Barcelona triumphs but it is businesses that take the prize

Sports sponsorships have come in for much criticism since the downturn, but as Ruth Mortimer finds, these multi-million-pound deals can have a trickle-down effect to benefit the wider economy

Last week’s UEFA Champions League Final generated a total economic boost for all involved of €310m (£269m), according to research from Professor Simon Chadwick at Coventry University, up from €267m (£231m) last year. But one of the biggest beneficiaries of the event may have been not the direct sponsors but their business-to-business customers.

While banks, still affected by the crises of late 2008 and early 2009, did not directly sponsor the tournament, financial provider Mastercard was using the championship final to pass on its benefits to its partner banks and their customers.

Paul Meulendijk, head of sponsorship at Mastercard Europe, reveals: “We are not immune from the economic circumstances. As you know, our direct customers, the banks, are really affected. This helps us drive business with the banks by letting them deliver that ‘priceless’ experience.”

Meulendijk claims that as much as 80% of the assets generated by the UEFA Champions League sponsorship in 2009 were handed down to consumers through its bank members as they aimed to find ways of passing on benefits to customers without facing criticism for spending too much. For example, children were chosen as a result of bank promotions to appear as mascots at the final.

The financial company also used the event in Rome to display its new PayPass contactless card technology in a watch form. This comprises a wristpiece containing a special chip to allow transactions under £10 to be charged to wearers’ accounts without the need to enter a PIN number.

“There are already 55 million PayPass cards out there and 44 million acceptance points [in retailers],” says Meulendijk. “We’re moving from making small-scale pilots much larger. Boots is starting its pilots for PayPass, as is Carrefour in France.”

Professor Simon Chadwick’s research, which was commissioned by Mastercard, also suggests that rather than the recession being seen as a negative influence among corporate sponsors, it can have some positive effects. For example, because people stayed at home to watch the match as a result of the depressed economy, an extra €25m (£21m) “recession premium” was generated in extra sales of goods such as food and drink.

Chadwick suggests that while some fans did not travel to Rome to support their team in person, they did generate “economic activity at home” and he argues that the event should be seen as a “major spur for the economy” that “proves sport’s mega-events can overcome the downturn, thanks to their huge emotional appeal.”

Mastercard, Heineken and Sony have all recently announced they are renewing their sponsorships of the Champions League for another three years. UniCredit is to be a new partner, while the Ford, PlayStation and Vodafone deals come to a close this season.

Meulendijk would not confirm the sum involved in continuing the relationship with UEFA for the next three years but he claims the deal offers a good return on investment. “We are looking at our budgets very carefully. The economic downturn has not passed our door. We all have lived this. If we were not able to continue, we would not,” he says. “If we don’t deliver value, there would be no reason to hang on to it.”

He goes as far as to suggest that corporate sponsorships might become more effective in a recession as they offer brands a chance to associate themselves with something that “distracts” consumers from economic doom and gloom.

Also, with many companies pulling out of sports sponsorships, such as insurance firm AIG ending its deal with Manchester United, it leaves those companies still involved in partnerships, such as Mastercard and Sony, with a larger share of a more uncluttered market.

Despite these gaps left open due to corporate withdrawal, Meulendijk claims not to be on the acquisition trail. “We’re not out just to buy for the sake of buying,” he says, although he does mention that the company has signed up to be a Rugby Union 2011 World Cup partner in February this year. This partnership, he says, will help Mastercard better segment its business and target an affluent consumer within Europe.

Ford, meanwhile, which has not yet confirmed whether it will continue its Champions League deal, also used an Italian competition to have children appear on the pitch during the final as mascots and launched an ad to coincide with the final, showing off its cars’ so-called “kinetic design”.

But while Ford may have run some competitions and the Heineken bar formed the centrepiece of the corporate hospitality area, it appears the real winners at the Champions League final were the business-to-business customers of the sponsors.

Without paying themselves for expensive sponsorship deals that could not be justified to their boards, they were able to reward their customers. Passing on partnership benefits may yet become 2009’s most prominent sponsorship trend.

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