Sponsorships – all to play for

Rob Pearson says sponsorships must be shaped around business objectives, otherwise brands are playing in the little leagues

Ireland has a deep connection and love of sport. TAM/Nielsen data revealed that nine of the top 10, and 31 of the top 50, most watched programmes in Ireland last year were sporting events. Four Guinness Six Nations matches, three Fifa World Cup matches and the GAA’s All Ireland Football and Hurling finals were denied top spot by the cultural icon that is RTE’s Late Late Toy Show.

As viewing habits continue to change with a move towards on demand platforms, it is clear that sport is the last vestige of live TV. Sponsorship is the vehicle connecting brands with an audience that is becoming increasingly hard to reach through normal channels. Sport’s ability to draw a crowd remains constant, while at the same time there has been major change in how people watch it.

Over half of Irish people check social while watching sport with WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. People connect with others around the game, checking in on scores from other matches and seeking out expert analysis. If brand owners understand what motivates people to reach for their second and third screens, then they are able to add value and avoid missing out.

Sponsorship is not new, some say it dates back to the Greek and Roman times when rich middle classes paid and sponsored athletes who were popular with the masses and artists were supported by patrons. But the real pace and advancement in sports marketing and sponsorship did not occur until the 1930’s when television coverage of sport began, opening the door for brands.

Rewards from GAA ties: Through Bord Gáis Energy’s Rewards Club, members can get access to sports and entertainment through BGE’s sponsorship of the GAA Hurling Senior All-Ireland Championship, the Bord Gáis Energy GAA Hurling U-21 All-Ireland Championship (pictured) and the Bord Gáis Energy GAA Legends Tour Series and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

The Irish sponsorship industry is seen as being one of the most innovative and progressive in the world. One of the earliest and still prevalent examples is the wonderfully simplistic Texaco Children’s Art Competition which has been on the go since 1955. The industry really took off in the 1980’s when Anheuser-Bush came to Ireland to sponsor the Budweiser Irish Derby.

German car manufacturer Opel swooped in to sponsor a golden era of Irish soccer with the highlight being the mighty exploits of Jack Charlton’s Boys in Green. In the 1990s the IRFU and GAA got in on the act with professionalisation of rugby and Guinness becoming title sponsor of the Hurling Championship, while at the same time county jersey sponsors became the norm.

Mobile phone brand O2 achieved the first naming rights of note when in 2007 they sponsored the Point Depot at Dublin’s IFSC – later the 3Arena. Since then, the flood gates have opened with most stadia and significant venues around the country having either rebranded, or considering it, with the most recent high-profile deal being struck between Three and the now Three Olympia.


Other deals have moved the dial in how sponsorship is viewed in Ireland for business impact and societal change include Lidl’s backing of the LGFA and gender equality in sport, SSE Airtricity’s sustainability programme at Dublin Zoo, Bord Gais’ loyalty and rewards schemes with the GAA and Grand Canal Theatre and Electric Ireland’s support for Pieta House’s Darkness Into Light.

Sports stars today look very different to those of 20 years ago with women joining the top ranks. Katie Taylor has been Ireland’s most admired athlete for 10 of the 13 years of Teneo’s research with Rachael Blackmore and Kellie Harrington second and third in 2021 and 2022. Vera Pauw’s Irish women’s football team, which qualified for this year’s World Cup, was voted team of the year.

The ‘big three’ sports continue to dominate the landscape. Gaelic Games are the nation’s favourite sports, soccer enjoys the most universal popularity and is ‘liked’ by 43 per cent of all adults. The 2023 Rugby World Cup is the event we are most looking forward to this year. It comes as no surprise then that the GAA, IRFU and FAI bodies dominate Ireland’s sports sponsorship market.

Riding high in king of sports: National hunt jockey Rachael Blackmore earned a deal with KPMG. In 2021, the Tipperary woman became the first female rider to win the Randox-sponsored Grand National at Aintree in the race’s 182-year history. Up to mid-January, Blackmore had 328 runs and 44 wins, with a strike rate of 13 per cent. At Punchestown, her horse, Journey With Me, finished second in the Madigan Group Novice Chase.

These bodies partner with the top brands and command sponsorship fees typically starting at six-figure sums. But the nation’s broad appreciation for other sports such as tennis, golf, horse racing, boxing and cycling provides scope for brands looking to carve out a niche for themselves.

