If brands across the globe sponsor both activation campaigns and technology start-ups in physical activity with greater insight, then we can find the balance between social media being a tool of ‘empowerment’ and a monster that is just trying to sell
Andy Baker
Andy Baker is a partner/ executive director of Sports and Leisure Innovation, a disruptor strategic agency specialising in increasing sport and physical activity participation through facilities, tech, marketing campaigns and new programmes.
Brands and physical activity
7th July 2017, 08:59

Are big brands missing out on the physical activity participation agenda by focusing too much on rights holders and not protecting their brand by investing in exposed sports organisations and bodies?

Sir Martin Sorrell’s Sportcal Insight interview in early June on the need for sport to innovate or die resounded with me especially in terms of brand understanding of participation in both sport and physical activity – even though it focused mainly on high-profile sports and stakeholders.

Many worldwide sports organisations have two agendas – bringing in sponsors to invest in the elite part of that sport, and at the same time trying to grow the sport in terms of participation.

As a lifelong fan of sport with a deep understanding of what physical activity participation is all about, I question whether these two areas should be separated, now that sponsors are focusing more on people, and families in particular, taking part, and especially as sport transitions from formal club settings to more informal ones.

Yet who decides on this separation: the sponsor or the sports body?


With some sponsors now withdrawing from big international events and high-profile sports series because they do not trust the sport’s values, why shouldn’t these brands challenge the bodies to examine themselves, instead of just disappearing from sport?  

With some sponsors now withdrawing from big international events and high-profile sports series because they do not trust the sport’s values, why shouldn’t these brands challenge the bodies to examine themselves, instead of just disappearing from sport?

Agencies will all say scale is needed to give a return on investment. Nonsense!

Agencies need a USP to compete, yet few understand the physical activity agenda, as the millennial generation takes its health far more seriously than the baby boomers, thanks to search engines, technology and gadgets. If brands across the globe sponsor both activation campaigns and technology start-ups in physical activity with greater insight, then we can find the balance between social media being a tool of ‘empowerment’ and a monster that is just trying to sell us something we do not need

On a more traditional level wouldn’t it be fantastic if Google, Amazon or Nike offered family ‘bricks and mortar’ clubs for an active world, with services as well as products similar to Disney, and where families could go to be entertained?

Across the world, sports participation is changing, with many small ‘disruptor’ operators crying out for sponsors in order to grow – who cares if they are commercial as long as the outcome is achieved? Imagine if Parkrun in the UK had a major sponsor with a £10-million investment per year for five years and the people it could reach.... just to run!

Facebook created a unique, one-off TV ad campaign two years ago and sports participation was a big driver in that as it focused on community and people playing sport in new formats. It did so because pure sport and activity away from school fitted its social media model.

Sport England then followed with the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign which has brought a lot of unexpected (and well-deserved) acclaim to the innovators and brought women’s sport a higher profile. It now needs to go further into family and children’s campaigns globally, backed by a Nike, Under Armour or Adidas with a £50-million campaign. 

In USA, women’s sports is growing massively off the back of the Fifa Women’s World Cup in 2015 and Serena Williams’ 33 Grand Slam streak, to name two high profile events. Savvy sponsors are seeing the long-term potential in women’s sport from a participation and health agenda as having more scale rather than sponsoring a league.


Wouldn’t it be amazing if China educated the world through technology into being active, sharing data and focusing on children’s activity levels?  

Those corporates that are sponsoring the leagues are just following the men’s model and looking at rights-holder value in isolation. The time is right to get into the women’s health agenda and its impact on family, rather than solely focus on women’s athletes and leagues.

One country that is ramping up its participation in sport policy is China and it was good to see Premier Sport, the UK-based school sports provider, out there working in the region recently. Wouldn’t it be amazing if China educated the world through technology into being active, sharing data and focusing on children’s activity levels?

Imagine for a moment if Nike appointed Kayla Itsines, the Australian personal trainer and entrepreneur, as a world ambassador for health through sports participation. Itsines was voted by Forbes Magazine as the number-one global influencer and her followers have grown to over 640 million across 14 social media channels.

Sir Martin is correct in saying it is time for sports bodies to go much further in examining their own DNA - yet sponsors need to understand the untapped potential in active participation, as the world seeks to become a healthier planet.

The Sir Martin Sorrell interview can be found here.

Sportcal