Norwich Union (NU) last week extended its long-standing investment in UK Athletics, signing as an official partner of the European Athletics Indoor championships. Taking place in Birmingham next March, it will be the first major international athletics event to be held in the UK since the announcement of London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.
The UK brand of insurance giant Aviva joins an eight-strong line-up of national sponsors supporting the event, generating combined funding of &£250,000. But the deal comes at a time of uncertainty for the sport, highlighted by last week’s resignation of David Moorcroft from the role as UK Athletics chief executive following a nine-year reign.
The British team’s recent lacklustre performances have come under attack and the sport is once again embroiled in drugs scandals. Justin Gatlin, the current Olympic world 100m champion, was last week handed an eight-year ban from the sport and stripped of his joint world record after failing a drugs test. Meanwhile, number one US sprinter Marion Jones is also facing accusations of drug taking after a positive test.
UK tensions over “doping” have also flared, with sprinter Darren Campbell refusing to join Britain’s winning 4x100m relay team’s lap of honour at this month’s European Championships in Gothenburg. Campbell says he felt it was important to take a stand against drug taking in order to protect the image of the sport.
Jon Ridgeon, managing director of sports marketing and events company Fast Track, believes doping allegations are damaging for the image of UK Athletics in the short term. But he is confident that, as with all sports, it will move on from the controversy. “Drug testing is winning in a way that it wasn’t in the past,” he says. Furthermore, sponsors are not deterred by the negative headlines with most brands focusing on long-term value in the run-up to London 2012, he adds.
NU marketing director Shaun Meadows says: “In athletics there are individuals who have been found cheating. You are always going to get occurrences. I don’t think the allegations harm our brand – although they would if it became widespread and started to destroy the value of athletics.”
NU has thrown its weight behind the sport, brokering a &£50m sponsorship agreement with UK Athletics in April – the biggest in British sport outside football – to help athletes prepare for London 2012. Grassroots investment in athletics will almost treble, with more than 10 million children and 1.5 million families expected to be involved in NU’s various schemes by 2012.
Creating emotional ties
NU head of sponsorship Tanya Veingard says athletics generates emotional ties for the brand because of its youth-oriented initiatives and the broad audience it attracts. She adds: “It doesn’t have ‘the love it or hate it’ following that some team sports do. All sports go through ups and downs and athletics is in a transitional phase. But it is moving in the right direction.”
Arguably the biggest challenge for the sport will be lifting the performance of Britain’s athletes ahead of the London Olympics. “Brands want to be associated with success,” Ridgeon says.
It remains to be seen whether UK Athletics, amid the latest drugs scandals and turmoil at the top, is up to both of its key jobs of nurturing success and adding value for its sponsors.