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The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Fans of a hometown sports team unite on the mutual love for that team. However, fans can also unite over the mutual dislike for their team’s rival. Rivals are common throughout sports; whether the rivalry is based in history, geography or something else altogether, a team will always have a rival. With so much negative sentiment directed towards toward a rival team, is there a chance that those negative feelings can transfer to the sponsor?

There are multiple cases of brands that have had to consider how their sponsorship could potentially affect the fan base of a rival team. European soccer fans are commonly considered some of the most avid sports fans in the world. A 2013 Turnkey survey conducted on behalf of SportsBusiness Journal found that 85% of EPL fans said they would never change their allegiance and fans spent an average of 11.6 hours per week following their team. This passion carries over to the sponsors as 66% of fans thought it was important to be aware of team sponsors. Compared to what many consider the most passionate fans in North America, only 54% of NFL fans think it is important to be aware of a team sponsor. MKTG examined some notable instances where a brand had to consider the effect of their team sponsorship on rival teams fans.

Newcastle and Sunderland (English Premier League)- In 1996 Quaker Oats hired then current Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan to star in a commercial for Sugar Puffs cereal. In the commercial the Newcastle manager substituted the Sugar Puffs mascot into the game to score the winning goal. The ad aired throughout England including Sunderland, home to Newcastle’s biggest rival. After airing the commercial, Quaker Oats saw a noticeable drop in sales in in the Sunderland market. The boycott of the product made the commercial very memorable with many associating the mascot and Newcastle. Quaker Oats then released a spot 16 years later having the mascot wear a Sunderland jersey, proclaiming the mascot does not support sides and just loves soccer.

Rangers and Celtic (Scottish Professional Football League)- Two of Glasgow’s biggest teams, Rangers and Celtic, share the Scottish Football Leagues biggest rivalry. The rivalry can be traced back to Glasgow’s religious roots giving the two teams a fierce and divisive fans base. As much passion is displayed in support of a team, there is a similar amount of disdain towards the team’s rival. In an attempt to avoid potential backlash from opposing fans, both clubs negotiated to have the same jersey sponsor. This agreement began in 1999 and lasted for 14 years when in 2013 Celtic ended the deal by finding their own sponsor. While the intention was to not upset either side, Celtic fans supported the notion of their own sponsor as they did not like the idea of sharing a sponsor with their rival.

Brands have seen just how passionate fans can be when it comes brands associating with "their" team. If a sponsor chooses a side they risk alienating the rival fan base. However, if a sponsor chooses to support both sides of a rivalry they risk supporters not comfortable with the fact of sharing a sponsor with a rival.

In North America brands have also had to consider how a rivalry will play into sponsorship. Through the use of a variety of strategies sponsors have found success in sponsoring two rival teams.

Key Takeaways for Sponsors

Play to the rivalry theme- In 2013 the NHL season opened with a game between two of the league’s biggest rivals, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. As a sponsor of both teams, MasterCard created an activation to mark the season opener by acknowledging the rivalry. MasterCard had a barbershop quartet representing each team sing heckles to the opposing team submitted by fans via social media with the video of the songs posted online. Acknowledging the rivalry in a fun way and using a common aspect of rivalries - the heckle - MasterCard created something fans of both teams could appreciate.

Unite over a cause- As sponsor of all seven Canadian NHL teams, Scotiabank (MKTG Client) has a number of Canadian hockey rivals on their sponsorship roster. However Scotiabank leverages these sponsorships to promote their support of community hockey throughout Canada. By doing this they can use their relationships with all teams to unite over a common effort that everyone can get behind. The sponsorship of rivals can be utilized to unite the fans over a meaningful cause.

Ensure there is no hypocrisy- During the 2014 Olympics Budweiser attempted to support both the US hockey team and the Canadian hockey team. As official sponsor of USA Hockey, Budweiser created several promotions showing their support of the team leading up to and during the Olympics. They also ran several ads in Canada lending their support to the Canadian hockey team. As the official sponsor of Team Canada, Molson ran ads highlighting Budweiser’s support of both sides. The ads were shared rapidly throughout social media during the Olympics. Although they weren’t an official sponsor of both rivals, Budweiser tried to play both sides of the rivalry and were caught doing so. Ensuring that your activations around rivals are not conflicting is something that is important as fans can easily pick up on a sponsors playing to both sides.

Rivalries are a large part of the sporting landscape, fans always anticipate the next match against their fiercest competitor. Brands need to understand that this can affect their sponsorship of a team and while there is no one guaranteed way to successfully appease all fans, there are strategies that can be applied to make the most of sponsorship of rivals. 

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