Sponsor, let yourself be heard

Since EURO2020, my discussions with sponsor managers have increasingly focused on the role of their brand in the public debate. During that European Football Championship, there was controversy about the introduction of legislation in Hungary (one of the host countries) banning the provision of information on homosexuality to young people. The European Championship subsequently drew attention to gay rights in various ways. The mayor of Munich wanted to decorate the Allianz Arena with rainbow lights (although UEFA did not allow that). Fans and footballers alike showed their support for the lgtbi+ community with rainbow flags and captain’s armbands in the same colours.

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Eva Gerritse

During the tournament, sponsors also felt the need to draw attention to gay rights with a rainbow metamorphosis of their billboards around the football pitch. Almost all billboards had soon turned into a rainbow. The combination of momentum, pressure from society, together with the courage of a number of sponsors who took the lead, turned out to be the recipe for a campaign that eventually had the support of almost all the European Championship sponsors.

Seen sceptically, you could say that these European Championship sponsors were mainly trailing along behind one another: when one sheep leaps over the ditch, the rest have to follow. But the positive result is that since that tournament, sponsors are more aware than ever of their societal role and, with that role in mind, make better choices about their sponsorship. One result of this is, for example, that we have seen far fewer major campaigns from sponsors during the Olympic Games because of the human rights situation in China. The same caution will undoubtedly apply to the Football World Cup in Qatar at the end of this year.

The European Football Championship has proved to be a catalyst for a much more proactive social attitude from sponsors. Eight months later, sponsors need little encouragement to make themselves heard. Let alone waiting for their co-sponsors to take action. Sponsors realise that they are expected to take responsibility. Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, we had the first sponsor on the phone who wanted to know what the impact would be if they showed their support for Ukraine at the next Champions League matches.

Fortunately, we too have learnt a lot since EURO2020. We now know much better what people feel when sponsors make their voices heard in the public debate. That picture is very clear: almost three quarters think that sponsors should do something or make themselves heard on social issues. The group that does not want a strong opinion from sponsors is very small: less than one in ten believes that sponsors should not get involved with social problems. Among sports fans, this group is even smaller: one in fifteen.

With all the exposure they receive through sponsorship, sponsors have more than enough opportunities to make a socially relevant noise. This is not the time to be quiet. The world expects sponsors to speak out, so let yourself be heard!

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