Empathy In Sponsorship & Sports Biz Has Never Been More Important

The more I dive into sports business,  and particularly sponsorship, I am starting to realize how important empathy is in everything we do…and something that we have somewhat forgotten in our work.

Empathy is everything today. It is a superpower. The ability to understand the issues our stakeholders have and building ways to solve them can set us apart from any other option.

I wanted to dive in and go through what I think that means to different segments in sports business and sponsorship.

First, what is empathy?

The literal definition of empathy is:

em·pa·thy noun 1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

When I think of empathy, the keyword that pops up is understanding.

Empathy is the action of understanding the feelings, goals, actions, and needs of our customers & stakeholders.

In sports, to have empathy is to understand the feelings, goals, actions, and needs of our fans.

In sports sponsorship having empathy is to understand the above for 3 stakeholders, 2 external and 1 internal.

Overall, if we can understand the goals of our stakeholders we can bring them value by default. This is why it is so important in the sports world for us to obsess over.

Empathy with our sponsors

Our main customer in sponsorship is our brands. Yes, fans play a huge role in everything we do…but our main job is to fulfill the needs and goals of our sponsors.

In order to fulfill their needs…we need to understand what they need.

On The Inches Podcast Rich and I talk a ton about fit…and really when you boil it down fit is very close to empathy. Understanding how your assets can help their marketing goals.

the first stage of empathy is understanding, which means starting with questions to our sponsors.

“What are your marketing goals? Why is that important? What is your worry about sponsoring our team?”

These questions are the cheat code for the test. They literally are giving us the answers to how best to serve them and bring them value.

Once we understand them…we can build packages around their needs.

I want to stop here and clarify something. The key to the above sentence is their needs.

Not our sales goals, not the rink board you just can’t get sold, not the fact that you want to get the deal through quickly.

Empathy, again, is understanding. If a rink board fits their needs….great. But if not then you need to be willing to not offer it. This will help you in the long run when selling partners by not having your own goals ahead of your sponsor’s.

Overall in sales, I believe empathy is being pushed aside for fast growth. Sales goals sometimes are the biggest killer of empathy. We focus on what we need to be sold for a goal in lieu of what is best for the customer.

When we think about empathy for our sponsors we need to push for an understanding of their needs, find the assets that fit them, and be totally fine with walking away if we can’t fit their needs.

This process all starts with truly understanding them.

But I’ll take this a step further…empathy can be a superpower toward a new strategy. When you understand what your sponsor needs and their goals you can build your assets around them.

I’ve talked a lot about digital…and that there is a need for us in sponsorship to drastically increase the digital assets we offer. I talk about this because of an understanding of what sponsors need in terms of goals.

The above graph shows how detached from empathy…or understanding most teams we have to sponsors. When asked what the most valuable benefits of sponsorship packages are…the #2 was a presence in digital media.

Signage is #5, a broadcast is #10.

So why do we start every package with signage?

How can we expect our sponsors to go with us if we don’t offer them items that are not even in the top 3 in what they find valuable?

Today understanding that sponsors need a way to track the direct results of return for their ad spend is why digital is winning. Digital platforms were some of the first ones to fulfill this need for brands.

Selling our signage as the main asset in today’s sponsorship, for the most part, is not having empathy for our sponsor’s needs.

If you are not adding digital into your assets, you don’t have empathy for the CMO who has to justify the spending to their CEO. You don’t have an understanding of how important it is to show a return at fair value in today’s marketing world.

If you don’t show empathy for your customers…someone else will…and reap the value for it. Empathy is a superpower because it brings immense value to your customers.

Empathy for our fans

I want to focus here on sponsorship, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share a take on our stadiums in general.

I hate the term fan engagement. We use it to answer the question of “how do we get people coming to our games?”

We shouldn’t be focusing on engagement…we should be focusing on fan problems. Fan problems are the reason they aren’t coming to our games.

Parking is too expensive. The food is too expensive. Nose bleed seats are cramped and sometimes obstruct our view.

These are all problems that fans have solved themselves…they started watching the games at home on their TV and devices.

So how did we solve it? We blacked out games in local markets. This, in my mind, is the equivalent of telling poor people to make more money. There is no understanding or empathy for the customer’s problem.

If we have empathy for these problems, we can start to solve them. A key example is how the Falcons and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta brought food prices down to market prices…and sold more food over the year.

Having empathy and understanding of a problem and solving it gives value to the fan…which they return.

Ok, now to how sponsorship feeds into this.

Signage is not engaging with fans. When has a sign pulled you in and made such an impact on you that you immediately made a purchase?

So why are most of our assets passive assets?

Having empathy, or understanding, on how to pull in your fan’s attention is the key to being successful in connecting them to a sponsor.

Before I get the all-caps responses let me clarify yet again. Signage has a place and value. If it didn’t…sponsors wouldn’t buy it. They are passive assets that help make a sale over time.

But should they be our main asset to connect fans to sponsors? Absolutely not.

Understanding that today’s active assets, or ones that pull fan’s attention in, helps connect them better will lead to having more of them in our game days.

I’ll go back to our chat with Tyler, a 17 y/o sports fan who attended about 5 games a month. When asked to name sponsors of the team, he could only name two. One who sponsored a halfcourt shot and one that sponsored free food when the team score 100+ points.

He didn’t even name the jersey sponsor…one that lives in his closet and on his body every day he wears it.

This is why digital assets are so valuable and wanted by brands. Other than being trackable…they also pull fans in.

Having empathy for consuming habits outside of our stadium is also important

Going back to Tyler, the 17 y/o sports fan, we asked where he consumes his team the most and his answer was Twitter and Instagram.

Well, we should post more to Instagram and Twitter content, right? The answer is no, we would not see an increase in connection.

This is because we, at first, asked the wrong question. Instead of asking where he currently consumes the most content of his team, I then asked him what social platform he spends the most time on.

Snapchat was the resounding answer.

The power of this empathy, or understanding, is huge. By knowing that the main place Tyler consumes overall content is on Snapchat the better shot we have at reaching him.

This same process goes for your fans of all ages. You should be asking these same questions of your fans of all ages.

Another key understanding from Tyler was the place where he consumes long-form content the most is on YouTube. We should all be looking to create behind-the-scenes content and posting them on YouTube. The viewership would be massively valuable to the fan and sponsor.

Having empathy for our fans and how they want to connect with sponsors is vital. It helps us better serve both the fan and the sponsor.

Empathy for our internal stakeholder, game ops

Sometimes I think we forget about this very important part of our success in sponsorship…it has to fit smoothly into our game.

When we sell sponsorship activations it is VITAL to have empathy for our game ops staff. They have a game day to run, the worst thing is when we jam a complex sponsorship activation down their throat to figure out.

When creating these packages, we need to have empathy for our game ops and schedule. It will help us put on a great activation to get the most success.

Not too much in-depth analysis of this stakeholder because it is very straightforward. Let’s just be conscious of our game ops as we look to implement.

Overall, we should be seeking empathy in every aspect of our work in sponsorship

When we look at every aspect of our sponsorship packages, prospects, and implementation we have to deploy empathy. It is the cornerstone of success in the business.

Sometimes we have to sacrifice short-term revenue gain to do so. If we do, it will return 10X in the long run.

Empathy is understanding. The team that understands their sponsors and fans the most wins.



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