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5 Examples of Bad Sports Sponsorships That Missed the Mark

Before you dive in, if you are interested in sport sponsorship, check out these titles in our “sponsorship for sports” series:
How to Approach Companies for Sports Sponsorship: 5 Tactics that Work
5 Sports Sponsorship Valuation Strategies
Sports Sponsorship Measurement and ROI Metrics to Track
7 Best Sports Sponsorship Activations
How do Sponsorships Benefit the Sports Organization and the Sponsor?
How to Write a Sports Sponsorship Proposal
The Best Companies for Sports Sponsorship
Why is Sponsorship Important in Sport?
The Definitive Guide to Sports Fan Engagement
The Rise of Insurance Companies in Sports Sponsorship
The Advantages and Disadvantages of  Alcohol in Sport Sponsorship

If you’ve only skimmed through the information in this guide (which, you really should take the time to read everything), then spend some time with this section at least. It’s a recap of all the steps needed for sport sponsorship success.

In sports, you’re used to hearing of sponsorships that hit the ball out of the park, such as Coca-Cola in nearly any sport or car part brands in motorsports. Yet sometimes there’s a sponsorship mismatch, and it tends to leave a bad impression on all involved and their respective audiences. 

Whether because of a controversial sponsor or even athletes being busted for bad deeds, there are plenty of cautionary tales of sports sponsorship deals that went wrong. Today, I want to shed some light on 5 such sponsorships.

Rather than point the finger and play the blame game, I want to use these examples as opportunities to explore what to do in your own sports sponsorship program as well as what not to do.

Without further ado then, here are the examples of bad sports sponsorships. 

Nike, Budweiser, etc. and Lance Armstrong 

What Went Wrong?

For many years, Lance Armstrong was the golden boy of cycling. Competing since he was 16 years old, Armstrong took home a whopping seven Tour de France wins from 1998 to 2005. After surviving testicular cancer as well, Armstrong was one of the most beloved public figures in the world.

That all came crashing down in 2012. Although Armstrong had been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs in cycling since the 1990s, it was only in 2012 that the United States Anti-Doping Agency or USADA decided to investigate Armstrong.

What they found was that throughout his career, Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs. Worse yet, he was believed to have played an integral role in establishing a doping program in cycling over the years. 

The World Anti-Doping Code mandated that Armstrong be banned for life from any and every sport, including cycling. The International Cycling Union or UCI took away all his cycling championships.

During his stint as a high-profile superstar, Armstrong had naturally attracted many sponsors, including Radio Shack, Oakley, Shimano, Trek, Budweiser, and Nike.

Of course, all of Armstrong’s sponsors dropped like flies after the news broke about his abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. The companies didn’t want to be associated with Armstrong, who had painted himself as a world-class athlete for years but wasn’t what he seemed. 

This is truly one of the most poignant examples of sports sponsorships that have failed.

How to Avoid the Same Mistakes

This was a tough situation for all parties. Armstrong obviously knew what he was doing, but he did his best to keep it close to the vest for decades. However, as you’ll recall, back in 1999, accusations began to fly regarding Armstrong’s potential usage of performance-enhancing drugs.

Sponsors should always take heed when an athlete or team they’re supporting is being accused of doing something in that vein. That doesn’t mean they should drop a player or team right away, but be cautious.

These days, drug tests for athletes have become the norm. If your sports organization isn’t already instituting these tests, then it’s high time to do so. After all, a controversy like Armstrong’s doesn’t only reflect poorly on the athlete, but the sport they’re a part of and a team they play for. 

All the aftershocks make it harder to find future sponsors, as it takes a long time to shake a reputation after a big scandal on par with Armstrong’s. 

McDonald’s and the Olympics

What Went Wrong?

McDonald’s has supported the Olympic Games as a sponsor since 1976, so they had a long-standing record of partnership without incident. 

Before the 2012 Olympic Games in London took place, the tides began to change.

Accusers stated that in keeping McDonald’s as a sponsor, the Olympics were glorifying obesity. Around this time, McDonald’s was working on making their menu healthier, but that didn’t stop the outcry. 

