navy-federal-credit-union-nhl-2023-unionstadiumseries-pregame-fan-fest_Man swings ice hockey stick

Sports Sponsorship Update, Part 1: On Partnerships, Personalization and Activating with Intention

As fans flock to stadiums around the globe, sponsors explore new turf and high-touch engagements

Ticket sales are booming, fan fests are on the rise and the roar of the crowd can once again be heard reverberating at stadiums around the globe. On the surface, it would appear that live sporting events have returned to their former glory. But for brands, the post-pandemic sports sponsorship landscape is a whole new ball game. There are new audiences to connect with, new engagement trends to implement, new opportunities to make a bigger impact. And the sponsors taking advantage of this fresh start are driving measurable business impact.

In a word, sports sponsorship has become more intentional. Brands are strategizing based on who fans are and what they want from a sponsor interaction—not the other way around. In return, consumers’ passion for the sport is translating into passion for the brands that bring the game to life for them in purposeful ways.

“We talk to a lot of consumers around the world, and it’s really about delivering what the fan wants—and that could be a number of different experiences,” says Alison Giordano, svp-global sponsorships at Mastercard. “It could be a behind-the-scenes for you and your friends or a family experience. What we try to do is bring a myriad of different types of experiences to bear with each of our activations so that we can provide opportunities for all different types of fans to engage with what they care about.”

iStock-942206186_Sports_equipment_field_teaserMORE FROM OUR SPORTS SPONSORSHIP UPDATE:


Captains and NFCU Leaders-Navy Federal Credit Union_NHL 2023 UnionStadiumSeries_Sports Sponsorship Update

The Navy Federal Credit Union has found its niche as the NHL’s official military appreciation partner.

Indeed, one size does not fit all, and activation strategies that are designed with a “marketing to the masses” mentality are falling short, marketers say. One way that brands like Navy Federal Credit Union (NFCU), the official military appreciation partner of the NHL, are creating more meaningful moments is by activating fewer experiences with more thoughtful engagements.

At the recent Navy Federal Credit Union Stadium Series, an outdoor hockey tournament that drew tens of thousands of spectators, NFCU ensured that it was providing an intimate and intentional experience for military veterans beyond the competition itself. It created a Veterans Showcase hockey tournament and “fantasy camp” honoring vets from across the U.S. (Bespoke Sports & Entertainment handled). More than 100 teams submitted nominations to play, but only four were chosen, meaning just 55 people were ultimately invited to engage with the brand in person.

In addition to the tourney itself, the exclusive program included a formal welcome and dinner reception for all teams, photo ops with the Stanley Cup and a breakfast reception with ESPN anchors, among touchpoints.

“The days where people just said, ‘how many people are going to be there,’ and that was the criteria, are over,” says Pam Piligian, cmo at Navy Federal Credit Union. “Brands are doing fewer events, but doing them deeper. Instead of showing up at every single event, it’s how do you be more strategic about the ones you pick? I see a lot more experiences like we’ve done, which is to offer a VIP experience to a smaller group, making sure that that really is a special experience, and then leaving the mass approach for broadcast.”

petsmart-mvpets-2023-mobile-tour-unit_teaserMore on Sports Sponsorship:


Barefoot Touchdown Tavern 1_Super Bowl 2023_ sports sponsorship update

E&J Gallo dished out wine-based slushies at the “Barefoot Tavern” to appeal to football fans at Super Bowl 57.

A highly saturated sports sponsorship landscape has prompted more than a few companies to reevaluate the way their partnerships are perceived, and with that, their approach to engagement. Ownership of industry categories, occasions and audience segments is on the rise as brands seek new ways to earn mindshare amid the clutter. For NFCU, the approach has included promoting itself not as another financial institution, but as a partner that makes a concerted effort to support the military community.

“I think for everybody, the challenge is figuring out what’s your specific role,” Piligian says. “That’s why we carved out this very unique one as a military appreciation partner, versus trying to say we’re there about banking or we’re there about investing.”

E&J Gallo-owned Barefoot Wine has also leaned on the strategy by entering the beer- and spirits-dominated world of the NFL as the league’s exclusive wine partner, which includes plenty of on-the-ground fan activations.

It may not sound like an endemic duo, but research shows that football fans do enjoy wine—Barefoot just needed to provide the right occasion to enjoy it in, supported by the right strategy. Like trading pinkies-up pours of Cabernet for wine-based slushies that cooled down fans in Arizona at the “Barefoot Tavern” during Super Bowl 57 (Wasserman handled).

“When you think about who the fans of football are, they love to watch, they love entertaining in their homes and many of them are wine drinkers,” says Beth Orozco, vp-marketing at E&J Gallo Winery. “And we haven’t shown up and been relevant for that occasion, so that’s what we’re looking to do. We have to make sure that we’re owning either the tailgate at the stadium or the home-gate.”

Brands like Allstate are getting even more ambitious. The veteran college football sponsor and title sponsor of the College Football Playoff National Championship (handled by 15|40 Productions) doesn’t just want to own the insurance category, it wants to own the sport.

“Allstate has been building up 15-plus years of equity within the sport, and football’s allowed us to create a strong vertical integration and ownership with our programming,” says Ashley Kelly, integrated marketing communications-sponsorship at Allstate. “And it allows us to demonstrate in a unique contextual environment that Allstate and college football are synonymous.”

Allstate_CFP 2023_PartyAtThePlayoff_photo wall

Allstate has long served as the title sponsor of the College Football Playoff National Championship’s biggest events: Party at the Playoff and the Championship Tailgate.



Across the board, brands are taking a breath before jumping into sports sponsorship deals to ensure that they share similar values and goals as the leagues they’re partnering with. The knee-jerk reaction to say “yes” to any sponsorship that offers mass visibility is dwindling as companies get more intentional about the properties they work with.

Consider E&J Gallo, fresh off of its first year of pro football sponsorship, and its relationship with the NFL. The league is looking to attract more casual fans, as well as younger, more diverse audiences.

“We’ve been talking to those consumers for over 35 years,” says Orozco. “One of the things that I love about the NFL partnership is many of their goals are so closely aligned with ours that I already can see it’s not a round peg/square hole kind of thing. We have these mutual goals, and that’s so incredibly important when you think about what is this partner that I’m going to really invest in for multiple years? Are we strategically aligned? Are we going to celebrate some of the same wins?”

The same goes for NFCU. “As a credit union, we’re really about community, and we want to make sure that we’re showing up for our members in the things that they care about,” says Piligian. “For us, [NHL] hockey is about shared values. We are like-minded both in terms of the passion for the sport, but also in terms of community, hard work and dedication.”

Great minds think alike.


This story appeared in the Spring 2023 issue
Kait Shea
Posted by Kait Shea

Kait joined EM in 2015 and today enjoys her role as senior editor, digital content. When she’s not in reporter mode, rocking mermaid pants at Comic-Con or running laps at MWC Barcelona, you can find her at home listening to music.
View all articles by Kait Shea →

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