Study finds consumers question sports sponsorship deals

Levi's Stadium in San Franscisco

Consumers and sports fans know more about sponsorship deals than companies and sports teams realized. How such deals are perceived, it turns out, may feed loyalty or fuel disgust, says a UO marketing professor.

It took a real scenario involving the latter to prompt a team of researchers, including the UO's T. Bettina Cornwell, to explore how sponsorship deals convey subtle messages.

In 2012, a flurry of distaste followed the announcement of a seven-year, $600 million agreement in which U.S.-based Chevrolet became a sponsor of Manchester United, a high-profile professional European soccer team.

Why, people asked, would an American carmaker support a British soccer team?

“It wasn’t about the sponsorship of soccer by an automaker; that is common enough,” said Cornwell, head of the Department of Marketing in the Lundquist College of Business. “Now the players were to have Chevy on their shirts. Before the shirts were even printed, questions arose about the deal characteristics and the dealmaker was fired.”

For the research, published online this month in the Journal of Marketing, Cornwell joined David Woisetschlager of Germany’s Technical University Braunschweig and Christof Bachhaus of the Aston Business School in the United Kingdom.

They first looked at 44 sponsorships in the German Football League, viewing existing deals through the knowledge that 2,787 consumers already had about brands and sports partnerships. In a second study, they created a fictitious sponsorship in a professional German handball league and manipulated the deal’s characteristics to explore the inferences of 576 participants.

Deal characteristics include duration, proximity of a sponsoring company to a team or league, the fee paid by the sponsor and the type of sponsorship — whether the company’s name goes on a stadium, signage around a sporting venue and the company’s brand appearing on uniforms.

The first study found that sponsorships with high fees and distant international sponsors are seen to reflect calculative motives of the sponsors. To some degree, stadium naming rights deals also are seen as more calculative than, say, perimeter logo sponsorships. Participants questioned whether such a pairing was a good fit — a show of support or just a deal that furthers a sponsor’s bottom line.

Close geographic proximity of a sponsor to a team is associated with affective motivations, Woisetschlager said. Such deals are perceived as positive and suggest that sponsors care about a team or sport.

Long-term contracts with companies in close proximity to a team were viewed in both studies as having normative motives — something expected and a reflection of team loyalty.

“There were, however, some interesting differences between the soccer study and the handball study,” Backhaus noted. “In the handball study, high fees paid by a brand to partner with a sport were not seen to be as calculative. In this lower profile sport, higher fees seem to be seen as helping to keep the sport alive.”

These new findings, Cornwell said, show that a sport’s audiences — a sponsor’s potential consumers — are savvy about these deals.

The take-home lessons: Companies need to consider their relationships and relevance with the teams they sponsor, and teams need to communicate how the money gained in a sponsorship will be used and provide a benefit.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications

Note: In the video below, produced at the request of the Journal of Marketing, T. Bettina Cornwell summarizes the study, providing highlights of how the study began and how it moved forward.