Then, later it came out that the only French fries allowed to be sold at the park where the games were hosted had to come from McDonald’s. If you sold fish and chips as a vendor, that was an exception, but other brands couldn’t sell their own fries.

The issue became so bad that it was coined the Dictatorship by UK media because fries in the UK are known as chips. The London Organising Committee eventually overturned the French fry rule, at least to an extent. 

Other brands could serve their fries in the staff catering tent, but still not sell them to consumers in the park. 

McDonald’s ultimately signed on for an eight-year extension with the Olympics after the Dictatorship scandal and before the 2012 Olympics happened. 

Clearly, the Olympics weren’t bothered too much by the Dictatorship kerfuffle. Since McDonald’s at the time was promoting healthier menu options, that might have assuaged the Olympics’ concerns about supposedly promoting obesity. 

How to Avoid the Same Mistakes

This story is a bit of a strange one, admittedly. McDonald’s has always been McDonald’s. It’s society’s perception of it that’s changed over time. 

Back in the 1970s when McDonald’s first paired up with the Olympics, obesity wasn’t really an issue. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC, between 1999 and 2000, obesity in the United States rose by 30.5 percent. Then, from 2000 to 2018, the obesity rate jumped to 42.4 percent.

In 2012, obesity was clearly an issue among the American public. That’s why McDonald’s was under fire for working with the Olympics, even though they had done the same for 30+ years and no one had batted an eye. 

As a sponsorship seeker, you need to choose your sponsors carefully. Your sports organization can partner with food brands, but whole, healthy food brands are best, not fast food. You never know when your audience or the general public can turn on you for working with an unhealthy food supplier. 

You should also take some precautions when it comes to the type of deal you’re penning with a sponsor, especially since your sporting events will likely have multiple sponsors. Allowing McDonald’s to be the only fry seller at the Olympics severely undercut the profits of the other sponsors.

Don’t do something similar to your own sponsors. I know that when you have a big-name sponsor that it’s tempting to treat them like gold. You’ll want to prioritize them over your other sponsors. 

However, you never know what the big-name sponsor is going to do after this season ends. They could re-sign with your sports organization, or they might decline to. 

If you treated your other sponsors badly in your pursuit to give the big sponsor the best of everything, those smaller sponsors might leave in kind. Now you have no sponsors, which puts you back at square one. 

SpongeBob SquarePants and NASCAR

What Went Wrong?

Let’s take a step away from the controversial sponsorships in sports and talk about something a little more lighthearted, shall we? 

In 2015, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race was renamed the 2015 SpongeBob SquarePants 400 due to Nickelodeon’s partnership with NASCAR. Besides naming rights for the event, some of the NASCAR vehicles and uniforms were emblazoned with SpongeBob characters.

In 2016, Nick sponsored NASCAR again, but this time, the race was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400.  

The sponsorship deal went off without a hitch, but I have to ask why it happened at all. After all, according to Statista, the average age of NASCAR viewers as of 2016 is 58 years old. The viewership age has increased, as in 2006, the average age of viewers was 49 years old.

They’re not children; far from it. 

A 2011 review of NASCAR demos shows that in that year, their youngest group of viewers–the 18 to 24 group–comprised only 10 percent of NASCAR viewers. 

Even still, by 18, you’re probably not watching SpongeBob, nor Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This was a strange and amusing case of NASCAR not catering to their target audience. 

How to Avoid the Same Mistakes

In sponsorship, audience data is everything. An audience survey will reveal basic demographic information such as the age range of your sports attendees. 

It’s okay to have events that cater to younger viewers/attendees as well as older ones, but you have to be sure that a demo exists among your audience base. NASCAR was promoting a kids’ show to a bunch of 40 and 50-year-olds, which just doesn’t make sense. 

I’m not saying children don’t watch NASCAR; I’m sure some do. That demographic might not be reflected in the data, but kids must tune in. If the number of viewers under 18 isn’t being tabulated though, then why pursue that demographic? 

Even if your sports organization appeals to the wrong audience segment, it’s usually not the end of the world. I’m sure some NASCAR fans didn’t care to see SpongeBob, Patrick, and the gang all over the drivers’ cars and uniforms, but it was one race. In the grand scheme of things, it was ultimately forgettable. 

