New proposals put the squeeze on sponsors

So, the BBC is up in arms about the possibility of losing its god-given right to broadcast cricket test matches in the UK. Big deal. But how many marketing directors have spotted the real bombshells contained in the recent recommendations to government on listed sports events?

Assuming culture minister Chris Smith accepts the proposals from the Advisory Group on Listed Events, it will drive up the cost of sponsorship, reduce broadcast ratings and dilute an important avenue of persuasion for brand owners.

I know few sporting events are directly affected by the report and that the list of protected events hasn’t really changed much since 1956. But everything is connected, no sport or its sponsor is an island.

At first glance these proposals seem well thought out. Terrestrial TV and radio broadcasters can cherry-pick live coverage of all sport’s crown jewels from an A-list and secondary coverage of several more from a B-list. Previously unprotected events, such as the Five Nations rugby championship, are now practically guaranteed highlights coverage on the BBC, ITV or Channel 4.

But here’s the rub. Moving test matches from the A-list to the B-list weakens the BBC’s sports portfolio to a point where cornerstone programmes, such as Grandstand, must be in question.

The B-list, with its promise of secondary coverage to terrestrial networks, is politically brilliant. It removes at a stroke all the fuss about the majority of the great British public being unable to watch events like the Ryder Cup.Yet, with the notable exception of Match of the Day, audiences for highlights programmes are generally disappointing compared with those for live coverage.

C4 has led the way in creating new audiences, but only at the margins. Retaining the Olympics and World Cup is great for viewers, but only benefits those multinational brands with the deepest pockets.

What about Sky? It is unquestionably the finest sports broadcaster in the UK and works hard for its advertisers. But most sponsors still equate brand awareness with broadcast ratings and instinctively prefer terrestrial. Digital TV and pay-per-view TV will strengthen that instinct. The net effect of the recommendations will be to increase Sky’s hold over UK sports and its relationship with rights owners.

So where does that leave those of us whose business it is to make sponsorship work better?

The facts are unpalatable but clear. If you are serious about sports sponsorship it’s going to cost plenty. Competition for crown jewel events means that rights fees are going to spiral. B-list events will cost more while offering less. With a few notable exceptions, many unlisted events will lose their appeal as terrestrial airtime declines. And, with a highlights-driven policy, there’s little room for lesser sports.

What can we do about it? I would propose the following actions:

Sponsors need their audiences to have free access to coverage.

Too many sponsors are shy of talking directly to broadcasters. They need to get over their shyness rather than leaving the way free for others with different vested interests.

Sponsors have to realise there are big opportunities but they need senior strategic and creative thought.

Everyone should be encouraged to invest in a satellite dish. It’s not just cricket they’ll need it for in the future.

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