It’s now been over a year since “the shutdown.” Our normal lifestyle, as we know it, put on pause as the entire country was told to remain home and stay safe. During this confusing time, the sports and entertainment world was turned upside down. Games, leagues and events were suspended or cancelled altogether, and there was a stretch of a couple months where America had essentially zero sports.
No matter the capacity, if you work in sports or entertainment, 2020 had a direct and personal impact on us all. For myself and my colleagues, we essentially had to re-invent what sponsorship activation for our clients would look like. It’s been a trying and long year, but we’ve learned a lot about how to manage and survive in times of uncertainty and strain, while still creating value for our partners.
Below are a few of what I believe to be the most impactful takeaways, lessons we can all carry on as we re-discover our new “normal.”
Listening is more important than ever.
One of our organization’s core values is to Listen and Respond and that action was absolutely critical in the heart of the pandemic. Our Corporate Partnerships team would find literally any excuse to connect with our clients on a regular basis. Even if there were few tangible “to-do’s” to discuss, it was important to stay connected and hear what’s happening in their world. Every brand and every individual has a story of how COVID impacted their business and their lives, respectively - some less pleasant than others. Regular, open lines of communication allow for you to stay invested in these stories and continue to help answer the question of ‘how can we help?’ And let’s be honest, any one-on-one conversation with a familiar face is much needed in our new norm of WFH and virtual meetings (after virtual meetings after virtual meetings).
All you can do as a property is to overdeliver on assets still available; have upfront, candid conversations as needed; and show appreciation when and wherever possible.
It’s time to get creative.
I’ll preface by saying, you should always be brainstorming the next, great creative idea for your clients, but a positive of COVID (yes, they exist) is that we are now forced to think outside-of-the-box. The best way to do so is through flexibility. Use the sponsorship agreement as a guiding light but deviate from the path whenever necessary and where it makes sense. As one example, replace a traditional in-person event with a virtual gathering; or maybe hold a socially distanced drive-thru, Chick-fil-a style (as evidenced by the pic below). If they’re not already, your social and digital team should now be your best friends. Digital marketing has taken off since quarantine and your clients will continue to appreciate hearing the latest and greatest, and how they can get a piece of the pie. Even when the worst is behind us, the increased emphasis on digital and social marketing won’t subside. Gone are the days of a client going along with merely a logo bug on a post. instead, they want to see fresh ideas showing how their brand can authentically be featured in content. If your team isn’t doing this for your clients, someone else is.
Be a news source.
One of the benefits of being a sponsor of a team or venue is the opportunity to hear first-hand knowledge. Your organization will make it clear what can and can’t be divulged but for those tidbits that fall under the former, look for any opportunity to share with your clients. And stay positive. Even seemingly bad news can be flipped to a positive with the right delivery and mindset. Keep them apprised of timelines and what you’re hearing on your side (again, only sharing what can be shared). The more info you provide proactively, the less chance for questions and concerns from their end. Plus, your client probably enjoys the role of serving as “scoop” to his or her colleagues and friends.
For those of us working in the industry, the difficult times are going to make us appreciate everything that lies ahead more than ever. So, it’s time to get excited. We’ve earned it.
Address the elephant in the room.
In this case, that elephant is acknowledging the obvious: this was not a typical year for sports and it’s been a difficult time for us all. No matter how creative your respective teams were in identifying new opportunities or ideas, the value in 2020 was not what sponsors have come to expect on an annual basis. Measure everything and be upfront. When you’ve identified that a sponsor is underperforming overall, work with your internal team on offering up future incentives on how to make them whole, preferably non-monetary. Remember that anything considered to be under value is because of circumstances far beyond any of our control, and your client respects the situation. All you can do as a property is to overdeliver on assets still available; have upfront, candid conversations as needed; and show appreciation when and wherever possible.
Look ahead and get excited.
While we’re not out of the woods yet, 2020 is forever behind us and there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for a return to some sense of normalcy. This light is slowly growing brighter each day, as we collectively dream of the once taken-for-granted days of walking into a packed and energized arena. While we don’t know what the rest of the year holds yet, we’ve all become very good over the past year at scenario planning. Now, that scenario is planning for the possibility of a huge return for the sports and entertainment world the back half of 2021. Fans have seen what the United States looks like without sports (temporarily, of course) and they didn’t like it. They’re starved for live sports and entertainment. For those of us working in the industry, the difficult times are going to make us appreciate everything that lies ahead more than ever. So, it’s time to get excited. We’ve earned it.
Tyler Hargrove has over 15 years of experience working in the sports industry. Following a decade of experience on the agency side, 2021 marks his seventh season with the Atlanta Falcons, currently serving in the position of Senior Corporate Partnership Executive. Born and raised in Atlanta, he currently resides in Marietta, Georgia with his wife, Stephanie, and daughter, Sarah Kate.