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The sponsorship fallacy

in glhf

This post is not in reaction to anything recent, it hasn’t boiled over on twitter, or on reddit. This is more something that’s been chafing a bit for a while now: the prevailing concept in esports regarding the meaning of, and the audience’s response to, sponsorships of esports projects.

The flow you typically hear about ends in a deliberate showering of love and money onto anybody who finds the scene worthy of any portion of their marketing budget. The logic runs that if a company spends x dollars on a marketing campaign in esports, said company expects more than x dollars in return from that campaign in product sales, after costs, or else the campaign will be deemed a failure, thus advertising in esports a failure, thus no more money for esports; therefore we must ensure that sponsorship in esports continues by immediately buying whatever is advertised to esports audiences. I think this is an errant line of reasoning that ignores some of the other reasons why companies spend money on advertising; these reasons don’t translate directly to, and take precedent over, sales. I don’t think the expectation described above exists, and the fact that some in the scene are explicitly encouraging that we foster such an expectation is playing with fire.

In marketing spending on sports, the primary purpose isn’t direct sales, but brand awareness and mindshare. Sponsorship in sports is all about getting direct face time with a sport’s audience – introducing yourself or just reminding people you’re still here, and earning goodwill with ardent fans.

For the teams, players, and sports, it’s about reaping rewards sown from building an audience. For businesses, it’s about making sure people hear your name more than your competitors; if you don’t spend the money, your rival might.

All this noise made about how gaming streams are changing the game; how we can track clicks, and distribute coupon codes, and deliver detailed stats regarding an advertiser’s immediate return-on-investment; seems great, but also could be a loaded weapon pointed at the feet of your project.

What happens if your massive audience isn’t immediately mobilized to buy shit? Will the campaign be considered a bust?

Could it actually be that the difficulty in getting concrete statistics regarding a traditional sports team sponsorship plays a part in their longevity? I think, in at least a small part, that’s true.

Sponsorship in sports is gearted towards gaining goodwill with a community, demonstrating a commitment to the development of a community or town or city, and fostering awareness and good feelings about your brand over your competitors amongst fans. None of those things have a surface to which you can attach a click tracker. That esports seems to find such notions to be outdated and ineffective isn’t reason to cheer.

The core of a successful, profitable business taking interest in sponsoring the leisure activities of the general public is really to, in a way, pay dividends from the company’s success back towards the public that made that success possible (by buying products), and get the extra brand recognition and goodwill that comes with it. Whether that turns into sales in the long-term is impossible to measure, and so shouldn’t be an expectation.

Take my favorite team:

Oooooooh United!

Volkswagen’s deal with D.C. United and MLS dates back to 2008. The deal made them United’s primary sponsor, and MLS’s ‘official automotive partner.’ Let’s dissect what that means.

Regarding MLS as a whole, it means that VW will be the only auto manufacturer allowed any advertising presence anywhere in MLS. (It’s a task made easier by its single entity structure.) This runs VW an additional million or two on top of what they spend directly with United. You hear about such deals in sports all the time – official this of the bleh, official that of the meh – all it boils down to is ‘dibs.’

Why would a company pay extra for that, on top of the base cost of sponsorship? Why would a league think to sell that? It’s quite simple: you give us more cash, and we’ll not use your advertising presence with our league as a means of courting your competitors to spend some of their marketing budget with us as well. VW’s deal with United makes it a lot easier for other teams to approach makers of vehicles and say ‘look at VW, they’re going to receive all the attention amongst MLS fans towards your industry, why don’t you consider making a similar deal with us? Otherwise we’re going to drown our fans in VW.’

In terms of United in particular, the deal makes VW their primary sponsor, which means their logo is dead center on all the kits worn during matches, as well as on all ‘authentic’ apparel sold to fans. VW also uses an area behind one of the goals as a mini-dealership, wheeling a handful of cars into RFK every match.

Does VW actually sell any automobiles from RFK? Hell no. Unfortunately, test drives on the pitch are generally frowned upon. Do cars have anything to do with the sport being played? Nope. Does VW’s sponsorship directly translate to the sale of more VW automobiles? Probably not. But, if you’re a United fan in the market for a new car, might you give VW’s lineup a bit more weight in your considerations and research? I think that’s a real possibility, and I think that’s the thing VW is paying for.

What I’m arguing against here, again, is the notion that sponsorships in esports should, and already do, come with the expectation that we’ll immediately buy whatever products are coming from companies that are sending money towards esports – and we’ll do it, because esports. It’s an unhealthy, extreme notion that is without precedent in sports, and will end up just creating a lot of poor esports fans with lots of shit they don’t need. Because esports.