Brands that sponsor grass-roots sports projects face one of two very different outcomes. They may end up being seen as a force for good, leading the fight against society's ills and offering a means for people to pursue their dreams. Alternatively, they may be accused of tokenism, a betrayal of consumer trust and the use of sport as a Trojan horse to gain entry to schools, playgrounds and local communities.
Long seen as the poor relation of sports marketing, grass-roots sponsorship nevertheless provides a lifeline for sports governing bodies, many of which rely on third-party funding for their existence.
Such sponsorship is worth about £10m a year in the UK, according to Sportsmatch, a government scheme that works with Sport England.
The initiative works by matching commercial business sponsorship for grass-roots sporting activity on a pound-for-pound basis. It receives about £3.5m of government funding a year and claims that £85m has been invested in grass-roots sport since 1992.
Few would dispute that this money is badly needed.
According to the Office for National Statistics, only 32% of the population take part in some kind of physical exercise. By contrast, in Finland the figure is about 70%.
One barrier to persuading the business community to get involved is that many marketers see grass-roots sport as lacking the sex appeal and media value inherent in the sponsorship of a major event.
But recent announcements have raised the profile of grass-roots sponsorship.
Earlier this year, Barclays launched what it claims is the single biggest injection of cash into grass-roots sport by a company in the UK. To coincide with its sponsorship of the Premier League, the bank announced a £30m community initiative, Barclays Spaces for Sports, to create sustainable facilities nationwide. This takes Barclays' spending on football and related sponsorship to £87m, spread over the three years of its Premier League deal. The bank claims that as part of its activity, more than 100 sustainable sports sites will be created across the UK each year of the three-year programme. The facilities will vary according to the needs of each community, ranging from basketball courts to BMX tracks.
The scheme brings together a number of the bank's corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives under a single brand, including Barclaycard Free Kicks, a £4m three-year grass-roots football programme, and Barclays SiteSavers, an urban regeneration scheme, which has been running for nine years. 'This is a community investment,' says Nic Gault, sponsorship director of Barclays.
'It has to fit with all our obligations and strategic plan for our business. It is not just a marketing scheme, as it is funded by our commitment to spend 1% of our profits on good causes.'
He adds: 'We are a business with 1700 branches nationwide and our success is based as much on our strength in local communities and their perception of us as it is anything else. But we're also the sponsor of the biggest sports property in the country and it's important the two are seen as one overall investment. We've made sport part of our marketing strategy, so this needs to work not just from a commercial point of view, but in terms of community activity as well.'
This long-term view of sponsorship is shared by David Czerwinski, head of sponsorship, community and event management at Norwich Union. The insurance and financial services company has been the major commercial supporter of British athletics since 1999, with £2m, or 20% of the total deal, going toward development of the sport. Czerwinski views the expenditure as a brand-positioning tool. 'Financial services are often seen as faceless and uninspiring,' he says. 'It's important for the brand to be seen as active in the community as part of our CSR. This is where our staff and policyholders live and work.'
More controversially, grass-roots sport has been used as a safe haven from the media storm over issues such as obesity, binge-drinking and anti-social behaviour. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and McDonald's have each sought to highlight considerable expenditure on their part to get the country moving.
Coke's relationship with football is a case study in vertical integration, from its support of youth soccer leagues to its backing of the Coca-Cola Championship and elite events such as Euro 2004 and the World Cup. 'We've been in grass-roots sport for 50 years,' says Steve Cumming, head of sponsorship at Coke GB. 'Obesity is a complex issue, not just about diet. Our strategy is based on the need to encourage young people to be active'.
McDonald's and Pepsi are both active in the FA's partner programme as community pillar and youth football development pillar, respectively. It is high-profile relationship that includes a grass-roots initiative. The link between fast food and football is one that has come under intense scrutiny from government ministers and food group lobbyists.
'To McDonald's' credit it is trying to do something about the issue,' says Rita Clifton, chairman of brand consultancy Interbrand. 'It's easy for people to be smart and lofty when asked a research question about children and obesity.'
Yet Clifton believes consumers are adept at spotting when brands are hiding something. 'Sometimes brands use community projects as a fig-leaf to mask issues they would rather keep quiet,' she says. 'I dislike the whole CSR thing because it places good citizenship in a ghetto. It is saying that when push comes to shove, we are not good citizens at a core level of our business, in our products. Why shouldn't organisations be good citizens all the time?'
