The McGregor-Mayweather fight was a learning opportunity for sports properties as far as sponsorship goes. The positioning of the event was an archaic approach to sponsorship and showed a lack of understanding on how to create a meaningful partnership with brands. There were numerous articles about how sponsors were going to line up and provide millions of dollars in support of the grand spectacle that was built on hype and hysteria.
The value of sponsorship is not all about how many impressions you can create, it’s about the quality of a positive association for a sponsor and the opportunity to leverage it to successfully satisfy sponsor objectives. And one of those objectives isn’t to damage your brand. Most large corporations are committed to sustainability which through its social leg has a focus on health, wellness, diversity and other critical values. The fight failed to align these values with sponsor commitments.
In the need to create a raw and emotional atmosphere, the fight buildup included comments by each of the two fighters that were perceived by many to be both gay and racial slurs. This isn’t something most any brand wants and can afford to be associated with. Mayweather’s past allegedly involves domestic abuse and violence towards women. This association is damaging to brands and an insult to both women consumers as well as the women executives that work in the sports, entertainment and sports marketing industry.
Showtime, the fight’s broadcaster didn’t escape the damage when McGregor cussed out Showtime executive Stephen Espinoza. One can imagine how this might translate to the treatment of sponsor executives, fans or sponsor clients.
Another very important issue is the specter of brain injury. Even McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh, has been quoted in the media stating that McGregor is very concerned about the risk of CTE. With what we know now about the potential risk of brain injury, corporations are starting to reassess their brand association with sports involving a potential high risk of CTE including both MMA and boxing as well as football, soccer, rugby and others. For the fight, the Nevada State Athletic Commission decided to go against the Association of Ringside Physicians plea and ruled to reduce the weight of the fighters’ gloves from 10 ounces to eight ounces which many feel would create more damage to the fighters. This shows we have a long way to go to commit to athlete health. There needs to be more research on CTE and other brain injuries and a need to look at potential to rules, regulations and equipment to sport.
There will always be some sponsors that will support certain properties and that is their right to, but the industry needs to raise the bar if it wants to be part of making a positive impact on the world. Sponsors aren’t looking to dictate how a sport has to be played or change the behavior of athletes, but the industry needs to realize that risks to athlete health and behavior that is adverse to sponsor values will not be rewarded or supported.
The International Sponsor Council, trade association for sponsors, is working to integrate corporate sustainability initiatives with sponsorship. As part of this work, ISC is focusing on athlete health. Athletes are a critical stakeholder to sponsors and, again, sponsors can’t ignore the risk to athletes or suffer reputational damage.
The sponsorship industry needs to pay close attention to corporate sustainability initiatives and develop property offerings that align and support these values.