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Pioneering digital platform shows way forward for sports sponsorship brand matching

By Jonathan Powell at Yutang Sports Friday, 14 Apr 2017 21:29

Photo credit: Getty Image

In the era of digital networking, sports sponsorship entrepreneur Ishveen Anand is pioneering an effort to bring athletes and companies together through technology.

Anand is the founder of OpenSponsorship, which could be thought of as ‘online dating for sports marketing’. It connects athletes and brands from all over the world, with a philosophy of transparency and meritocracy that allows for deals to be made.

The British-born Oxford university economics graduate shared her thinking with Yutang Sports, after contributing to a panel talk at the SportAccord Convention in Denmark recently. Anand gives unique insight into sponsorship in a digital world, innovation and how it applies, especially to governing bodies, and to the challenges for brands working with the international federations, national federations and events rights holders.

Anand sees clear opportunities for companies in China with know-how of their consumer market to connect with federations and rights holders, to build niche sports and events there. Conversely, Chinese brands can be better matched with leagues and events in Europe and North America.

She was inspired to start in sports sponsorship after working in Britain, India and the USA, and seeing there was a space for a more transparent brand-athlete engagement process. After the launch of Opensponsorship in 2014, Anand was selected in the sports category in the Forbes 30 under 30 global prodigies list. 

“I noticed that there is very little merit to how sponsorship is sold,” she says. “I found that sponsorship is an old boys game - if you know someone who knows someone then it's easier. It's the old style of recruitment, the way recruitment used to be. Whereas now you can go onto amazing websites, see what jobs are open and apply to them, and it should be more meritocratic like that. So that is what OpenSponsorship is. We believe that with a little bit of education on both sides, and some transparency around pricing, and a way to show your property, then there are deals to be made even if you don't know the other party yet.

“I've learned that China is a participation environment, so if you're a federation and the Chinese population is good for your sport, could play it, could compete in it, then already you have a tick. I think the NBA has done well because there was not much else to watch in China, but as the Chinese Super League gets bigger and other home grown tournaments get bigger, I think it is going to hurt the NBA and other external leagues.

Anand is into sport as a netball participant and as a businesswoman, and is passionate about brands including the NHL, San Francisco 49ers and Manchester United, and about sales and strategy. Her journey into a sports career started with management consulting in London.

“I played a lot of netball, not at a high level but it is a part of who I am. I became motivated to get into sports policy, and someone said ‘if you know how to commercialise sports it would be much easier for you’. So, I became a sports agent, and I thought ‘if I'm to change my career why not do something drastic’, so I moved to India, and I worked for the Indian Premier league (cricket). My first job was working for the Mumbai Indians selling sponsorship.

“I later worked in field hockey and golf. I suppose I was just very observant and very interested, and I think the best entrepreneurs are people who can just keep their eyes open, see what's happening. I was always really interested in the global aspects of sport, and sport sponsorship. I thought apart from Manchester United nobody was doing it well. I'd speak to Pepsi in London and about the rights they thought they had access to, and that they were using. I saw they were not factoring in that Pepsi in India had all these amazing cricket rights despite the fact that millions of Indians in the UK connect with cricket in India. So I realised that there was at this disjoint.

“A few years later I moved to America and noticed the language of sports in America was completely different to anything else. So I was thrown into the deep end thinking: ‘if you have the skill sets and you can match people who want to spend money then you can make deals happen.’”

Speaking at the SportAccord Convention, Anand highlighted the risk of sponsorship losing out to other brand-building options. She said: "a total of 15% of all marketing spend goes to sponsorship, yet when you look at the industry of sponsorship versus media, digital or other avenues to spend, you can see that sponsorship has really been left behind. So, in the same way that technology has brought about change to dating, recruitment, real estate and travel through two-sided market places, we are now bringing this to sponsorship."

Anand suggests that what is being consumed in China may not match what some federations or events can offer. The brand partner match is important.

“Peak (sportswear brand) are great in the NBA, and they already sponsor and have brand ambassadors with top players there. Peak have gone out and asked ‘who is influencing my audience'. And they look at the NBA and European football leagues, whereas the federations who want to go into China are sports like running, triathlon and other niche sports, which need to grow their audience.

“A federation or rights holder might want to go into China and build events there. Let's say, for example, the ITU (International Triathlon Union) reaches out to Peak Sports (a sportswear brand) and says ‘this is the amount of potential triathletes we are trying to recruit so why don't you sponsor us and we will build a program together’. So, Peak uses their influence in China, as they have the marketing know how to speak to the Chinese consumer. They might come up with a campaign to push triathlons. They might get their NBA star Tony Parker to come to China and do triathlon, as a gimmick. It's cross-pollination with what they know, together with the objectives of the ITU.

“Suddenly more people would be doing triathlons and Peak becomes synonymous as the brand for triathletes. It's a win-win. The best partnerships are where the federation or rights holder may receive the money from the brand, but insist that the brand take back some of that money and put it straight into marketing the events. This means you're relying on the brand to build your sport and this is a big incentive for them. It means they take ownership of the project. The federation says ‘pay me less but you build the sport’.

“It's been a journey, we've only been around for two years. At first, we dived in with athletes because athletes are people you can judge from certain characteristics. It's a lot harder to judge a federation. Speaking to federations, I have to trust what they say whereas with an athlete I can trust the power of the team or their social media.

“We have around 3,000 properties on our platform right now, which includes athletes, teams and events, and we have around 1,500 brands. We help brands understand what is sponsorship, what are digital assets, what is the worth of the logo on the shirtsleeve of the golfer, what are the different rights that you can access, such as tickets or hospitality, and we help them understand their objectives and how sports can fit. Once they understand we help them to build a campaign on our site that all of our athletes and events can apply to. For example: 'I'm a water brand and I'm looking at growing my presence in Chicago'. So, Chicago Bulls, Chicago athletes, Chicago events could all apply, and say ‘this is how we could help'. So, we're trying to create a very efficient way to conduct this sponsorship engagement process.”

OpenSponsorship is backed by prominent venture capitalists from San Francisco, New York and Hong Kong, such as Duncan Chiu and Gordon Yen. Anand’s concept is a good example of a company that has evolved with the change in sports marketing, where details of athlete’s lives, feelings, and opinions are shared in depth.

Thanks to technology, fans have come to expect content, live streaming, on demand coverage and supporting statistics and analysis, to be available to them whenever, wherever.

This is especially the case through social media; a great way for athletes to endorse products and expose companies to their thousands of engaged and interested followers.

“Athletes are the base, and once you figure out the DNA of your athletes everything else is built on top of that. When Alex Ferguson left Manchester United it hit the DNA of who they were. There are certain nuances that create a team, and when you understand that in the athlete, you can build from there.

“Athletes can be easily understood now, thanks to social media. We don't believe social media is the whole picture, but we look at the content of an athlete's social media. We can analyze the words, sentiment and everything else. Based on that, we could identify certain things that show who they are as people. Often we can understand the athlete’s identity and message better than they know themselves. Then we can predict the brand image of their team and of their event too.

“What differentiates one federation or rights holder event from another is its people; the people who care about it and its participants, managers, coaches and CEO. These are the people who make up the identity of these entities. We spend 90% of our time recruiting brands. Federations or events are often only seeking money, asking: 'where can I get sponsorship dollars from'. It would be nice to spend time educating federations and events, but is more interesting for us, and necessary, to spend time with the brands. There's no point in recruiting federations unless we have brands ready to work with them. We focus on educating brands in helping segment then, and find their matches with events, federations or athletes.”

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