Sport Industry Spotlight: Key Learnings on Partnerships

21 May 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

The below is an abridged version of the full executive summary that Sport Industry Spotlight attendees receive as part of their package. To find out more about the session and to sign up for future panels, click here.


The latest edition of Sport Industry Spotlight delved into the world of partnerships between brands and either teams or individual athletes, discussing talent management, sponsor identification and creative activations.

Each Sport Industry Spotlight session is based on a category at the Sport Industry Awards 2020, this time focussing on the Individual or Team Partnership Award. 

The panel was made of up of Michael Yormark, President, Roc Nation Sports International; Matt Gentry, Managing Director, 77 Sports Management; Mark Osikoya, Associate Vice President, Global Partnerships, NBA (EME); and Jenny Smith, Head of Events, Sponsorship & Communications, Volvo UK.

As with all Sport Industry Spotlight sessions, the subject matter was led by attendees, through a series of interactive polls and questions from the floor, and hosted by Alex Coulson, Managing Director, Sport Industry Group.

Authentic and Shared Narrative

Partnerships between brands and athletes can be a powerful tool for both parties to get across the message they want to send to fans and consumers, but the panel were in agreement that the best partnerships happen when both share a narrative as well as the same goals.

Understanding that link between athlete and team or brand is crucial to the success of the partnership, not just because of its authenticity, but also because it makes sense to the target audience.

Volvo’s Smith spoke of how important it is to be clear in your own objectives for any partnership: “If you can’t immediately make the link yourself as to why your brand would work with that individual or that team, then you’ve got to think ‘how on earth do people who don’t have that relationship with my brand, how are we going to tell that story?’”

“It’s very subjective, so you really have to be clear about your objectives and why you’re working either with that rights holder or individual. What you absolutely have to be clear about is the story you want that person or that brand to tell and if you can’t get that right, you’re making it really difficult for yourself. And you’re also expecting other people to understand what you’re trying to say, and if you’re not clear on that how can you expect others to be?”

Smith also spoke about the importance of good outside agency help when it comes to activating those partnerships, as well as recognising that the best relationships have a 'sell-by date', and that it's crucial to keep things fresh.

Roc Nation’s Yormark spoke about South Africa rugby captain Siya Kolisi, an athlete Roc Nation represents, to illustrate the need for authenticity as well as a defined narrative: “Whether it’s Siya Kolisi and Dove, these are authentic relationships that speak to the personalities of these individuals, and that’s what makes them successful.

"We don’t force potential opportunities on any of our celebrities. It’s got to work for them, it’s got to work for their objectives. Matt [Gentry] brought up the word ‘passion’ - and he's right - it’s got to feed the passion points of the celebrity. As we all know it’s not easy to get celebrities to do these deals in the first place, and then to fulfil all the deliverables. The best way to make sure the relationship is strong and productive is to make sure that it’s authentic and that the client really wants to embrace the brand and work with the brand.”

That authentic relationship is further magnified when talking about individual partnerships by the fact that athletes are human beings who have passions and interests outside of sport.

Gentry spoke about his work with Andy Murray, whose interests outside of tennis are well-known but how, in the case of his interest in wildlife preservation and sustainability issues, there were some perfect partnerships to be had: “It’s more about the personality and their passions as a human,” he said. 

“Then it’s about the commercial reality of the sport they’re in and how they can work together. There’s a good example of a deal we did with Andy [Murray] and Jaguar around shared passions. He’s a WWF ambassador and he was the first person to get a Jaguar iPace car delivered. He wouldn’t drive anything else ever again apart from an electric car. We didn’t need to do briefing notes or chats to him before because he could just go out there and speak quite cogently about why he’s doing it and what it means to him. The simplicity of that shows it’s a good deal and a good brand tie-up and partnership with shared DNA.”

The Power of the Athlete

From a brand point of view, the values an athlete has can make them attractive, especially if it chimes with a story they want to tell.

The authenticity of the talent itself can be a key driver for brands not just to tell the stories they want to tell or to create powerful metaphors. In the case of the NBA, it’s the athletes rather than the sport that plays into basketball’s wider cultural phenomena in some markets.

“Our role isn’t finding the talent,” said Osikoya. “But where we can make the most of those opportunities. If you look across Europe, the current MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is Greek and all of a sudden there’s an opportunity there for us to focus on Greece as a potential market from a new business perspective. 

“We were lucky enough it was the Bucks [Antetokounmpo's team] who played the Paris game this year as well. For us it’s about being a bit more opportunistic and looking at where the key markets are for us, where the talent is and focusing on that. There’s a great deal of research we’ve done and it shows that outside of US, and certainly in Europe, a lot of the interest in NBA is driven by the players and by the nationality of those players. If you look at Tony Parker and France, for example, a lot of French fans might follow Parker’s career, and if he moves teams they’ll switch allegiances to based on where he’s playing.”

There was also acknowledgement that the power of the athletes themselves is growing, and an understanding of the fact that it’s their talent and celebrity that is helping to drive brands towards achieve their goals.

Osikoya spoke about his time at Coca-Cola working with Wayne Rooney, while the panel also discussed other high-profile partnership deals including Colin Kaepernick and Nike amongst others.

Yormark added: “One of the things that our Chairman always talks about is, if an artist or athlete is going to work with a brand, and help promote the brand, and help move their business, they should have ownership - they should have equity. 

“That’s something we’re trying to integrate into every deal that we do. I think now especially, as we’ve all gone through this pandemic, athletes and artists understand that careers can stop very, very quickly so how do you leverage your success today to plan for the future?

“Instead of taking a cheque, having equity and ownership, or having a long-term view as relates to the structure of that partnership is something I think athletes and artists are going to focus on more now than ever before. Because of the times that we’re going through and the fact that there are no guarantees.”

Sport Industry Spotlight is driven by genuine insider insight, and with interactivity built in throughout, the sessions make learning about the industry’s finest work both easy and accessible.

Join us next week for Sport Industry Spotlight: International Campaign to talk new audiences, adapting campaigns, and what it means to take your work across multiple territories.