The loveable rogues who devalue sporting events

Brands that do not want to fork out on expensive sports sponsorship often turn to ambush marketing. This is bad for everyone, according to Patrick Elliot

Commercial sports sponsorship is big business. Fifteen global brand names, including Mastercard, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, each paid a reported &£10m to attach their names to the World Cup. Sponsors of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City paid between $5m (&£3.3m) and $50m (&£33m) each for the rights to use those five famous rings.

So, when an organisation tries to gain the benefits of such an association without paying out these significant sums of money, corporate angst among those who have done so is understandable.

“Ambush marketing” has plagued the organisers of major sporting events for years and it is getting bigger as the potential rewards for those companies that can pull it off grow more lucrative.

One man’s ambush is another’s clever business initiative, and some companies have turned it into an art form. There is a temptation to regard ambush marketers as likeable – but essentially harmless – rogues. That would be a mistake. Ambush marketing has a negative effect on everyone involved with an event and, in the end, on sport itself.

Event organisers find the value of their rights diminished. It becomes harder to find sponsors and, consequently, to host events – 43 per cent of the funding for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was raised through sponsorship.

Ironically, some of the ambush marketing campaigns around global sports events can cost companies more than taking up official sponsorship!

There have been numerous examples of ambush marketing: at Salt Lake City, virtually every ice hockey team wore kit emblazoned with the “Swoosh”, yet Nike was not an official sponsor. The same company bought billboard space along the entire route of a London Marathon, spending more money ambushing the event than the cost of official sponsor’s rights. Nike also ambushed Converse, the official Olympic shoe sponsor at Atlanta, by endorsing high-profile athletes and painting portraits on buildings.

While it is virtually impossible to stop companies from trying to ambush an event, there are a number of ways in which organisers and official sponsors can limit the opportunities available.

These include adopting a brand-protection policy, limiting sponsorship through exclusivity in clearly defined categories and pricing sponsor rights reasonably, to allow marketing budgets to absorb both the official rights’ payments and associated marketing at or before an event.

At Salt Lake City, a “cityscape” programme was adopted. Organisers signed agreements with building owners to wrap their properties in banners, preventing them from being used as advertising space.

There is also a battery of legal weapons available to protect such areas as trademarks, design and patents and the use of official logos.

However, with all the fertile minds out there, it is certain that as soon as one loophole is closed, someone will be trying to exploit another.

Patrick Elliot is a solicitor with the sport unit of Addleshaw Booth, official lawyers to the Commonwealth Games 2002 in Manchester

Latest from Marketing Week

Influencers, consultancies and the recruitment crisis: The key topics of conversation at Cannes Lions

cannes lions

Cannes Lions 2018: Marketers turned out in force to advertising’s biggest annual event. But away from the usual talk of purpose and creativity, some big issues such as the recruitment crisis, how advertising responds to the #MeToo movement and cleaning up the influencer marketing space were discussed.


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here