Business Life, May 2012
The association between business and sport in modern times is the most mutually advantageous relationship since Morecambe met Wise. Talented athletes striving to be the best desperately need sponsorship in order to devote their time and energy to training, unencumbered by the necessity to hold down a job. And companies of all kinds are stumping up the necessary funding because they know that in return for being linked with a popular athlete, they can enhance their image, heighten brand awareness, increase sales, develop customer loyalty and improve community relations.
Sponsorship varies from providing a promising young newcomer with £100 worth of sports equipment to multi-million pound endorsement deals for famous names such as Paula Radcliffe and David Beckham. Some companies receive more than a hundred sponsorship enquiries a week, and the total sport sponsorship market in the UK is currently valued at about £400 million. With the Olympics looming, these deals have been much in the news lately. British businesses are keen to get behind Team GB’s potential Olympic medal-winners…and to be seen to do so.
As well as directly funding particular athletes and sports teams, businesses have been joining the public sector to sponsor athletes more generally, especially now in the run-up to the Olympics. UK Sport and LOCOG’s ‘Team 2012’ initiative was set up to attract additional corporate income to complement existing state and National Lottery investment, with special opportunities for small and medium enterprises. Money raised by Team 2012 is targeted at the country’s leading athletes via their sport’s governing body.
One of our most celebrated former Olympic champions, the sprinter Linford Christie, says it would be ‘very hard’ for a talented athlete in 21st century Britain to get to the top without substantial sponsorship. He recalls the sponsors who had helped him in his own career: ‘I was with Puma for 15 years and they did all my kit, which was essential. Without them, and many others, I’d never have been able to do it. You always need a clothing sponsor and a financial one. It’s a vital support structure, if one part is missing it all falls apart!’ And as for what the sponsors get out of it, ‘Besides all the valuable publicity which comes from athletes wearing your logo, you can watch them on their journey from humble beginnings to success. If they become a champion you can be proud that you were one of the people behind it.’
Business Life spoke to three top flight British athletes to find out how sponsorship is helping them to realise their sporting dreams and what they, in turn, are doing for their sponsors.
Career highlights: gold medalist in British under-23 4 x 100 metre relay team, European Championships 2007; gold medalist in European Team Championships 2011
Olympics 2012 event: relay-running, 100-metre and 200-metre races
Sponsorships: £30,000 plus free supply of their products from King of Shaves; 4-figure sum from UK Athletics
‘I grew up in a rough neighbourhood in South London,’ says James Ellington, ‘the sort of place where a mischievous boy like me might get mixed up in the wrong crowd. But I was always fast on my feet, so when I was 13, to stop me from getting into trouble, my mum took me to our local athletics club in Chrystal Palace.’ Ellington met a coach there, John Powell, who took him on as a sprinter, and that’s how his athletics career took off. He is still with Powell today.
He did very well in competitions and made a name for himself, first in junior athletics, then moving up into the British senior sprints squad. By 2010 he was among the top five fastest sprinters in Britain, helping the country’s relay team win gold in the 2011 European Team Championships. ‘I’d lost out on sponsorship deals due to a series of injuries, so I got to where I was purely on the back of hard work and dedication. I just had to be more determined than anyone else.’
But with the Olympics coming up, Ellington required more time and freedom to train. He would have to put everything he had into it. And he knew he needed the support of a sponsor. So last December he took the extreme step of trying to secure one through an online auction on eBay, offering to promote the products of the successful bidder. He put a reserve of £30,000 on the auction. It looked as if the strategy would succeed, because when the auction closed after 10 days, the highest bidder offered £32,500. Ellington was delighted…only to be bitterly disappointed when he learned that it was all a hoax. He feared it might be the end of his hopes for winning a medal at the Olympics.
His dreams were saved, however, when a businessman stepped in to give him the sponsorship he needed. That white knight was Will King, founder and CEO of global brand King of Shaves. ‘Will saved the day,’ says Ellington, ‘by funding my entire training regime for the Olympics. His sponsorship covers my travel expenses, private health care, nutrition, etc. And the free shaving products save me a pretty penny, too.’
