A Secret Weapon For Impact And Deepening Customer Connections

Adrienne Ankola-Rochetti, Senior Director – Social Impact

COVID-19 has clearly had an immense impact on the world as we know it, including within the sports and entertainment sector. When coupled with the steep, global increase in fans and athletes supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and voter participation initiatives in the U.S., it’s a unique moment to examine how brands can leverage their partnership rights and assets to propel their social impact efforts and make a deep, meaningful impact.

“Sport Has the Power to Change the World…” – Nelson Mandela

Historically, the sports sector has been effective at raising awareness of underexposed issues, sparking important conversations, shifting public perception, and provoking action. Over the past few years, professional and collegiate sports properties – along with athletes, coaches and executives – have taken a stand on some of our most pressing global issues with a seemingly renewed purpose and frequency. In many cases, they are now speaking on the very same issues they have previously shied away from. In that unique climate, sports properties and brands are in a prime position to collaborate for powerful social purpose campaigns.

Within the partnerships discipline, there’s been a significant uptick in brands leveraging their media assets for purpose-inspired storytelling over the past several years. Look no further than recent Super Bowl spots. In 2020, three out of the top 10 and seven of the top 20 USA Today Super Bowl Admeter ads were related to a brand’s corporate social responsibility efforts. Yet, while many of these ads have performed well in the sense of breaking through the clutter and resonating on a deeper level with consumers, some faced harsh criticism of disingenuously bragging about doing good without having a tangible impact on a given issue. In isolation, an ad spot can feel more like a flash in the pan or a pat on the back for a job well done instead of a conscious and comprehensive effort to create change.

MLB Stand Up

An Opportunity to Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk

With sports partnerships, brands have an opportunity to go beyond leveraging media assets as a one-way microphone to tell audiences a story about their values. Partnerships allow a brand to extend the life of the story and drive engagement around that message throughout an entire season and beyond. They also provide a viable platform to execute a multi-faceted approach to impact, one that can solve the authenticity issue brands face in an environment where consumer cause consciousness – and skepticism or cynicism towards brand-led purpose campaigns – is ever rising. Brands can holistically and strategically address a social issue by using the assets on offer through a sports partnership and the resources of the properties themselves.

For example, MasterCard’s now famous 10+ year integration of its MLB partnership with Stand Up To Cancer differentiated and ignited their partnership, sparking a deeper social connection amongst fans. MasterCard’s activation creates a powerful moment each season across broadcast, in-stadium and social/digital channels through a call-to-action for fans and players alike to stand up for those who have been touched in some way by cancer.

One particularly noteworthy element of this example is that MasterCard leverages its partnership assets to encourage active fan participation. Instead of telling fans a top-down story, MasterCard enables an ongoing conversation and allows the fans to be the protagonists in part of a larger story.

NWSL Google

An Unprecedented Time for Action

As professional sports teams begin to return to the field of play amidst the ongoing fights for racial and social justice and the public health crisis, brands will have opportunities to step up with purpose-driven partnership investments. We’re already starting to see this in the marketplace.

For example, in an effort to support women’s owned businesses and women’s sports which have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, Google recently sponsored the NWSL’s Challenge Cup. Their investment helped support players getting back on the field in a number of different ways and enabled remote fans to still connect to the game with tangible activations, such as virtual cheering sections.

We’re also seeing brands invest in new ways for the athletes they endorse. Just recently, Converse announce that it will cover the forfeited salary of their endorsee, Natasha Cloud, as she sits out the 2020 WNBA season to focus on fighting for social reform.

Doing Good as Part of a Future Growth Strategy

Corporate social impact initiatives are obviously about doing good, but they can also help achieve longer-term business objectives. For many brands and properties, reaching younger generations, especially Gen-Z and Millennials, continues to be a critical business priority. Sports capture the attention of younger demographics who are also more likely to be focused on being socially conscious and engaging with brands that reflect their own personal values. The intersection of sports with well-crafted, brand-led social purpose campaigns has great potential to speak to younger generations in a common language they respect and relate to.

A sports partnership is often a brand’s furthest reaching channel and the one that drives the most excitement and engagement from consumers and employees alike. In the spirit of leveraging social purpose to reach and resonate with existing and new audiences, there’s a strong case to be made for brands to activate social purpose efforts through sports partnerships.

Sports partnerships have long been an effective marketing tool because they directly connect a brand with deep consumer passion points. We are just starting to scratch the surface on the impact brands can have on their business and on society by harnessing the power of purpose in their sports partnerships. Imagine what progress could be realized if the magnetic energy surrounding sports properties, the strong influence of the players, the deep connections among communities of fans, and the extensive reach to diverse, multi-generational audiences were mobilized as an unstoppable force for good.


This has been part 2 of a multi-part part series on purpose and partnership. Look out for part 3, in which we will do a deeper dive into how one global brand has been utilizing purpose to drive its partnership strategy and how they’ve been navigating the sports and entertainment landscape in the context of the pandemic.