Sponsorship battle a reminder of the dangers of aiming too high
Towards the end of last week, it emerged the Government’s proposal to ban alcohol companies sponsoring sports events is to be shelved. The coalition’s u-turn comes off the back of a persuasive campaign driven by the three leading sporting organisations in Ireland - the FAI, IRFU and GAA.
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar, an opponent of the proposal, said any ban would make it extremely difficult for sporting organisations to find alternative financiers and any such legislation could only be introduced if alternative funding streams are established.
It’s reported as much as €20 million is spent by alcohol companies each year on sponsoring sporting events. In the current economic climate, when state grants are continually shrinking, the importance of additional and supplementary revenue streams, such as sponsorship, to sporting bodies is greater than ever before.
Almost 35% of the GAA’s annual income is from commercial partnerships and Guinness’ sponsorship of the November rugby internationals and Heineken's association with the European Cup is worth €9 million annually to the IRFU.
So, when RSA decided against extending their seven-year partnership with Cricket Ireland last May, it was, although played down at the time, a body blow - the insurance firm had invested a seven figure sum into Irish cricket during their long-standing affiliation.
At the time, Warren Deutrom said he ‘was confident of negotiating the best possible deal for Irish cricket’ despite the financial constraints many companies are under. Deutrom referred to Irish cricket as a ‘genuinely attractive property for a major brand to put its own stamp on.’ It’s unlikely he had a stop-gap deal with Tourism Ireland - a government funded entity - in mind as Ireland’s primary sponsor for the World Cup then.
As it turns out, Cricket Ireland have been forced to deploy Plan B. That’s not to say Tourism Ireland didn’t table a highly lucrative offer that will boost the coffers in the short-term but the deal, officially announced in Trinity last week, hints of improvisation.
Much like a businessman dishing out cash to sponsor his son’s football team because nobody else was interested, you get the feeling Cricket Ireland have been given a dig out. The governing body’s struggle to broker a high-yielding, multi-year deal - in what is supposed to be Ireland’s biggest year - is not only concerning but a reminder of cricket’s stature in this country.
Not long into the formalities last Thursday, a Muggles Quidditch (don’t ask) tournament kicked-off on the other side of the Trinity outfield. For the uninitiated, it’s a sport (?) of two teams of seven players each mounted on broomsticks played on a hockey rink-sized pitch. To the vast majority on these shores, those that were bravely modelling the new lime green kit may as well be heading off to play a similarly mythical and fictitious sport next month. One comment on a website following last week’s photo shoot, supposedly from a sports fan, read “We have a cricket team?”
Cricket Ireland said ‘they believe in what they are selling’ but if the product is of little interest to the wider public, outside the cricketing fraternity, then it will go unsold. Of course, appearing for the best part of four weeks as the cynosure of all eyes on an exalted stage, which is broadcast to 2.5 billion people globally, should mean there is little problem in finding benefactors - there should be a queue outside the Cricket Ireland offices.
However, it seems, as much as companies are interested in being associated with one of the fastest growing sports in this country, they are unwilling to invest heavily. Or, maybe, Cricket Ireland are trying to oversell themselves.
ICC regulations don’t permit any sponsorship logos to be displayed on the front of the playing shirt, thus limiting the exposure the sponsor will receive when it matters most. The ‘Ireland.com’ logo will instead be emblazoned on the leading arm of the batsmen but sponsorship deals have to work both ways.
Perhaps, the ‘product’ Cricket Ireland are trying to sell isn’t as appealing as what has been made out to be, or what the governing body ideally want. To get a sponsor on board, in any sport in an age of instant fulfilment, for two-three years is a commitment not many companies are prepared to make unless they’re guaranteed of bang for their buck.
While Irish cricket can, and has, provided indelible days and the type of attention sponsors only crave, it’s arguably the murky waters that lie ahead which are deterring interested parties from putting pen to paper.
It would be contradictory for Cricket Ireland to undervalue themselves - they are widely regarded as the most dynamic governing body in this country - by deigning to accept any offer that is put on the table but aiming too high, it seems anyway, has backfired.
Indeed, a six-week long World Cup is, commercially speaking, a profitable period but as Ireland search for a new long-term sponsor, the 2015 edition may just have come along at an unfavourable time. If ‘those in the know’ are to be believed, the top brass are still in talks with four or five prospective partners. Come March 15th, some of those offers may be no longer on the table.
For the first time there is a genuine feeling of apprehension in the build-up to the big show. The rehearsals haven’t exactly gone smoothly and while there is still time for fine-tuning, it’s a matter of hoping it’s going to be alright on the night. Ireland have, on previous occasions, always delivered when its mattered most but the extra significance of this tournament has made a no-show almost unimaginable.
The significance of this World Cup cannot be understated. Should William Porterfield and his side punch above their weight again, it will only reinforce their case for ascension while making the Tourism Ireland deal a boardroom master-stroke - Warren Deutrom’s bargaining power would be increased tenfold.
But, conversely, an underwhelming tournament, particularly on the back of Sylhet, would give rise to the claims that Ireland have hit a plateau in their headlong development and reduce the appeal for those businesses interested in associating themselves with cricket on these shores.
The bar has been set high, both on and off the field, but possibly too high. By all means, ambitious and purposeful objectives have underpinned Ireland’s route to success but now that a crossroads has been reached, an alternative means of progress may just be to take one step at a time.
When expectations are so inflated, even unreasonable, failure is the only outcome. Michelangelo once famously said “the greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
Cricket Ireland’s aims, for years, were modest and that mark was blown away. In the space of eight years, the expectancy levels have gone from ‘just delighted to be here’ to ‘anything but progression will be seen as a let-down.’ There is an expectancy and that’s the way it should be but perhaps those expectations should be tempered slightly - both on and off the field.
That doesn't mean there should be a limit to the ambition but trying to achieve too much can be counter-productive.