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Is sport sponsorship safe for brands?

Authored by: Bradley Tooth – Head of Social Media


Last week, mobile phone provider Three took the decision to first pause and then suspend their three year shirt sponsorship deal with Chelsea FC after sanctions were placed on owner/oligarch Roman Abramovich.

The £120 million contract, signed in January 2020 has to date been a winning partnership that positioned Three UK as Chelsea’s “Mobile connectivity partner”. Even as the ink was drying on the deal, Three were benefiting from the brand exposure that sponsoring a club that wins the Champions League brings.

The decision to end the deal was taken quickly, in response to growing pressure on social platforms for Three to take action and on the day they announced their plans to help Ukraine. Three has requested that their logo is removed from shirts and around the stadium until further notice, as they move to avoid guilt by association.

When brands take the big leap to put their names on the front of a shirt to drive awareness with the lure of millions, often billions of views, engagements can be incredibly successful and impactful.

When mobile network O2 launched in the UK in 2002, it did so with Arsenal FC, famously sponsoring their “Invincibles” with iconic players such as Thierry Henry Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira who brought global appeal at a time when social media and smartphones didn’t occupy the agenda, this sponsorship brought O2 into the living rooms of UK football fans with a winning team.

Then there’s beer brand Tennent’s, who brilliantly sponsored both Rangers and Celtic as headline shirt sponsors from 2010-2013, driving brand awareness to both sets of passionate fans worldwide.

Yet when it goes wrong, the audience is quick to turn.

Call-out culture in modern-day society is rife and here to stay. Social media platforms allow people with a shared view to mobilise pressure groups with the power to destroy your online reputation.

In this pressured environment, brands need to make quick decisions considering both the short and long term potential to protect their position and retain/rebuild trust in the brand, and yet we still see brands ignoring social media challenges and hoping that it will go away.

Sport sponsorship remains a viable platform for brands to generate mass awareness. But for brands to continue with confidence, we need to be more robust in understanding the approach of the people behind the club as much as the performance of the club and the associated benefits.

They also need to be prepared for the social media reputational threats that go hand in hand with any sports partnership. At Democracy we run social media crisis workshops with clients that allow us all to test systems and responses. Intense sessions – but always worthwhile.

Only time will tell whether the decision will be positive or negative for Three, but had the storm clouds of social not gathered so fast, you’d anticipate that the decision may not have been taken so quickly.


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