certain markets.

“Our role is not to find talent,” Osikoya said. “But where can we make the most of these opportunities. If you look across Europe, the current MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is Greek and all of a sudden there is an opportunity there for us to focus on Greece as a potential market from a new business perspective.

“We were lucky that it was the Bucks [Antetokounmpo’s team] who also played the Paris match this year. For us, it’s about being a bit more opportunistic and looking at where the key markets are for us, where the talent is and focusing on that. There’s a lot of research we’ve done and it shows that outside of the United States, and certainly in Europe, a lot of the interest in the NBA is driven by the players and the nationality of those players. If you look at Tony Parker and France, for example, many French fans might follow Parker’s career, and if he changes teams, they will change allegiance depending on where he plays.

There was also recognition that the power of the athletes themselves is growing, and an understanding that it is their talent and stardom that helps brands achieve their goals.

Osikoya spoke about his time at Coca-Cola working with Wayne Rooney, while the panel also discussed other high-profile partnership deals including Colin Kaepernick and Nike, among others.

Yormark added, “One of the things our president always talks about is that if an artist or an athlete is going to work with a brand and help promote the brand and move their business forward, they should own it. – it should have equity. .

“It’s something we try to build into every deal we do. I think especially now when we’ve all been through this pandemic, athletes and entertainers understand that careers can come to a halt very, very quickly so how do you leverage your success today to plan for the future ?

“Instead of getting a check, having equity and ownership, or having a long-term view in terms of the structure of this partnership, I think athletes and artists are going to be more focused than ever before. because of the times we are going through and the fact that there are no guarantees.

Sports Industry Spotlight is driven by genuine insider insight, and with interactivity built in throughout, the sessions make learning the best work in the industry both easy and accessible.

Join us next week for Sports Industry Spotlight: Global Campaign to talk about new audiences, adapting campaigns and what it means to take your work to multiple territories.