In our last post, I introduced you to Stephen McKelvey, an associate professor in the Department of Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts. Professor McKelvey has been studying the legal and economic aspects of ambush marketing, in which a company promotes itself around a particular event but does not pay to become an official sponsor.
McKelvey , who recently completed a research paper with colleague Neil Longley on legislation that has popped up in host cities to combat ambush marketing, says he’s seeing less ambush marketing in recent years, for several reasons. One reason: Even though the ambush marketer isn’t paying hefty sponsor fees, the company still has to spend prodigiously to get its message heard over the barrage of event-related marketing.
But ambush marketing legislation is having an impact, too, as McKelvey explains in our conversation.
Q. How is ambush marketing legislation affecting marketing around the major sports events?
A. Event specific legislation has scared off the smaller to midsized companies. Look what happened to the Olympics, and the FIFA World Cup. They were able to shut down the mom and pop operations, who can’t afford to promote around those events without ambush marketing. The policing and scare tactics have made most of them decide they don’t want to take the risk. At the end of the day, you’re going to stay away from it because you don’t need the headache of cease and desist orders. It’s not stopping Nike or Sony. What’s stopping Sony is simply Sony’s desire to leverage the events that they do have rights to.
Q. Why has special events marketing legislation become a fixture at major sporting events?
A. Organizations like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA are basing their sponsorship agreements on the fronts of exclusivity and the promise of all they’re going to do to protect their sponsors – instead of saying, “You’re all big boys. Out-market your competitors.”
Q. What does special event marketing legislation look like? What does it tend to prohibit?
A. There are usually categories of words – such as gold, silver and bronze – that companies are not allowed to use, unless they’re official sponsors (without sponsorship). The other layer concerns the so-called right of association. The lynchpin is confusion. If you’re doing something that creates confusion about your association with the event, that’s likely to fall into a prohibited category. Obviously, the event organizers are pushing the envelope as far as they can.
Q. Do major-event sponsors really need special legislation to protect them from ambush marketers?
A. No. it’s nice to have. If you can get it, that’s great.
Q. Ambush marketing seems to come into play in major events that command the largest sponsorship deals. Do we see ambush marketing in smaller events?
A. You see it occasionally, but ambush marketing has become the purview of these major events – particularly the FIFA World Cup and Olympics. The NFL does it around the Super Bowl, but you never hear Commissioner Roger Goodell talk about ambush marketing.
At the local level, it’s much closer to what I’d call guerilla marketing – handing out flyers and similar tactics targeted to a much smaller audience. We have a soccer tournament on campus with 15 to 20 sponsors. Students put it on in spring. And every spring some company that’s not an official sponsor comes out and does some marketing around the event.
Q. Do you see any evidence that ambush marketing legislation – or the spirit of taking more heavy-handed measures to protect sponsors – is trickling down to smaller events?
A. Yes. Smaller international and national sporting events where you put out bids for hosting – we’re seeing more activity. The event organizers are saying, in effect, “We might pick your place, but we want to make sure you’re going to put some anti-ambush marketing effort in place.”
The NCAA uses the term “safety zone ordinance” – really a code for protection against ambush marketing. We’ve seen it in the World Swimming Championships and Under-21 Euro Soccer Championships.
The NBA and baseball have a harder time, because you don’t know months in advance where the NBA Finals or World Series will be held. You have to be able to control air space, for example, so blimps can’t fly over the stadium. That’s something you can’t arrange in a few days.
Q. Are we seeing any pushback against efforts to curb ambush marketing?
A. We’re starting to. We saw plenty of general protesting in Brazil about the amount of money the government spent to host the FIFA World Cup. It’s a small step from there to objecting to ambush marketing restrictions. When the legislation gets so draconian it’s potentially infringing on the free speech rights of companies whose tax dollars are paying for these events, you will see some reaction.
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