Gone are the days when the only ask was eyeballs and brand awareness. Sophisticated sponsors are solving critical business issues through sponsorship and reducing customer churn, improving employer brand, sharing corporate narratives, re-positioning their businesses, entering new markets, launching products, bringing their purpose and values to life and giving back to local communities.

Putting it at its simplest, in 2023 if your sponsorship is not supporting your business objectives then you’re playing in the little leagues. The public is increasingly savvy when it comes to brands trying to infiltrate the things that they hold dearest to them. Brands that distract risk backlash, and those without a credible link or engaging activation strategy are soon forgotten.


For the brands who get it right, the rewards are sizeable, driving attitude and behavioural  change with consumers. Half of the public feel a deeper connection with brands that engage in sponsorship, 54 per cent would choose a sponsor’s product or service over another if price and quality were equal, and a third have bought a product/service because of a sponsorship in the last year.

There are some macro challenges facing the industry in the cost-of-living crisis and the shadow cast by sports washing. Some 71 per cent of Irish adults believe that big business should invest in sponsorship during the current crisis. Aside from those majorly impacted by the crisis, support for continued sponsorships was voiced with only four per cent saying they should pause plans.

What impact will the tightening of the public’s purse strings have on the broader sporting economy? Sporting equipment and clothing, TV sports subscriptions and sports nutrition are the areas where the public will retrench on most. Gym memberships, club memberships and children’s classes and courses are proving more immune to budget cuts with 10 per cent or less in reductions.

Johnny Sexton has captained Ireland in the Guinness Six Nations  Inpho/Dan Sheridan

Research by Teneo of over 50 sponsorship and marketing executives paints a picture of resilience in the face of this headwind. The biggest challenge facing sponsors is, and has always been, securing budget, and yet less than 10 per cent of all Irish sponsors intend to spend less in 2023 than 2022, and over a third have committed to a new deal over the next 12 months.

The term sports washing, the act of diverting attention through sponsorship of sport, has been thrust into mainstream consciousness through the media spotlight on the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the scrutiny of football club ownership (PSG, Manchester City, Newcastle United) and through the ‘cancelling’ of numerous deals backed by Russians.

Public awareness and understanding of sports washing is high with 53 per cent of adults  aware of the term, rising to 65 per cent of those aged 25-34. Being suspected of sports washing is enough to have profoundly negative reputational impact on a brand, with almost all of those surveyed saying they would react negatively towards those thought to be involved in the practice.


Almost two thirds of industry executives admitted that the heightened public awareness of sports washing is on the agenda when it comes to choosing partners. But where there are challenges there are also opportunities. Brands will continue to stoke the fires in the engine room of women’s sport and use sponsorships to shine a light on societal issues around ESG and DE&I agendas.

Women’s sport has surged in popularity with brands like AIG, AON, KPMG, Lidl and Sky signing up. Almost three in four Irish adults believe brands should increase their investment in women’s sport, while 79 per cent think that increasing participation in the area is important and over half of under 35s would buy a product or service as a result of a women’s sponsorship.

The industry continues to prioritise gender equity with an overwhelmingly opinion that those involved in men’s sports should also look towards getting involved in women’s sport. A further two thirds believe that the promotion of women’s sport should remain a priority this year. Brands are shifting towards purpose-driven strategies and using their experience to advocate for social change.

Sky supports the Ireland women’s football team led by Arsenal’s Katie McCabe

There is the obvious societal positive impact, but to the brand there are less altruistic benefits. Six out of ten adults react more positively towards brands that adopt a purpose-led sponsorship strategy, with Nielsen reporting 63 per cent more engagement compared to other content.

There is also a growing weight of public expectation on brands to use their sponsorships for social good; with 69 per cent believing that sport and sponsorships should strive to become more sustainable. Two thirds of adults in Ireland believe that sport and sponsors have a role to play in combating racism and in creating a more inclusive society.

As a nation, the sporting events we are looking forward to most this year are the men’s Rugby World Cup (18 per cent), the All Ireland Football Championship (12 per cent), the Guinness Six Nations (11 per cent), the All Ireland Hurling Championship (11 per cent) and the women’s Fifa World Cup (10 per cent). There is much to be won on the field of play in 2023.

Ditto for the sponsors with skin in the game.

Rob Pearson is head of sponsorship at Teneo. The company tracks attitudes in Ireland towards sport, exercise and sponsorship, documenting the changes to how people engage with sport, the impact of tech and influence of societal movements and corporate agendas.






Share with friends:

Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy