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Making a real difference at all levels

Companies are increasingly sponsoring sporting organisations at grassroots level, to the benefit of both

Turkish Airlines signed a deal to sponsor the Irish men’s senior cricket team in April 2018. Photograph: ©INPHO/Rowland White

Turkish Airlines signed a deal to sponsor the Irish men’s senior cricket team in April 2018. Photograph: ©INPHO/Rowland White


According to the National Sponsorship Index produced by marketing agency Core, Ireland’s overall sponsorship market is valued at €190 million. Sport accounts for about 70 per cent of the total and it’s growing all the time. Noel Martyn, intelligence director at Core’s sponsorship practice, says the fees paid by companies to sports associations or athletes is increasing by about 5 per cent year on year.

“The reason for its popularity is thanks to sport’s large reach and scale, and because sport is almost the last bastion of live programming,” he says.

Although new brands are coming into the market all the time, such as Turkish Airlines’ recent deal with the Irish men’s cricket team, the trend in sports sponsorship is towards longevity. “Nine of the top 10 properties have been sponsored by that brand for 10 years or more,” says Martyn. “AIB have partnered with the GAA club championship for almost 28 years, and more recently added the senior football championship.”

Vodafone has a long history of shirt sponsorship, with its logo previously adorning Manchester United and Dublin GAA jerseys. Now it sponsors the Irish rugby team. “We want to engage with people aside from talking about our products and services, and not just at a point in time when they’re thinking of changing their telecommunications provider,” says Paula Murphy, head of Vodafone’s brand operations and sponsorship.

From shirt sponsorship and pitchside advertising to stadium naming rights, the benefits for brands being associated with sporting excellence are well understood. More recently, however, there has been a growing move among brands to do more than just get involved with a sport for the sake of reflected glory.

“From our research, where people have seen our ‘team of us’ activation, they’re more interested in learning about rugby and becoming more involved with rugby as a sport. There’s no point in us being involved unless we can do more than just write a cheque. The IRFU also need a sponsor that will be investing in the sport and building its awareness and its values. It works for us, but it also has to work for them,” says Murphy.

Community links

Sponsorship consultancy Onside’s Sponsorship Outlook 2018 found that 26 per cent of companies plan to use sports sponsorship efforts to showcase community links or social responsibility programmes. That’s a marked increase on previous years, when the number was less than 10 per cent.

For example, Aldi is one of the more recent partners of the IRFU, and its sponsorship agreement covers the Play Rugby programme, which encourages children to participate in the sport. “When Aldi joined the IRFU family of partners, there were 45,000 kids participating. Two years later, the number reached 100,000. They are as present and active in supporting grassroots as they are on match days for the senior men’s team,” says Onside’s chief executive John Trainor.

Some brands, like KPMG, take advocacy positions such as promoting public health or encouraging more female participation in sport. So they actively seek out sponsorship that will align with those positions. For example, the organisers of the Park Run initiative, which holds 5km runs across Ireland, say that sponsorship from VHI means that runners can take part for free.

“A lot of brands want to encourage that kind of grassroots involvement and community investment. It’s about doing something that’s good for society, and that’s blurring lines between sponsorship and corporate social responsibility,” says Mick O’Keeffe, chief executive of Teneo PSG, which has been involved in brokering many deals between rights holders and brands.

A lot of the drive for this change is coming from consumers, O’Keeffe adds. “They are very discerning, they want to understand values of organisations they shop with, bank with, or buy insurance from. There’s an expectation that big organisations will do sponsorship for the greater good.”

While brands can have high-level goals, sporting bodies are just as concerned with delivering the basic materials to help them bring more children and young people into the sport. That means everything from balls and bibs to training cones and kit – all of which costs money.

Football’s ability to command an audience means the FAI is in a position to provide grants – like the €20,000 it recently gave to St Mochtas FC. This will help fund a new Astroturf pitch at the club’s site in Porterstown, Dublin, that will allow its teams to train all year around. The club relies on the support of mainly local sponsors to cover the ongoing cost of running two senior men’s teams and 25 junior teams. “Without this funding stream, we would not be in a position to kit out our teams or purchase much-needed equipment, so sponsorship really is vital to the club. No sponsorship money is used to pay down debt so we as a club and our sponsor always see a positive outcome from monies received,” says club chairman Trevor Nulty.

Essential items

As well as providing for the essential items to train teams, corporate sponsorship can also help to top up the funding that some local authorities provide towards designated development officers for sports like GAA and soccer. “The infrastructure that surrounds sport is incredibly important. Funding gives a sport the ability to hire games development or club liaison officers to work with volunteers who need a greater degree of professional input in their clubs. That wouldn’t be possible if not for sponsorship money,” says Rob Hartnett, chief executive of Sport for Business.

“At a team level, having sponsorship funding allows the players to focus more on the training if they do not have the stress of worrying about money to train and enter events,” says Aisling Dodgson, Investec’s head of treasury. The company can trace its involvement in Irish sport back to 1991 when it sponsored the golfer Paul McGinley. Now it sponsors the Monaghan GAA teams and more recently golfer Stephanie Meadow, who secured her LGPA tour card.

The key to doing sponsorship deals right is to form good relationships at the start, with a clear definition of an outcome that benefits both parties, says John Trainor of Onside. He expects a grassroots aspect will be an increasing part of many high-profile sponsorship agreements between sports bodies and businesses. “That’s the beauty and spirit of sponsorship: the rights’ holder realises that by having the right type of partner they trust to grow something together, helping to achieve something that feels like a mutually shared goal.”

Striving for equal recognition

More than 50,000 people packed into Croke Park to see Dublin’s Senior Ladies Gaelic Football team win the All Ireland this summer, but unfortunately such a high attendance is an outlier. According to research from Nielsen, women’s sport in Ireland gets just 3 per cent of coverage in print, 4 per cent online and 2 per cent on TV. In a bid to change this, the Federation of Irish Sport’s 20x20 initiative aims to achieve a 20 per cent increase in attendance, media coverage and participation in women’s sport by 2020.

The programme has the backing of Ireland’s national sporting governing bodies, as well as the support of consultants KPMG. Dublin Ladies’ captain Sinead Aherne works at the company’s IFSC offices, and Emer McGrath, a partner with the firm, says the company supports women in sport at a global level, including sponsoring the KPMG Women’s PGA golf tournament. “The ambition and talent of Irish women in sport deserves equal recognition and 20x20 can make a significant difference to this objective,” McGrath says.