Well, almost forgettable.  

Sponsors and Dallas Cowboys

What Went Wrong?

The Dallas Cowboys are one of the most acclaimed football teams in the NFL. Jerry Jones has owned the team since 1989. He helped the Cowboys achieve much of their fame by nicknaming them America’s Team and then positioning them as such. 

Jones shelled out $1.2 billion for a new stadium in Dallas that was appropriately called Cowboys Stadium. The stadium had been talked about since the 1990s and was built in the mid-2000s, with work wrapping up in 2009.

All along, Cowboys Stadium was up for naming rights. None came for a long time. Despite that, in 2011, the Super Bowl was hosted there. It wouldn’t be until 2013 that AT&T decided to partner with the Cowboys to rename the arena to AT&T Stadium. 

So why the long wait? You’d think a stadium for a major NFL team would be snatched up immediately, especially after the huge publicity that a Super Bowl hosting slot would deliver. 

Well, part of it could have to do with price. AT&T shells out $17 to $19 million every year for their naming rights deal in Dallas, or at least that was the starting price. That’s very costly and could have turned other potentially viable sponsors away. 

How to Avoid the Same Mistakes

Pricing assets in sponsorship is one of the biggest issues that my clients face. Sponsorship seekers are afraid of receiving too little money for their assets, so they slap a few extra zeros on each asset in their property.

As the example of Dallas Stadium proves, this can come back to bite you. You can have an awesome asset such as a world-class stadium that hosted the Super Bowl, but if you charge too much for it, no sponsor will want to touch you with a nine-foot pole. 

I’ve talked about pricing event assets in this post as well as elsewhere on the blog, so I recommend you read through those posts. I always suggest using market research to guide your prices.  

GM, AT&T, etc. and Tiger Woods

What Went Wrong?

I saved probably the biggest example of bad sports sponsorships for last, and that’s the tale of Tiger Woods. 

A professional golfer since 1996, Woods was a highly decorated star who took home countless golf championships, the Associated Press’ Athlete of the Decade title in 2009, and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Yet it was his personal life that ultimately did him in. In 2009, a tabloid publication reported that Woods had a mistress. 

As the news broke and the scrutiny on Woods was growing, he crashed his car close to his Florida home in the middle of the night one evening. He wasn’t seriously injured, but the accident continued the bizarre chain of events.

Woods had denied allegations of the affair at first. As more and more evidence mounted though, including released voicemails, he eventually had no choice but to admit that yes, the affair had happened. 

Although it wasn’t immediately, one by one, Woods began losing his sponsors. General Motors, Gatorade, AT&T, and Accenture dropped him. That was followed by TAG Heuer and Gillette. Then Golf Digest discontinued Woods’ column that he wrote monthly. 

Interestingly, not every sponsor vanished. Electronic Arts, a video game company, was in the middle of making Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online around the time of the controversy. The game did come out, and it was followed up by several sequels.

Nike also didn’t drop Woods. 

How to Avoid the Same Mistakes

If this was 10 years later in 2019, I’m not sure if Woods would have come under fire the same way he did back in 2009. While yes, his transgressions are egregious, ultimately, it’s Woods’ personal life that was a mess, not his professional one. 

The sponsors who dropped him might have done so because they felt like they had to. EA and Nike decided to stick around, and neither brand was worse for wearing in doing that. Even Woods bounced back, although his reputation will always be a little tarnished. 

As a sports team manager, you can’t help what your players do, especially personally. If a player in your sports organization does get embroiled in a controversy that has to do with their personal lives, you’d hope that maybe some sponsors would see the forest for trees. That said, you might have to prepare to lose sponsors.

My best advice would be to tell your players to keep their personal lives personal and out of the public eye. That’s about the best you can do to prevent a situation like Woods had. 

Conclusion 

With the sheer number of sports sponsorships that have happened and continue to, it makes sense that not all would hit the mark. Failed sponsorships in sports have ended careers, ruined reputations, and cost millions of dollars, sometimes more. 

I hope you can take these examples as learning opportunities to avoid making the same mistakes in your own sports sponsorship program. 

 

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