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Sports sponsorship in uncharted territory

People, planning and perspective are the keys as the sector re-emerges

The pandemic caused sports marketing campaigns to be throw up in the air; there was absolutely no certainty, and no clear sense of when it would end. Photograph: Getty Images

The pandemic caused sports marketing campaigns to be throw up in the air; there was absolutely no certainty, and no clear sense of when it would end. Photograph: Getty Images


Joni Mitchell’s “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” lyric reflects the overall feeling around the sporting landscape for the past 12 months or so. Following announcements on pub closures and other restrictions, it was inevitable that the Leinster v Saracens Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final scheduled for the Aviva Stadium would be postponed. It was on March 16th, 2020. 

The following day, Euro 2020 suffered a similar fate as all major sporting and cultural events began to fall one by one. As a fan, the reaction is first to accept that public safety has to take priority: it is the right thing to do. There then follows a sense of sheer disappointment. From a business perspective, you reflect on the implications for all stakeholders involved. The lost revenue on match day, the lost media exposure, the loss of being able to enjoy another great sporting day out. 

In this week's Inside Marketing podcast, Ronan McCormack from Heineken joins us to discuss what it takes to manage some of the biggest sports sponsorships in the world, especially during the pandemic, and David McHugh from Line Up Sports brings us some real insight into the world of sports management. Listen now:

We had never encountered anything like this before. There was no blueprint to follow, no clear path to a return to normality or no direct experiences to draw upon. All sponsors of sport were affected; as a drinks brand Heineken was impacted more than most. A whole trade channel had closed with no immediate plans to reopen. 

This posed immediate financial and operational challenges. Suffice to say, for the first couple of weeks we were operating in somewhat of a daze, much like a punch-drunk fighter struggling to get to the corner. Plans were thrown up in the air; there was absolutely no certainty, and no clear sense of when it would end. Brand budgets were obviously impacted, plans had to be made, remade and remade again. We scenario-planned to an extent we never had before. 

What followed was relentless communication – internally with colleagues in Heineken Ireland, agency partners and intensive dialogue with all those we work with across our partnerships. From a rugby point of view, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), who we work with on Heineken Champions Cup, is a key partner. It deserves immense credit in getting the season completed, and fingers crossed we are close to completing the 2020/2021 season too – albeit in truncated fashion. 

The main activation challenge has been losing presence around the big, match day experience. Having a beer with friends and or family is central to that experience, whether at the stadium or in your local before or after the game. I think we have all really missed that and the associated visibility on Heineken Champions Cup day that goes with it. 

However, once the reality of the situation was understood we just got on with it. We worked on a really well-received content series with EPCR, hosted by the great Keith Wood. This looked back at classic Heineken Cup games over the past 25 years and it was fantastic to revisit some epic rugby games etched, forever, in the memory of the hearts and minds of Irish rugby fans. 

We introduced a new “Star of the Match” property to increase brand attribution and presence on match day.

We redesigned our pitch-side advertising and media backdrops. We also produced a new suite of digital assets to promote match fixtures. The lockdown and break from match day operations, as unwelcome as it was, actually afforded us a little space to work on those areas. 

While it has been fantastic that matches have continued behind closed doors, the lack of fans has significantly affected the whole nature of the match day experience

Thankfully, the development of a new brand campaign centred on rugby continued and that is testament to just how important we see rugby being to the Heineken brand in Ireland. The campaign is entitled “The Perfect Match”, and viewers may have spotted it on TV during recent sports coverage. The campaign celebrates the journey of rivalry between three couples who happen to support opposing teams. 

On the football front, thankfully, both the Uefa Champions League (UCL) and Europa League were finally completed back in August and this season’s competitions are near completion. Heineken has been a proud sponsor of UCL since 1994 and it is an association we are incredibly proud of. The recent news that the four Euro 2020 games will move from Dublin was disappointing. 

Heineken is an official partner of Euro 2020 and we had been planning the event with our colleagues in our global office in Amsterdam and with partners such as Dublin City Council for well more than 18 months. The prospect of four games in the Aviva and fan zones and villages in Dublin city offered so much potential. I hope that Dublin will get its time to shine on the international football stage in the not too distant future. 


They can be summarised with the three Ps: people, planning and perspective. Like most things in business and with life in general, it comes back to people. Unquestionably, this has brought into laser-sharp focus just how important fans are to the sporting occasion. While it has been fantastic that matches have continued behind closed doors, the lack of fans has significantly affected the whole nature of the match day experience. 

The wall-to-wall coverage on games on TV has been welcome but it simply does not beat the live match experience. Hearing players’ shouts echo around empty stadia is not what sport is all about. The return of fans, when it is safe to do so, cannot come soon enough. In a broader sense, you would hope that if nothing else, the past 12 months has served as a brutal yet timely reminder that major competitions, be they super leagues or otherwise, ultimately need the support of fans to grow and prosper. Without the support of fans, there is no real sporting occasion or industry. 

The support of the people we work with has also been crucial. Be they internal colleagues in Heineken Ireland, Heineken Global or EPCR, Ulster Rugby, Connacht Rugby or Rugby Players Ireland, I believe that key relationships were enhanced over the past 12 months. There has never been as much communication.

Yes, there have been some tough and at times tense calls, but this past year has really demonstrated the real importance of honesty, transparency, empathy and openness. 

Perhaps, somewhat unfortunately, it took a pandemic for people to admit they don’t have all the answers and appreciate the extent to which we all rely on our colleagues and partners’ help and support. Maybe we are now all a little more open, vulnerable and less guarded as a consequence of living through the past 12 months.

While this awful pandemic continues to laugh in the face of planning, it has also highlighted the importance of plans that are both flexible and focused. The relentless scenario-planning can be debilitating but operating without it is far, far worse. Focus on those things you feel will really make a difference and invest accordingly. 

As high-performing teams do, you attempt to control the controllables and respond to the two-footed challenges when they come – and come they will. 

Finally: perspective. Brands, sponsorship and business are incredibly important but there are obviously more vital things in life. 

The last 12 months have been so difficult for so many people in so many different ways. We all have our individual stories. I lost my dad to Covid-19 in mid-February. No amount of football or rugby is going to compensate for his loss, but you know what; sport has a role to play. Being able to shout, roar, laugh (or cry!) at a game in a stadium for 70, 80 or 90 minutes will serve as just a little signifier that maybe, just maybe, we are all on the road to brighter days – here’s hoping.

Ronan McCormack is senior brand manager at Heineken
Ronan McCormack is senior brand manager at Heineken

Inside Marketing is a series brought to you by Dentsu and Irish Times Media Solutions, exploring the issues and opportunities facing the world of media and marketing.
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