Sky’s sponsorship of cycling is the case study de rigueur; multi-million pound investment leads to unprecedented national success, mass participation, and the transformation of the brand from phone-hacking-guilt-by-association to British success story. No other sponsorship in recent history has had quite such a transformational effect.
What’s so intriguing is quite how old fashioned it is.
Team Sky is broadly praised due to the success of Wiggins and the team at last year’s Tour de France, but had Vincenzo Nibali been given last year’s maillot jaune and the chorus of approval for Sky would be decidedly muted. As an industry it’s all too easy to conflate sporting with commercial success – Red Bull Racing was considered a waste of money when it began, a vanity project for years, Austrian bravado. Then they started winning and overnight it became a savvy investment. I speculate this is due to how people join our industry; most join because they are sports fans 1st and marketeers 2nd; we live for the thrill of victory and are entranced by successful teams. Success gets measured in trophies and not in sales or profit. Great for your mantelpiece, not necessarily so great for your shareholders.
I like Sky’s cycling work. Even with an investment that relative to the size of the sport makes Sheikh Mansour look positively frugal – a fascinating look at Team Sky finances is available here – they’ve managed to do something that no Murdoch enterprise has managed in years, to be on the right side of public sentiment.
The reason Sky picked cycling is well publicised: James Murdoch is a huge fan. It’s the same as René Obermann’s love of cycling or Oswald Grubel’s love of F1 – when the message comes down that the boss is interested in exploring a particular sport the business case is going to write itself.
This is sponsorship in continuation of its oldest tradition – as patronage. Sky are the beneficent patron, providing the funds that allows for a group of talented individuals to train and compete and win on the world’s biggest cycling stage. Sky’s reward is the reflected glory, the works of their beneficiaries pay testament to the good taste and moral standing of the patron. It’s as old fashioned as it gets.
I thought this type of sponsorship was dead. I thought we’re all too cynical now, too quick to criticise the commercialism of sport, too wary of marketing by stealth. We demand more of sponsors than just to provide the funds, they have to prove themselves to us.
I was wrong.
Sponsorship works a different way every time, it’s about the connection you make and sometimes just lavishing attention on an under-funded and down-trodden sports and its fans is enough to prove you care.
James Murdoch is a huge cycling fan… maybe that’s not such a bad thing.