For the past five years Ellington has worked as a part-time athletics coach with problem youngsters on a scheme run by England Athletes and the Metropolitan Police. Now he could afford to give up that paid job up to focus 100% on preparing for the Games. He no longer had to leave training sessions early in order to go and meet his coaching commitments.
His sponsor Will King has given him a ‘very flexible’ arrangement. ‘He’s cool, and realises I have to focus on my training. So the deal is that I promote King of Shaves anywhere I can and wear their branded clothes in all my media appearances off the track (on the track, athletes are allowed to promote only the official Olympic sponsors). I have to make a minimum of three public appearances a year – be they TV adverts, photo shoots or other kinds of promotional activities – and I’ll be involved in the marketing campaign for their new products.’
Once one of the country’s few top athletes without the benefit of sponsorship, he now has all the help and support he needs to aim for the top. ‘I always believed in my own ability,’ he says, ‘and my mum told me to never give up.’ Luckily for Team GB, he took her advice.
Career highlights: British triathlon champion 2006; ITU World Triathlon champion 2008; British champion, ranked 4th in the world 2010; ITU World Triathlon champion 2011 and winner of the Olympic test event in Hyde Park in summer 2011
Olympics 2012 event: women’s triathlon race
Sponsorships: money plus products and services from British Airways, GE Capital, Asics, Triple Dry, Jones Lang LaSalle, Giant Bicycles, Mars Refuel, Suunto Training, Speedo, Oakley, Udo’s Choice, Continental Tyres, Fizik. Medical care via UK Sport.
Helen Jenkins, nee Tucker – the ITU World Triathlon Champion for 2008 and 2011 – was born in Scotland but has been living in Wales since childhood. Swimming was her first passion, but when she was invited, at the age of 15, to compete in a junior triathlon event in Wales, she swiftly added running and cycling to her sporting endeavours. ‘My parents helped me a lot in the early days,’ she recalls, ‘driving me to races and buying equipment for me. It can be really hard when you’re starting out and haven’t much money, but need to buy kit and do a lot of travelling.
‘I received a little funding from UK Sport when I was 17 – it wasn’t much but it saved my mum and dad from having to pay for my new bike. Then I got my first commercial sponsor in 2005, after my first good result in an international race. That was the financial services firmJones Lang LaSalle, who paid me a four-figure sum. They’re still one of my sponsors.’
As one of Britain’s great hopes for Olympic gold this summer, Helen now has about a dozen sponsors, providing her with money, products and perks, ‘and taking a lot of the stress off me. I can just concentrate on getting fitter and fitter, training with my coach (and husband) Marc Jenkins.’ She generally swims in the morning, cycles in the early afternoon and runs in the evening – not forgetting the all-important stretching and gym sessions, in order to avoid injury. It’s just as well she doesn’t have to hold down a day-job, too.
BA is providing Helen with a generous sum to cover business-class air travel around the world – handy for getting to and from all those international competitions. In the run-up to the Olympics she’s competing in world championships in – among other places – Sydney and San Diego. BA has also given her a Silver Card membership, for free entry to airport VIP lounges, plus extra luggage allowance so she needn’t fork out for carrying her bike and other necessary equipment.
And talking of all that triathlon gear, her sponsors supply her with pretty much all she needs: her bikes come from Giant Bicycles, spare bike tyres are courtesy of Continental Tyres, bike saddles are from Fizik, her swimsuits and wetsuits are supplied by Speedo and her running shoes by Asics. What’s more, Mars Refuel provides her with as many bottles of its milky energy drink as she can handle, and she gets her anti-perspirants from Triple Dry. GE Capital and Jones Lang LaSalle provide her with an income.
‘An athlete’s income, usually in the form of prize money, is unpredictable. So receiving an income from sponsors is a great back-up and gives you flexibility.’ Her commitments to her sponsors, in the form of press and media interviews, photo shoots, participation in advertising campaigns and visits to various corporate headquarters to meet with executives, takes up an average of three tightly compacted days per month. ‘The more successful I’ve become, the more time I need to spend on these activities. But I’m happy to give back to my sponsors in return for the help they give me.’