So, how do brands avoid accusations of tokenism? The answer lies in self-analysis. Tim Reading, creative director of Activate UK, an agency specialising in the development of grass-roots programmes, says a brand should ask itself how serious it is about being involved for the long term and whether its decision to participate is based on getting some great PR for doing the right thing, or about leaving a lasting legacy.
'Sponsors need to avoid just imposing a nice idea on communities,' he says. 'There is an appreciation that there needs to be a marrying of the company's business and marketing objectives to an understanding of what people on the ground actually want and need.'
This highlights a central dilemma. For grass-roots sponsorship to become a more significant marketing tool, allowing sport's governing bodies to raise more money, brand managers must be able to do the right thing. But they must also give themselves the licence to use their community scheme as a sales driver. It means marketers must be confident that the activity is shifting consumer perceptions of the brand.
Sally Hancock, chief executive of sponsorship consultancy Redmandarin, believes grass-roots activity offers scope to build loyalty. 'When we watch a big sports event on TV, we know it won't collapse due to a lack of sponsors, as revenue can be raised from other sources,' she says. 'But if we go to watch an English Schools Athletic Association event, we know damn well that without the sponsor's support, that event probably won't happen. That changes our attitude toward the sponsor.'
Tending to the UK's sporting roots is about keeping promises, according to Reading. 'The brand has the power to build huge expectations, but without commitment from the company, it can fail to deliver against them,' he adds. He describes this process as baring the soul of the brand, making for a more personal and immediate link than is offered by big-ticket event sponsorships. 'The brand is taken into the spaces where people live their lives. If it makes a mess of it, it won't be forgiven.'
CASE STUDY - EA SPORTS
EA Sports, the video-games publisher, is using its influence over young people to encourage young game-players to try the real thing.
An innovative community-based sport sponsorship initiative, the EA Sports 4v4 Football programme offers children advice, coaching, interactive gaming and football tournaments at clubs across the UK.
The scheme, which is being run by Activate UK, an agency specialising in the development of grass-roots activity, comprises eight football tournaments offering nine- to 16-year-olds a 'virtual meets reality' experience.
Split into teams of four, the first half of the match is played 'virtually' on EA's FIFA 2004 video game, while the second half takes the form of a real football match.
Bigger events based on the same principle were held this summer at music festivals, weekend shows and theme parks across the UK. This aimed to widen the programme's reach, as well as raise EA's profile.
At the events, FIFA 2005 was showcased on gaming consoles, while demo discs were distributed. The activity has helped the company build its database through email registration and driven traffic to EA's retail partners.
Activate's creative director, Tim Reading, says: 'You can't just tell kids that they can't play computer games. The message from EA Sports is about promoting a balance.'
FIVE GRASS-ROOTS DEALS ABOVE POUNDS 1m
SPONSOR ACTIVITY VALUE TERM END DATE
Barclays Football 30 3 years 01/09/07
Barclays Spaces for Sports runs in parallel with the bank's £53m
Premier League sponsorship.
Ariel Tennis 15 3 years 31/03/05
The Lawn Tennis Association has a sponsorship deal in place with P&G's
Ariel. Reportedly one of the most lucrative in the history of UK tennis,
the investment is aimed at 11- to 17-year-olds.
Norwich Union Athletics 8 3 years 31/12/06
Norwich Union has supported UK athletics since 1999 and has committed
£40m in total to the end of 2006; 20% of this money goes toward
Reebok Athletics 4 4 years 31/08/04
Reebok's deal with UK athletics includes being principal sponsor of the
UK Cross Country Series, The Reebok Cross Challenge, and providing
investment for youth programmes.
Frubes Baseball 1 3 years 31/03/05
Frubes has tied up with Major League Baseball (MLB), the sport's
governing body. A three-year deal sees the two jointly sponsor a
BaseballSoftball UK initiative, Play Ball! with Frubes.
Date: 14 October 2004
Venue: The Oval, London
Event profile: Sports marketing and sponsorship is one of the most dynamic elements of the marketing mix, but to deliver real value, it requires knowledge and expertise. Marketing's one-day conference will bring new and established sponsors up to date with sponsorship research, measuring impact, return on investment and market developments. Speakers include: Nic Gault, sponsorship director, Barclays Group; Phil Beard, head of corporate relations, London 2012; and Gary Knight, sponsorship director, ITV.
Cost: Standard booking rate is £545+VAT (£640.38). Charity rate is £325+VAT (£381.88).
Further information www.sportsmarketingconference.com, email email@example.com or call 020 8267 4185.