Five sports partnerships who have got it right during the COVID-19 pandemic

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

The 2020 sporting landscape remains one of trepidation for sports brands, sponsors and rights holders. After a significant chunk was removed from the sporting calendar, the majority of fans are still away from stadia and there exists a lot of short and long term uncertainty.

Those executing partnerships and campaigns are required to both toe the line between still connecting with audiences and simultaneously show awareness of the global situation.

Nevertheless, there have been many fantastic examples of brands and rights holders who have still managed to get it right. As we stated in our last blog on fan engagement, Covid-19 has accelerated the innovative ways in which brands are using various solutions to connect with fans.

Here we take a look at our top five so far.

Airbnb and IOC / IPC

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic sponsor Airbnb showed that value can still be found in a major partnership even if an event has been changed or, in this case, pushed back a year.

Beginning on the day this year’s Games were meant to begin, they launched a five-day virtual ‘Summer Festival of Online Experiences’ across multiple time zones. It was focused on encapsulating the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games through athlete-led activities and events, in partnership with the IOC and the IPC.

The Festival featured more than 100 athletes, including big names such as Naomi Osaka and Allyson Felix, who discussed topics ranging from sport to their personal ambitions and life during lockdown. The Online Experiences could be watched live or on replay on Airbnb and IOC/IPC YouTube Channels.

A commendable touch involved all proceeds from tickets, which were available via the Airbnb website, going to the athletes involved who need financial support. As such, Airbnb showed that it is a brand with a commitment to both sharing the Olympic and Paralympic passion with fans and supporting the athletes themselves.

Insight – providing secure platforms and opportunities for fan interaction with sporting talent is a fantastic way to reinforce brand loyalty and educate understanding of a partnership

NBA and Microsoft

The NBA and Microsoft had a plan set in place for 2020/21 to reshape the fan experience, with Microsoft acting as the franchise’s AI and Cloud Partner.

However, they saw an opportunity to bring elements forward in the wake of the pandemic, with an additional feature focused on enhancing the NBA’s broadcast initiatives as basketball returned to our screens.

When the action re-started, large video boards were seen around the courts with fans digitally sitting next to each other and able to interact. This intelligent fan activation technique included the players being able to hear and see fan reactions. It was ensured that the home team was awarded the vast majority of seats, whilst celebrity cameo appearances added an extra layer of excitement.

The process of participating was an intelligent piece of product marketing by Microsoft, with virtual fans needing to download the Microsoft Teams programme and use its ‘Together’ mode. The NBA has shown itself to be invested in engaging with fans, whilst Microsoft has demonstrated that it has the technology to facilitate it.

Insight – the nature of sponsorships may change, but there are still opportunities if rights holders are innovative and flexible with partners

Burger King and Stevenage FC

The rise of online gaming has been noticeable this year, especially during the months of lockdown. Yet Burger King recently managed to go one step further by combining online sports with reality.

In June 2019, the fast food chain announced a surprising shirt sponsorship with lower league English football side Stevenage, a club with a relatively small fanbase and few televised games. Yet, they realised that they'd also have their logo displayed on the popular FIFA video game played by millions worldwide on a week by week basis.

They subsequently tapped into the digital space by launching #TheStevenageChallenge, a campaign utilising social media to challenge fans to play as Stevenage and share their best moments in exchange for prizes. The value of connecting with fans through gaming was accentuated by the lack of live sport during the Covid-19 period – more than 25,000 goals in the Stevenage kit were shared by gamers, the club became the most played team on live streaming platform Twitch and for the first time in their history they sold out all their shirts.

Insightthe potential value from sports sponsorships can go beyond live events into the ever-growing world of online sports gaming

Nike and its athletes

Simple ideas are often the best ideas and Nike proved this notion again during the peak period of global lockdown through its digital ‘play for the world’ campaign.

Using its huge roster of star athletes, the brand was able to strike a balance between promoting itself whilst recognising the unique challenge each individual was facing.

The campaign was built around social media messages from athletes that spoke directly to the many people suddenly stuck inside and unable to participate in their favourite sports, using an image with the line, “If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.” Each post also stressed the need for social distancing and included several videos.

It was followed up with initiatives designed to help people stay active whilst home, including making the Nike Training Club app free for all users and live-streaming weekly community workouts on their YouTube channel.

Insight – using multiple online channels can be even more impactful if it has been preceded by a carefully crafted and simple brand or partnership message

Mondelez International and Chelsea FC

The well-known confectionery brand has developed a strong presence in the English Premier League since it signed as the Official Snack Partner from 2017-20.

However, it is now focusing on individual club deals underscored by community action plans, such as this recent one with Chelsea, where its Cadbury brand has become the club’s official chocolate partner. This includes a corporate social responsibility element in support of the new and small businesses who have been struck badly by the economic impact of Covid-19.

In addition to fan-focused initiatives via Cadbury’s ‘Match and Win’ promotion, the brand will collaborate with the club in supporting the Chelsea Foundation’s ‘Edge of the Box Club’. The ongoing pandemic is not getting in the way of this help, with expertise being shown through bespoke webinars about areas such as marketing and sales, whilst three attendees will win donated advertising pitch side at the home ground of Chelsea Women this season.

Insight – in the face of the ongoing pandemic, it is more important than ever for partnerships to think beyond merely direct fan engagement and activation

(Photo credit: PR Newswire)

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