How to maximise your title sponsorship of tennis events

Tennis ball on grass court SEO

Out-Law Analysis | 13 Jun 2022 | 10:32 am | 5 min. read

Title sponsorship of major sporting events offers businesses exposure for their brand, the chance to reach new audiences and reinforce, or change, existing consumer perceptions.

There are risks and pitfalls to title sponsorship that brands need to navigate, however. Planning the messaging, considering and implementing a clear branding strategy and a carefully drafted sponsorship contract can make all the difference.

The prestigious tennis event hosted by The Queen’s Club in London, taking place this week, is a case study of the strong brand value that title sponsorship of tournaments in the sports industry can deliver.

The Queen’s Club tournament and title sponsorship

The Queen’s Club tournament has routinely attracted many of the best men’s tennis players in the world since it was first staged more than a century ago. The London location and proximity to Wimbledon in the tennis calendar make it an ideal place for players to hone their skills on the grass courts. Previous winners include a host of the sport’s superstars across generations, such as Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.

The high-class competition, beautiful, traditional setting and widespread media coverage of the tournament make the event highly attractive from a commercial sponsorship perspective.

This year’s title sponsor is cinch, the online platform for buying cars. Other title sponsors in recent years have included drinks company Fever-Tree and investments firm Aegon. However, many tennis enthusiasts still remember or still refer to the event at The Queen’s Club as the Stella Artois Championships – despite the fact that the Stella Artois’ title sponsorship deal ended more than a decade ago – and an online search for the Stella Artois Championships still returns prominent references to The Queen’s Club tournament to this day.

The benefits of title sponsorship

Stella Artois was title sponsor of ‘Queen’s’ for nearly 30 years before Aegon took on title sponsorship in 2009. The enduring association between Stella Artois and The Queen’s Club provides evidence of the strong brand value that brands can establish by becoming a title sponsor at prestigious sporting events.

Events and experiences influence how audiences feel about brands. In the case of Stella Artois, the widespread perception of it as a premium lager is undoubtedly enhanced by its association with The Queen’s Club.

Fields Dsire

Désirée Fields

Legal Director

The more high-profile, prestigious, the event, the more likely it is that consumers will consider the brand and associated products or services of title sponsors to be reputable and reliable

Other benefits that title sponsorship can offer include that it can enable brands to reach new audiences who may not have been very familiar with their products. This year’s title sponsors of ‘Queen’s’, cinch, have embraced sport and other entertainment events as a means of broadening awareness of its brand – in addition to its arrangement with The Queen’s Club, cinch have partnerships with the Lawn Tennis Association, England Cricket and the Scottish Professional Football League, as well as The British Motor Show and The Isle of Wight Festival, among others.

For other brands, title sponsorship can offer the opportunity to reconnect or increase connections with existing consumers, gain a competitive advantage over rivals who are absent, and increase brand visibility. Title sponsor branding will, for example, feature in official communications from tournament organisers, including on social media, on official branded merchandise, on marketing boards around event stadia and in the backdrop to TV interviews, as well as at prize presentation ceremonies. The more high-profile, prestigious, the event, the more likely it is that consumers will consider the brand and associated products or services of title sponsors to be reputable and reliable.

The risks and pitfalls of title sponsorship

One of the risks of becoming the title sponsor at a major sporting event is that the actions taken by event organisers or by participants will be linked to that title sponsor. These are things the title sponsor has no control over.

Whilst it may be less of a risk when sponsoring a long-standing prestigious event than an individual player or new tournament, there is always a risk of tarnishment by association. One example might be the Adria Tour which Novak Djokovic set up during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 while regular events on the ATP Tour were suspended.

The Adria Tour was intended to be held in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina but had to be cancelled before the finals on the second tour stop in Croatia due to several players testing positive for Covid-19. An event that was intended to bring joy to fans and raise charitable funds ultimately ended up being highly criticised globally for being irresponsible and for disrespecting social distancing rules when much of the world was still in lockdown or subject to public health restrictions.

Title sponsorship is also no guarantee of a return on investment. This emphasises the need for brands to ensure their contracts are robust and provide for an exit strategy.

There is also a risk that brands that take on title sponsorships will be overshadowed by previous title sponsors. In the context of ‘Queen’s’, it could be argued that the enduring association between Stella Artois and The Queen’s Club tournament has made it harder for subsequent title sponsors to enjoy the same benefits. There can also be brand confusion if consumers fail to distinguish the tournament from the sponsor – this can be a problem not just for the new sponsor but the tournament organisers too if all but hardcore tennis fans assume the different titles correspond to completely different events.

There are also risks that the regulatory environment will change. Tighter controls on, for example, alcohol or gambling sponsorship in sport, as some campaigners have called for, could have implications for businesses active in those industries.

Actions for brands

There are things brands can do to limit their exposure to the risks and the pitfalls that come with title sponsorship in sport to maximise the benefits to be gained from such relationships.

Businesses first need to have a clear understanding of what it is they want to achieve from title sponsorship. Commercial factors should be considered, such as whether the event provides the right exposure, reaches the right audience, fits with the brand values and sends the right message.

Campell George

George Campbell

Legal Director

A formal, written sponsorship agreement is a major tool in safeguarding any brand

Brands should develop a strategy for getting the most out of title sponsorship. They will want to consider the type of exposure they are looking for and how they want to deliver their branding message. Some things may be outside a brand’s sphere of control, but they may be able to exert influence over other things such as how branding appears on merchandise or ‘freebie’ items. The intellectual property (IP) and associated rights owned by the brand should shape the strategy and any co-branding activities.

Implementing the strategy requires brands to build a strong team. This team should comprise astute marketing professionals as well as legal advisers expert in protecting and exploiting IP rights and in drafting sponsorship agreements.

A formal, written sponsorship agreement is a major tool in safeguarding any brand. A contract that gives sponsors robust protection will include morality clauses, which will specify prohibited behaviours that trigger other rights under the contract – such as the right to suspend payments or terminate the agreement. Robust termination provisions within the contract are important, as are ‘force majeure’ clauses that account for unforeseeable events that prevent performance of the contract.

Other important aspects of a title sponsorship agreement will include payment provisions that facilitate staggered payments to tournament organisers and are weighted against large upfront payments. Exclusivity clauses will help protect the investment made by the sponsor in the event and can be supported by further contractual safeguards against ‘ambush marketing’ activities – where other brands look to unfairly piggyback on an event to leverage marketing of their own brand.

Brands should also develop guidelines around use of their brand and share these with tournament organisers to ensure that they have as much control as possible around how their brand is used – and monitor that these are adhered to vigorously.

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