How ghost matches affect sponsorship

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Marcel Cordes, Managing Partner at SPORTHEADS, provides insights into the impact of ghost games on advertising effectiveness in an interview with the trade magazine HORIZONT:

If everything goes according to plan, the ball will start rolling again in the Bundesliga on May 16. The clubs will thus avert the risk of losses worth millions, and sponsors will get back a coveted advertising space. Nevertheless, the league will no longer be the same, if only because no spectators will be allowed to sit in the stadiums. What does this mean for sponsors and their expectations for the rest of the season?

It was a long and hard struggle until the German Soccer League (DFL), under the leadership of Christian Seifert, convinced politicians that a continuation of the Bundesliga season, which was interrupted in mid-March, was responsible. For the 36 clubs, the first kickoff would mark the end of a long period of anxiety. After all, an early termination of the season would have plunged some of them into an existential crisis. According to calculations by the auditing firm KPMG, not only would around 400 million euros in TV money have been at stake, but also advertising revenues of 250 million euros.

These funds can now flow. However, it is also clear that the services agreed before the current rights period can probably no longer be provided in full. Without fans in the stadium, soccer loses most of its unique atmosphere, which makes it such a sought-after advertising space. During the enforced break, Bundesliga sponsors have implemented alternative concepts in many places, such as a presence in the Bundesliga Home Challenge e-sports competition unceremoniously set up by the DFL.

Nevertheless, the question arises as to how sponsors should deal with any underperformance. In purely legal terms, many contracts stipulate that a disruption of the basis of the business - and ghost matches could certainly be seen as such - will result in recourse claims. However, in the case of the Corona pandemic, there was force majeure, which is taken into account in contracts, but probably not to such an extent.

The S20 association, which brings together top sponsors such as Adidas, Coca-Cola and SAP, is aware of this dilemma. However, there is no silver bullet here, explains S20 Chairman Stephan Althoff: "All contracts between our members and the rights holders are individually structured. Therefore, joint solutions must be found that take into account the respective interests of both parties."

„Alle Verträge zwischen unseren Mitgliedern und den Rechtehaltern sind individuell ausgestaltet. Deshalb müssen gemeinsame Lösungen gefunden werden, die die jeweiligen Interessen beider Parteien berücksichtigen.“

Stephan Althoff, S20

It is possible that this extreme situation shows how close the bond between sponsor and sponsored really is. Companies that take this form of advertising seriously should therefore be careful not to insist on every contractual detail: "In contrast to classic advertising, sponsorship partnerships are particularly characterized by a partnership through 'thick and thin'. This is where the authenticity and emotional anchor come from, which ultimately makes sponsorship so attractive as an advertising form," says Marcel Cordes, Managing Partner at the Munich-based agency Sportheads.

Sponsors would therefore "now have to weigh up to a particular extent whether factually ascertainable underperformance outweighs the potential damage to their image in the event of sponsorship money being reclaimed," Cordes continued. "In addition to the legal assessment of the situation, communication and a sense of proportion are particularly important in times of crisis."

However, there is one question that is certainly worth discussing: namely, the extent to which ghost matches actually impair the sponsorship effect. Cordes' agency conducted a survey on this in April - with interesting results. The respondents disagreed on what ghost matches mean for the effect of sponsoring partnerships. Slightly more than a quarter of sports business executives even believe that the impact of sponsorships improves in empty stadiums.

How can this be explained? Well, one could certainly argue that the reduced atmosphere in the stadiums draws the spectators' attention more strongly to the advertising messages on boards, cam- carpets and jerseys. One person who thinks this is quite possible is Olaf Bauer: "If there is less trappings, the spectator will also be less distracted. So there are good conditions for the advertising to be noticed," says the managing director of the sponsoring agency Lagardère Plus.

However, it is important to bear in mind that empty stands and a lack of fan chants can have a negative impact on the media experience. This is also shown by the survey conducted by Sportheads, in which around 85 percent assumed that the fan experience would deteriorate. "If the emotional involvement with the game is reduced due to the lack of an audiovisual backdrop, this can also have an impact on the effect of sponsors," says Cordes.