Sports

What would we do without athletic supporters?

KASPARS DZEGUZE August 22 1977
Sports

What would we do without athletic supporters?

KASPARS DZEGUZE August 22 1977

What would we do without athletic supporters?

Sports

It used to be that the biggest jocks in any neighborhood were gents whose beer bellies were nurtured as carefully as the myths of their athletic prowess in younger years. But pinstripes and other styles of board-room chic have since replaced sweat shirts as the uniform of the superjock. The most sought-after players in any game are the corporate jocks, who couldn’t care less whether the ball is square or pointed or if their teams win, lose, or draw—so long as they get to sponsor the game. From the local tradesman backing the Strip ’n Dips of the Charlottetown ladies’ softball league to the corporate property that is the Toronto Blue Jays, sports sponsorship is the biggest and most fiercely competitive game in town. Athletes with million-dollar contracts don’t eye the opposition half as seriously as marketing experts whose skills must show on the bottom line though their only play is gelt by association.

Coke recently kicked Pepsi out of the soccer park and the sponsorship of junior games when it contributed $160,000 to the Canadian Soccer Association as part of a global high-finance campaign involving soccer-playing youngsters in nearly every country in the world. Coke itself was defeated several years ago w'hen Rothmans beat out all corporations vying to sponsor the Canadian Open Tennis Championship. It has been known ever since as the Rothmans Canadian Open. While these struggles normally take place in the carpeted silence of executive suites, a clash between the cola giants, Coke and Pepsi,

may make the loudest roar at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, games that depend as much as professional sports on corporate support.

While opera and theatre often are looked upon as cripples that couldn’t survive without grants from government and industry, sports events are even more palsied financially. Few top pros would have appeared at the Canadian Open Golf Championship, for example, if it weren’t for the prize money put up by Peter Jackson cigarettes. In mid-August a new Grand Prix horse jumping event, featuring members of the Canadian Olympic team and professional riders from the United States, was held only because Coke endowed the event with the second-richest jumping purse on the continent: $50,000. International competitors looking for corporate prize money will converge on York University for the Rothmans Open later this month and on Mosport in October for the Labatt’s Grand Prix auto race.

Until recently, companies sponsored events that demonstrated the sterling qualities of their product. Auto manufacturers from Mercedes to Ford hoped the speed and reliability of their racing machines would influence fans when they chose a family sedan. Canadian Honda continues this type of sponsorship, offering a total of $300.000 in prizes this year to those drivers in motorcycle events who win on Hondas. But most often sponsorship now makes no claim for the event or the sponsor except to imply that both are the big time. What

matters most to fans is that their teams are in the major leagues. If the cost of that is seeing Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium painted what everyone but Labatt’s says is Labatt’s Blue, it is a small price to pay. Sponsorship becomes indistinguishable from event: to think of one is to think of the other. The shock that accompanied MacDonald Tobacco’s announcement that it would, after 1978, drop the sponsorship of the MacDonald Brier curling tournament after 48 years was at least partly due to the realization that MacDonald and the Brier aren’t in fact the same.

One of the lone voices raised in opposition to corporate sponsors is that of Dick Beddoes, columnist and former sports writer for Toronto’s Globe and Mail. Beddoes says: “If I had my druthers, I’d put up with not seeing Laver or Connors rather than have lung cancer people sponsor it.” But he’s resigned to the inevitable and even sees a small benefit for amateur athletes. “If there weren’t corporations, they’d have to go to the government for support and I’m not sure I want the Russian system here.”

Even escalating costs haven’t driven many companies into Beddoes’ corner, though sponsorship itself has sometimes created the monster that now threatens their treasuries. Games such as tennis had limited appeal until infusions of money and publicity made them crowd-pleasers. A veteran tennis observer notes that while athletes such as champion player Don Fontana, who competed during tennis’ “elitist” years, “probably don’t have anything but a drawer full of watches to show for it,” the new personality players such as Hie Nastase get one million dollars a year. So, the modest $23,500 that Rothmans offered in the 1970 Open has snowballed with players’ salaries. This year’s purse of $160,000 makes it the sixth wealthiest tennis event on the continent, yet it still doesn’t draw all the top names.

When asked why they spend these vast amounts, some company spokesmen clam up, while others recite a few verses from an ode to “good corporate citizenship,” and still others bang the drum for “sports that unify all Canada.” Sooner or later, though, someone remembers that it all has something to do with selling more beer, cigarettes, or—in the case of one car racing sponsor—condoms. AÍ Goetz, head of publicity for Pepsi-Cola, New York, admits candidly, “You go where the action is. You establish a direct relationship with the youth market because kids have a tremendous—often final—influence on their parents’ buying habits.”

Most sponsorship is routine stuff: amateur and junior league events snag the kids, while adult promotions are designed to induce brand loyalty, or break it. Once in a while, however, there’s an all-out holocaust, like the war brewing over the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Coca-Cola has been the official soft drink at the Olympics ever since the 1928 Amsterdam games, a

privilege that cost $1.3 million at Montreal. But things don’t go better with Coke in the USSR: they don’t go at all, because Pepsi has an exclusive contract to bottle cola for 254 million comrades. And with global salesof$2.7 billion last year, Pepsi is closing fast on Coke’s $3.2 billion total.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Coke is negotiating with the Soviets to sponsor an Olympic Coke enclave in hostile Pepsi territory—possibly with an eye to claiming squatter’s rights after the games. The world’s largest user of Coke, the McDonald’s hamburger chain, is indirectly supporting Coke’s gambit by negotiating for an Olympic Stadium franchise

and dreaming of golden arches under onion domes from Baltic to Pacific. George Cohon, president of McDonald’s Canada, is doing the negotiating but refuses to say whether he’d sell Pepsi instead of Coke if the Soviets insisted. It looks as if the corporate wrestling at Moscow will make the athletic variety look puny in comparison. Whether or not it helps Coke lay out Pepsi on the mat, sponsorship has become the breakfast of champions—as natural to modern gladiators as plastic grass and steroids. For years to come, when a prize athlete sweats, a corporation will be there to mop up the perspiration with large bills.

KASPARS DZEGUZE