by Andrew Baxter, CEO, Publicis Worldwide Australia.

As the new season kicks off in Australia’s two major winter football codes, the pros and cons of sponsorship as a marketing channel are again in the spotlight. The AFL’s pre-season competition has seen fans searching Google to find out more about its new major sponsor, JLT, while Crown is reviewing its sponsorship of the NRL’s Melbourne Storm and the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

For marketers, the role of sponsorship used to be simple – to drive brand awareness. It heightened a company’s media share of voice in its sector, a proven way to drive extra market share. And seeing a logo on a footballer’s chest for multiple minutes a game, or on the front page of a newspaper, was cheaper than buying an ad in that same spot. Sponsorship became the domain of the big blue chip brands desperate to outpoint their opponents: Ford versus Holden, Pepsi versus Coke, XXXX vs Fosters.

Soon new brands followed. Whitman’s sponsorship of Australia’s first blimp is still recalled, and Etihad’s decision to take on the stadium rights at Docklands in Melbourne launched that brand in this market.

Brand fit also became important, with the likes of IBM being able to highlight how it was powering the data behind Wimbledon, just as it could do for a business. And others like Bunnings and Bendigo Bank used sponsorship to show how they supported local community initiatives.

With efforts switching from brand engagement to customer engagement over the past 10 years, marketers needed sponsorship to work even harder. The smart ones began leveraging deals to include promotions, activations and events to maximise their investment, by enabling the consumer to engage first hand with the product or service.

Garnier’s sponsorship of the Australian Open tennis a decade ago was a terrific example. On top of court signage, it created a large public space called Garnier World, where the 500,000 attendees could drop in for hairstyles, massages and facials using the company’s products. Staff handed out samples, there were magazine promotions to win finals tickets plus content around the Garnier experiences for players and celebrities.

In the past few years marketers have been demanding an immediate return on investment (ROI) in the form of sales. KFC’s cricket sponsorship has seen it create cricket-themed products to drive sales, whilst customer engagement continued at venues with initiatives such as the “Bucket Heads”.

So why is sponsorship now seen as one of the riskiest marketing channels? One reason is that the proliferation of media, sports, teams, and stadiums has meant more choice of properties to sponsor but a dilution of the impact. Then there have been issues such as corruption in some sports, and drink driving, gambling and drug problems in others. Combine that with the heightened need for ROI and it’s little wonder that many marketers have decided to reassess the role of sponsorship in their marketing mix, while others have decided to do just one sponsorship really well.

It’s a tough time for sporting bodies, clubs and venues looking for sponsors. Aside from those who capitalised quickly on the recent “boom” industries such as gambling, tertiary education and vitamins, the ones attracting sponsorship dollars are those tapping into the power of their membership databases.  Many sports organisations have members who are a close fit with a brand’s target audience. And a clever sponsor can utilise that database to send more cost-effective, targeted and personalised messages. Particularly in a world where the production of content has dropped significantly. Emirates’ sponsorship of the Victorian Racing Club is a perfect example.

Sponsorship still has an important role to play. It’s no longer only a simple additional media buy to drive brand awareness, but a key part of the content strategy for products and services to engage deeply with their customers, in order to deliver sales. As the new football seasons begin, brands old and new will be lining up to maximise their efforts in this space.

This article first appeared in The Australian.