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Does a sponsorship by any other name sell as sweetly? After 30-plus years at the intersection of sports and commerce, we’re inured, no, doggedly insistent, on calling the purchase of intellectual property rights for the purpose of marketing products and services Sponsorship.
Over the past few decades, Partnership has crept in as preferred within the industry vernacular. We’ve always considered that term an exercise in semantics: the difference between a B.S. artist and a “stand-up philosopher.” However, we acknowledge to having lost that battle as far as industrywide nomenclature.
Sponsorship departments at properties and clients now routinely use the P-word as a moniker, sales departments are now termed “partnership development” offices. You need look no further than these pages in 2005, “partnership” appeared in SBJ and SBD 613 times; by 2010, that mushroomed to 1,018 appearances for the P-word; 2015 saw it appear 1,243 times; this year, the total is already up to 1,767. With more than 400 colleges offering sports degrees, we’re sure some of them have partnership marketing classes, if not degrees. The inculcation is complete.
Origins of this particular shift in parlance are fuzzy, but the NBA changing the name of its department in the early 2000s from the “Global Marketing & Media” group to “Marketing Partnerships” seems to have given that phrase all the legitimacy it needed.
We recall first hearing the P-word with insistence and regularity from former NBA Commissioner David Stern, so the belief here is that while our favorite commissioner did not originate the term, he was as responsible as any for ensuring it found an enduring home within the lexicon.
“He [Stern] always would say your sponsors need to be your partners, so I’m sure it came from him,” said Bill Sutton, director emeritus of the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program at South Florida and the former vice preseident of the NBA’s team marketing and business operations. “It implies there’s an equal and mutually beneficial relationship, and as we moved up in size to things like naming rights, that became vital.”
“Sponsorship sounded more like a donation,” said former 76ers President Chris Heck, also the senior vice president of marketing partnerships at the NBA from 2004-11. “They wanted to get across that we weren’t just selling signs or TV ads — ‘let’s sell something that requires activation.’ It helped us build a client group with longer, deeper relationships.”
Guess we shouldn’t be at all surprised that marketers found a softer term for sponsorship with a less than transactional connotation. There are sales euphemisms in every business: It’s easier to buy a “pre-owned” vehicle than one that’s used.
“That’s marketing,” said longtime consultant Larry “The Sponsorship Guy” Weil. “Did your friend pass away or die? Partnership was what they called it in the nonprofit world forever. … They shouldn’t call it a partnership if only one party is paying or both don’t have an actual financial stake.”
Besides, “The Partnership Guy” really doesn’t have any panache, does it?
Jim Schwebel, a principal at sports and entertainment agency Apel Inc., recalled when he sold for the NFL for 20 years, the department was called Sponsorship Marketing, Even so, some staffers preferred titles including partnership marketing, lest they be typecast as salespeople. “We’re still using those words interchangeably,” Schwebel said. “Sponsorship sounds more like you are moving assets. Partnership sounds like you’re really trying to understand the client’s business and deliver ROI. Hopefully, you are doing that anyway, regardless of what you call it.”
There are those in sponsorship marketing who will tell you that the dreaded P-word has been effective, making it simpler to navigate deals through the sometimes-capricious waters of corporate oversight and budget approval.
“It became easier to sell internally when they were asking their company to fund a partnership rather than a sponsorship — and it implied a higher level of benefits,” said Sutton.
Other, dare we call them “sponsorship professionals,” say the P-word helped usher in an era of more clear objectives. Again, we’re hoping that was a prerequisite, but perhaps not.
“Within brands, especially beyond the marketers it’s helped create a more fundamental understanding of why they are making these investments,” said Paragon Marketing EVP Tony Schiller, who has recollections of hearing about partnerships as long ago as when he was selling for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the mid-1990s. His thesis is the move from sponsorship to partnership was catalyzed by rising costs and terms of IP rights, an associated and increasing challenge of demonstrating ROI in accordance with those escalating costs, along with a realization that activating with traditional media was becoming increasingly ineffective.
“Partnership sounds like solutions, but whatever you call it, that’s where any pitch should start,” Schiller said. “Too often, it’s only those from property, sponsor and agency deciding how these deals will work. I’m encouraged because we’re starting to see various business units from properties and sponsors meeting, not just those managing the rights.”
Peter Laatz, global managing director at sponsorship marketing agency IEG, recalls that in his days in marketing at Miller Brewing (2000-08) “sponsorship” was banned internally, in favor of “alliances,” a move adopted by other big sports spenders, including McDonald’s. “The intentions are good,” he said, but “if you look across thousands of deals, probably less than 20% are true partnerships.”
So, we guess we’ll keep using the S-word and everyone else will continue with the P-word. Just don’t try to convince us that attorneys, who normally operate in “partnerships,” are, in actuality, “tort surgeons.”
Terry Lefton can be reached at email@example.com