The applause from the Bird’s Nest has barely died down, confirming the status of the World Athletics Championship as the third largest sporting event worldwide after the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. Despite this, athletics is estimated to attract merely 1-2% of global sports sponsorship revenue this year – estimated by PwC at a whopping $45 billion. Why this disparity?
An examination of the structure of athletics sheds some light on the challenges it faces. While interest in athletics focuses on the biennial World Athletics Championships and the quadrennial Olympic & Paralympic Games, sports like golf and tennis have at least four major tournaments per year. The appeal of global sport to sponsors arises from its exposure, and it is no surprise that sports which regularly feature in our calendars are the sports with high revenues from sponsorship.
For athletics, the problem is compounded by the distribution of elite athletes across a variety of events. When we tune into Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, we are guaranteed multiple clashes of the sport’s titans – but at the World Athletics Championships, the highest-profile athletes will rarely compete against each other. Usain Bolt and Mo Farah will never go head-to-head in the same way that Leo Messi and Bastian Schweinsteiger will in a cup final, and will consequently never draw in the same high level audience figures. With sponsors looking for partnerships that offer such large-scale, regular exposure, the disadvantage of athletics is clear.
Given the range of countries top athletes come from, athletics events ought to be able to attract more sponsors. But once again, structure leads to complications. The representation of each country by its national team leads to broadcast coverage focusing each country’s own athletes. The UK hears about the achievements of heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, but she is comparatively unknown in other countries, where home-grown athletes take prominence. Only a few stand-out athletes (Usain Bolt, for example) have a truly global reach. The complexities of global presentation poses a threat to the coherence of the unitary message which sponsors generally wish to convey.
Sponsors who wish to associate themselves with Olympian qualities of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ have perceived that it is more effective to achieve this with specific athletes, rather than with the event as a whole. The tactical choice to sponsor individuals rather than teams or events creates a system whereby the best athletes gain endorsement funding with which to enhance their already-glittering careers. Meanwhile, sponsorship is draining away from official governing bodies, and support for new athletes is no longer present. This cycle is indicative of the problems which athletics faces.
So what does all this mean for athletics? The recent news that Sainsbury’s has chosen to exercise a break clause in their sponsorship of British Athletics halfway through their contract and less than a year before Rio 2016 seems to illustrate the problem. For athletics to become more sustainable as a sport, steps must be taken to address the unique challenges which it faces.
Redmandarin’s David Powell talks to BBC World News about this topic…