Infront aims to maintain sponsorship sell-out and sustainability at World Ski Champs
By Simon Ward in Seefeld
Infront, the international sports marketing agency, was "extremely surprised" to have sold all of the sponsorship packages for the 2019 Alpine and Nordic World Ski Championships, given that it is in the first year of a comprehensive new partnership with the FIS, the international ski federation, but is hopeful of repeating this success at future editions.
In order to ensure significant exposure for the brands, Infront limited the number of sponsors for this month’s Alpine showpiece in Åre in Sweden and the Nordic counterpart now under way in Seefeld in Austria to no more than 16 across the two events.
All the packages were snapped up by a mix of established and new sponsors, which the agency has taken as a further indication of the appeal of skiing, particularly in the continental European markets where the sport is popular and enjoys extensive free-to-air television coverage.
It is also pleased that the local organising committee and the other commercial partners agreed to the wishes of presenting sponsor Stora Enso, the Finnish-Swedish paper company, in prioritising sustainability at the Nordic World Championships that began, with the opening ceremony, on Wednesday.
Starting this year, Switzerland-based Infront has replaced the European Broadcasting Union, the umbrella body of mostly public-service broadcasters, as the media and sponsorship rights distributor and host broadcaster of the biennial Alpine and Nordic World Championships.
The initial partnership, which ran to 2021, has already been extended through to 2025, in a deal concluded last May.
Speaking to Sportcal in a briefing with reporters in Seefeld, Bruno Marty, Infront senior vice-president winter sports, said the agency was “extremely surprised” to have achieved a sponsorship sell-out in 2019, adding: “Four or five months ago we had two open packages for both events… and, frankly speaking, I thought we would end up with one unsold package [for both], which would be ok for the first events.
“Then we had some late negotiations, but not at discounted prices. This is the key thing because if you start discounting prices, everybody knows about it. It’s hard to get back [to the previous prices] and you need to keep at a certain level.
“So for the first time we have had these championships, we’re quite happy with the sales. We have lots of traditional sponsors that have been here for many years, which is very important, but then bringing in new sponsors is a good sign, not only for us, but also for the sport.”
In Seefeld, Stora Enso has made the biggest commitment, having previously been the presenting sponsor of the 2017 Nordic World Championships in Lahti, Finland and a main sponsor of the 2015 edition in Falun, Sweden.
It is supported by new main sponsors in Haier, Unibet, Manner and Junghans (timing partner) and returning brands in Viessmann, Intersport, Liqui Moly, Helvetia and Le Gruyère.
For the Alpine World Championships that ended in Åre on Sunday, Swedish leisure and retail company SkiStar was the presenting sponsor, while Unibet, Audi, Pirelli, Liqui Moly, Bauhaus, Helvetia and Longines (timing partner) were the main sponsors.
Infront also signed up 40 broadcasters covering 175 countries for the two World Championships, building on the relationships it has forged distributing the rights to FIS World Cup events on behalf of many national ski associations.
Marty claimed that these achievements needed to be put in perspective, saying: “Selling a championship that runs over two weeks is sometimes more challenging than selling a World Cup which covers an entire season. Both for broadcasters and for sponsors you need to find clients who are willing to activate around the two weeks, compared to a World Cup where you are every weekend on TV and can do much more around it.
“And the price tag is a high one, it’s related to what you pay on one side and what you expect in terms of viewers. Each [sponsorship] package is at least close to a seven-figure price tag, and there’s only a limited number of partners you find who are willing to pay such an amount for such an event.”
Infront has sought to offer value for money, with, for example, no more than six brands displayed on the slopes and new soft LED lighting banners for all eight sponsors in the finishing area at the Alpine World Championships, and just two or three brands displayed at any one time in the ski jumping at the Nordic World Championships, at which the perimeter board advertising for the whole event extends to four kilometres.
A sustainable championships Stora Enso came on board for the Seefeld World Championships as long ago as November 2017 in a deal brokered by Tridem Sports, the Switzerland-based sports marketing agency, on behalf of Infront.
