The Official Blog Post of Beer and Football: Why Sports Sponsorships Work

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Sponsor signage inside the concourse of Lucas Oil Stadium prior to Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 4, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The sixth MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, taking place this weekend in Boston, is for a few thousand people on this planet the Woodstock of sports geekery. Think: Fantasy Football + Comic-Con + Math Olympics!

I say this affectionately, and not only because I’m moderating a panel on motor sports. (In a prior life I worked for ESPN.) The conference, which gets bigger and better every year, is a testament to the growing influence of “Big Data” in most every aspect of modern life. From both a fan and team perspective, sports has been transformed over the past two decades from intuition-driven passions and enterprises to ones where statistics are thought to hold most of the answers, so long as we ask the right questions.

In fact, analyzing performance-related stats has become a big business, inspiring interest not only from those in stands and front offices but also academia. This year, more than 100 research papers were submitted to the conference. My favorite study looks not at action on the field but rather off it: sponsorships. The study’s two authors—marketing professor Kirk Wakefield and marketing consultant Anne Rivers—wanted to assess the effectiveness of being an official league sponsor, in terms of brand enhancement among fans of that sport. The sport they examined, the National Football League, has the broadest fan base in the U.S., and one the most passionate. And the industries they looked at—banking, credit cards, beer, restaurants and long distance carriers—are easily among the biggest spenders in the sponsorship game. Most notably, perhaps, the period they examined, from 2008 through 2010, is especially relevant, since, as the authors noted,

“Corporate sponsors in the banking and credit card industries were particularly challenged as to the value of sponsorship investments when also receiving government bail- out money. Overall, a negative media and consumer attitude prevailed against corporate sponsors. Consequently, this study provides an opportunity to evaluate the value of these official sponsorships in overcoming such attitudes.”

Their conclusion, in a nutshell: It’s worth it.

That is, their study, which relied on a “panel” of 16,000 consumers representative of a national audience, showed fairly conclusively that fans who are emotionally invested in a sport will pay more attention to, recall more about, and have a more positive association with the brand and products of an official sponsor than non-fans will. Likewise, those effects are evident when comparing the official sponsor to other advertisers in the same category.

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To be sure, determining the value of this official-sponsor advantage is no easy thing to calculate. But when it comes to mega-brands hoping to effectively influence giant audiences, official sponsorships—the phrase and their presumed inferences—clearly have measurable value.

Which makes sense, although not necessarily in the ways you might think. As the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman discusses in his bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow, the human brain uses many non-conscious shortcuts to help us navigate the thousands of decisions we make every day. One such shortcut, which Kahneman terms “substitution,” is as good an explanation as any for the extra positive effects that come with official brand sponsorship. When we’re faced with choices or questions whose answers are not easily brought to mind, our non-conscious brain substitutes easier-to-answer questions in their place. And while this process can lead to many problems, it’s often quite useful and effective.

Whether we know it or not, our response to official sponsorships likely involves substitution. After all, when deciding what products to try or buy—very complicated questions of taste, practicality and value—we very often consciously substitute other questions. Such as: “What do my friends prefer?” Or: “What will make me look cooler? Or: “Which package do I like best?”

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And one of the most powerful advertising-related substitution tricks involves what you might call virtue by association. When evaluating the character of a stranger, for example, we’ll often decide whether to trust her based on who she hangs out with, lives by, or works alongside. It’s a shortcut that’s typically reliable. Indeed, a large chunk of advertising theory — the very idea that it’s good for a brand to be connected with a particular endorser, program or sport — is based on this twisting of the association principle.

It follows, then, that a deeper association between a brand and a beloved sport—say, through a designation as resonant and memorable as “official sponsor”—would work nicely in a substitution situation. And, contrary to what you might guess, it matters little if we know such a designation is paid for. (In much the same way that the “placebo effect” may work even when we know we’re taking a placebo.) Our non-conscious selves don’t care much about inconvenient truths. We’re looking for easy answers to the simplest questions possible, and more often than not the question “Who’s the official cell phone company of the NFL?” is easier to answer than “Which cell phone plan is best for me?”