Naturally quiet and modest, she doesn’t enjoy every aspect of being in the public eye: ‘I’ve never liked having my photo taken; I’m not a natural before the camera. But I’ve had to get over that. You have to deal with a lot of different things as an athlete, and the media spotlight is part of it all.’
Career highlights: gold medallist, Beijing Olympics 2008; gold medallist, World Championships 2010; gold medallist, World Championships, 2011; bronze medallist, World Championships, 2007.
Olympics 2012 event: lightweight double sculls
Sponsorships: Money plus products and services from British Airways, Siemens, BMW, Capita Symonds, Oakley, Anglian Home Improvements, the National Lottery.
Mark has been rowing since the age of 14, learning the sport at Poplar Blackwall & District Rowing Club on London’s Isle of Dogs. He made rapid progress and in 1994 won the under-16 single at the National Championships. A year later he won the Fawley Cup at Henley Royal Regatta and raced in the quadruple scull at the World Rowing Junior Championships. Between 1997 and 2000 he made his mark in the under-23 World Rowing Championships, before changing class in 2001 in order to race as a lightweight.
Mark teamed up with Zac Purchase in 2007 and the pair are now described as the ‘odd couple’ of the GB team – and not just because privately-educated Purchase comes from the other end of the social scale to East End boy Mark. It appears they have contrasting approaches to the sport, too: Mark believes in the daily grind of a training regime, while Zac scoffs at training and thrives on the adrenalin of the race itself. No matter – they are the winning combination which secured Britain’s first ever lightweight rowing gold in Beijing. Now they refuse to row with anyone else. As Mark has said: ‘We have complete belief in each other.’
The first help he received, a decade ago, came from the Lottery. ‘They gave me a small monthly wage which helped with my day-to-day living costs. It meant I could buy good fresh food instead of the packet stuff I’d been eating, and afford proper accommodation during my training at Henley.’ He still gets Lottery funding (administered by UK Sport), but today it’s at the top level accorded to Olympic champions. It is based on his performance and reviewed every six months.
Serious commercial sponsors became interested in him after his gold medal win in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. ‘I think people want to be part of the story of a “humble working class boy” with the determination to make it to the top. My parents sacrificed a lot in the early years to support me in my goals, so I understand how tough it is when you’ve got no money. That’s why I can really appreciate the help from my sponsors, who are making up for the sacrifices my parents made.’
They certainly seem to be. British Airways flies Mark and his team-mates in style wherever they need to go, and there is separate funding for holiday travel. ‘We get an allowance based on air miles,’ he explains. ‘And the free use of the lounges certainly enhances the travel experience.’
He gets free sunglasses from Oakley, and BMW supplies his set of wheels: ‘As the official vehicle provider for the Games, they were happy to have me fulfill an “ambassador role” for their brand, so every 8,000 miles they give me a new car. I’m currently driving an X3, which is great.’
Siemens sponsors the entire British rowing team in a special deal which entails the team members wearing Siemens-branded kit in their races (except for the Olympics, in which no branding in permitted). And Capita Symonds, the multi-disciplinary consultancy company (‘their MD is a massive sports fan’), puts money into his kitty to help keep him in boats. ‘Rowing isn’t a cheap sport. Every 18 months I need to buy a new boat, and a good one costs £7,500.’
Further financial support comes from the windows-and-doors company Anglian – ‘a helpful amount which is paid every four months’ – and in return Mark provides a monthly video blog for their website, in which he keeps people informed about how he’s getting on with his training. Otherwise, he spends about three days a year meeting his sponsors, giving talks to them, contributing to their brochures, and doing interviews for the media. He also attends his sponsors’ annual dinners.
He explains that because of the unusual rules governing rowing, he can’t take part in advertising or other overtly public forms of promotion, but that if ‘things go well at this summer’s Olympics’ the sport’s governing body might bend the rules a little. ‘I’d like to give as much as possible back to my sponsors. Winning gold would let me do just that.’