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Does sports sponsorship work? New research sheds light

Image: Sports sponsorship - World Cup stadium

The FIFA World Cup is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, with millions of dollars poured into sponsorships by some of the most recognized brands in the world.

At Russia 2018, up to eight brands including Adidas, Coca-Cola, and Gazprom will shell out a fee that is widely thought to be in the region of £100m to promote their brand as an official partner of the event. Up to six brands will pay around £50m to be middle-tier sponsors, and as many as 32 brands will pay in the region of £8m each to be regional supporters. (i)

Given the vast amount that is spent on sponsorship deals, it's imperative for brands to know they are getting return on investment. As Michael Goldstein, VP of Global Sponsorships at Mastercard puts it, 'If you can't measure what you are doing, you probably shouldn't be doing it in the first place.' (ii)

But while sponsorship spending increases year on year, marketers’ ability to measure ROI hasn’t kept up, resulting in what Boroncyzk et al call a 'measurement deficit.' (iii)

As more quantitative research is published, it's becoming clearer what does and doesn't work when it comes to sponsorship. Using advanced techniques like eye-tracking technology and electroencephalography (measuring electrical activity in the brain), new insights will help marketers make better decisions about sponsorship deals.

Here's a quick run-down of the latest findings from International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship.

  1. Contrasting colours make signage stand out

    Using eye-tracking, Boronczyk et al examined factors that impact viewers' attention to sponsor signage, assessing colour, brand familiarity, and viewer 'involvement' with the event. They found that marketers should attempt to create greater colour contrast between their signage and other brands' concurrent signs in order to maximize viewer attention.

  1. Sponsor brands must 'fit' – but slightly surprising sponsorships are even better

    Research from Alonso Dos Santos and Calabuig Moreno measured brain activity of viewers to analyse brand congruence or 'fit' of sponsors and sponsees. They found that a low level of incongruence, which takes longer to process mentally, can positively influence the effectiveness of sponsorship. This is because the mental effort it takes viewers to understand the relationship between a slightly incongruent sponsor and sponsee makes a stronger imprint on the viewer’s memory.

  1. Viewers notice ads less if they use a second screen

    Existing research shows that viewers who strongly identify with a sports team respond more positively to brands who sponsor their team. At the same time, fans who identify strongly with a sport are more likely to use a second device whilst watching a game – for example, to discuss the game on social media, or check game stats. Research from Jensen, Walsh, and Cobbs finds that these highly identified viewers who also engage with a second screen become less aware of the sponsor brands. "The results are sobering for brand marketers who allocate millions of dollars every year toward the achievement of brand integration," the researchers conclude.

  1. Viewers 'see' the sponsors they expect to see even when they aren't there

    New research from Devlin and Billings demonstrates that confirmation bias can have a strong effect on the sponsorships that viewers think they have seen. After showing both high-invested and low-invested viewers images of a UFC event, the sample did not accurately remember which brands they had been exposed to. 49.5% incorrectly recalled seeing Tapout advertised in the UFC images – even though Tapout did not appear in the images at all. Ultimately, the research suggests that brands that are incongruent with a sporting event must do much more than highly congruent brands to build strong associations.

  1. Doping scandals negatively affect stock prices of sponsors

    Research from Drivdal et al examines the effect of contract announcements, races won, and doping scandals on the stock prices of companies who sponsor cyclists. While their findings did not show any significant correlation between stock prices and contract announcements or races won, they found that doping scandals can have a significant negative affect on stock prices. The researchers therefore highlight that companies 'should only enter into sponsorship agreements where the doping risk is controllable.'

  1. Official sponsorships are more effective than ambush marketing

    Official sponsors at the 2014 World Cup included Adidas, Coca-Cola, Sony, and Emirates, but unofficial 'ambush' campaigns were run by Nike, Pepsi, Samsung, and Turkish Airlines respectively. Rather than featuring the official World Cup branding, these ambush campaigns relied on prominent football stars and testimonials to create a football atmosphere. Comparing viewer responses to video ads, the research team found that official sponsor advertisements were slightly more effective in terms of creating brand knowledge and behaviour shifts, because they created stronger and more numerous mental associations with the World Cup.


Mark Ritson, 'Which sponsors would trust the World Cup to protect their brand in 2018?', Marketing Week, 28 Nov 2017,

Jonathan A. Jensen and Darin W. White, 'Trends in sport sponsorship evaluation and measurement: insights from the industry', International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship, Vol.19, Issue 1, pp.2-10 (3)

Felix Boronczyk, Christopher Rumpf, and Christoph Breuer, 'Determinants of viewer attention in concurrent event sponsorship', International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship, Vo.19, Issue 1, pp.11-24 (11)

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