The Paralympic Sponsorship Conundrum

Disabled bike racerWe’re 50-ish days from the London Olympics, and I’ve just had my first media enquiry about the relative lack of sponsor support for Paralympians. The usual implication by media is that sponsors are to blame for the discrepancy, and that they should be sponsoring Paralympians to the same level as able-bodied Olympic athletes.

My issue is with the word “should”. There are two main angles on the word, in this context, and they’re both wrong.

The first is the implication that performance equals commercial value for a sponsor. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. When a sponsor invests in sponsorship, they invest in opportunity. It’s what they do with the sponsorship – leverage – that provides the results. Sponsors need to be able to use a sponsorship – in this case, an athlete – across a range of other marketing media to be worth the investment of marketing money.

Performance is only one part of the sponsorability of an athlete, along with the profile of the sport, her/his personal profile and charisma, their relevance to at least one of the sponsor’s key target markets, behaviour, and sometimes the athlete’s back-story. An athlete – disabled or able-bodied – can bag a ton of medals, but if their sport isn’t in the top tier (modern pentathlon, anyone?), they may very well struggle to get significant sponsorship.

The second angle is about guilt – with the insinuation that responsible companies should support those unfortunate disabled athletes. I can tell you one thing for sure, Paralympians are finely tuned athletic machines and there is nothing “unfortunate” or lesser about them. They would tell you the same thing, and anyone who pays attention to the Paralympic Games would never class the athletic accomplishments as anything but impressive, disabled or not.

When we talk about the marketability of Paralympic athletes, a big part of the struggle is the lack of media coverage – both televising the event itself and covering Paralympic news. In other words, some of the very media that lay guilt trips on corporate sponsors would be more accurate if they took some responsibility themselves. Unfortunately, some seem to have decided that sensationalised corporate bashing is more newsworthy than actually covering the Paralympic Games.

When we talk about the marketability of Paralympic athletes, a big part of the struggle is the lack of media coverage – both televising the event itself and covering Paralympic news. In other words, some of the very media that lay guilt trips on corporate sponsors would be more accurate if they took some responsibility themselves. Unfortunately, some seem to have decided that sensationalised corporate bashing is more newsworthy than actually covering the Paralympic Games.

Of course, if you and I and the rest of the world sought out what coverage there is, it would surely drive more and better media attention. Seriously, though, how many of us have read these sponsor-bashing articles, thinking “those athletes really deserve sponsorship”, but we never tune in, ourselves? Or couldn’t name one Paralympian?

As for the Paralympians, anything they can do to raise their personal profile will increase their marketability. The number of second-tier athletes (ie, not the superstars) building a fan base and public persona via Facebook and Twitter and YouTube is growing all the time, and there is no reason Paralympians can’t do the same thing.

I’m not giving sponsors a “get out of jail free” pass. It is absolutely true that some sponsors are too blinkered – seemingly incapable of thinking laterally about how they could leverage a second-tier athlete to genuinely build their brand. That said, there still must be a critical mass of interest and relevance around an athlete for them to be leverageable. Some are. Some aren’t (at least not yet).

The upshot of all of this is that making comparisons between the commercial value of top performing Paralympians and the small percentage of Olympians who attract major sponsorship is unfair. There are many factors that go into that commercial value, and taking one-dimensional shots at corporate sponsors isn’t going to accomplish anything.

So, what do you think will improve the disparity? Or do you believe this is just how it is? Comments are open.

Update

This is – bar none – the BEST Paralympic sponsorship leverage activity I have ever seen. Bravo Samsung UK!

 

© Kim Skildum-Reid. All rights reserved. For republishing information see Blog and White Paper Reprints.

4 responses to “The Paralympic Sponsorship Conundrum”

  1. diana says:

    As a business I would like to sponsor more a paralympian….just because it could actually be in a long range more profitable in terms of niche market. Also it is something most business don’t do.
    So I say, shame on them for building the gap.
    As for media coverage….well I agree. But the traditional coverage can be bypassed using other channels, like the internet.

  2. Ian Laing says:

    Firstly – great article Kim. Completely agree it’s how brands leverage that creates the difference. Being new to the Paralympic world I have also noticed that athlete managers and indeed NPC’s need to be better in positioning disability sport to potential sponsors. We’re working hard on this at the moment.

    Diana – would be delighted to discuss how we can match you with one of our athletes.

    Ian Laing
    Australian Paralympic Committee

  3. I have been following a campaign by the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) that you might find interesting. It aligns with your comment about the potential in an athlete’s backstory.

    Essentially, the CPC’s SuperAthletes campaign seems to have glommed onto the insight that a Paralympian’s backstory is probably more compelling than his/her athletic performance. For a Paralympian, the journey is much more interesting than the destination.

    With the SuperAthletes campaign, the CPC has selected a handful of Paralympians (22 at last count) and begun the process creating and building brand personalities for each, tied to each of their backstories. As I understand it, the CPC’s hope is that by building the brand of a specific athletes, they’ll also help bolster the CPC brand itself, just as pro sports build a league’s brand in part on the back of star athletes.

    Check it out here: https://paralympic.ca/superathletes

  4. Brand power: why sponsoring Paralympians allows everyone to strike gold | artres.com.au australia says:

    […] and legitimate marketing tool that is commercially driven and objectively led. As Kim Skildum Reid acknowledged in a recent blog: “Performance is only one part of the sponsorability of an athlete, along with the profile of the […]