In line with the company ethos, the brand has sought commitments in terms of sustainability from Infront and the national organising committee, and this is reflected in the various temporary facilities, start and finish installations made from specially treated wood, the dimmable LED split time tools on the cross-country skiing track and the streamlining of transport between the two sites of Seefeld and Bergisel in Innsbruck, the venue for the large hill ski jumping.
Michael Witta, the joint managing director of Infront Austria, who has been heavily involved in the sponsorship programme, said: “When we did the deal, the most important thing was sustainability so everything we had to organise with the NOC had to be confirmed by Stora Enso. For example the way we hand out drinks at the venues and the material we use for our insulations, the tribunes and the VIP tent.
“It was pretty new for us and of course much more work because we needed parties to re-honour everything, and also it was not easy because we have a certain routine in our big events. But, I have to say in the end it has helped to get better, and now we have a very happy partner who saw that we were able to implement everything and a very flexible NOC.”
He added that other sponsors had also bought into the environmental message, saying: “Many of them have ideas of what to do at a World Championships when they give away stuff. We had to go through Stora Enso and check that, for example, things are not plastic, that people don’t throw them away. All of these things were forbidden.
“All of our partners only give away stuff you can take home and can really use or recycle. And they all like it. Most corporations today like to talk about sustainability, and have that among their goals, so there were none that were offended. It’s really worked well.”
New sponsors and future events Among the new sponsors of the World Championships, Haier, the Chinese home appliances manufacturer, is using the Seefeld event to build its presence and visibility in the German market, while Unibet, the international betting operator, which was also a partner in Åre, is focusing on Sweden after new gambling regulations were introduced there at the start of this year.
Witta said: “The [TV] market share last week for the Åre event was up to 75 per cent, so that meant 1.4 million Swedes were watching Alpine skiing, and they [Unibet] had the whole [betting] platform for themselves.
“They told us the click rates went up massively, and they expect the same here [in Seefeld] because Sweden is a cross-country skiing country. They even asked us if we could leave them out of ski jumping because that doesn’t get a lot of viewers, but we only sell [sponsorship] as the whole event.”
Infront is already making plans for the 2021 World Championships, with Cortina d’Ampezzo having been quick to establish an organising body for the Alpine edition, albeit there might have to be a replacement for Unibet in light of new Italian legislation banning gambling advertising, including sponsorship by betting companies.
Preparations for the Nordic edition in Oberstdorf in Germany have been somewhat delayed by the recent resignation, for personal reasons, of Robert Büchel, the co-managing director of the local organising committee, who was overseeing the marketing and media elements of the event.
Another challenge for Infront will be to sign up an automotive sponsor as, while the hosting plan is relatively compact, the organisers have had to operate without one in Seefeld.
Witta said: “We have Audi usually in our events in Alpine skiing and we work with BMW in biathlon, bobsleigh and luge. We tried to push Audi into the World Championships here as well [as Åre], but they had cost savings to make, and in the end they couldn’t do it.”
He added: “Of course cars are one thing we’d like to cover because it makes everything easier. In Åre we had 65 Audi e-trons and they did all the transportation for the teams, the federations, the partners and the media. It helps a lot to have them on board and the NOC here had to organise everything.
“That was a pity, but when you have Audi covering the season in World Cup, and they cover everything, including cross country and ski jumping, it doesn’t make sense for another car brand to come in here for just two weeks.”
Nonetheless, Witta claimed that the competitive contest for the media and sponsorship rights to the 2023 and 2025 Alpine and Nordic World Championships – Infront saw off joint bids from IMG-Tridem and EBU-Lagardère to retain the contract – showed that the property remains valued in the international skiing calendar.
Infront is already in talks with the organisers of the 2023 events in Courchevel-Meribel in France (Alpine) and Planica in Slovenia (Nordic), and will inevitably be keeping a close eye on the bidding process for the 2025 hosts, which are expected to be named next year.