Fuse Managing Director Stephen Hutchison shares how he envisions the sports sponsorship industry recovering from this pandemic.

Published July 23, 2020 | Category: Industry Insights

How is the UK doing with cricket, Premier football and more being played again?

It is brilliant to have sport back, first and foremost. Fans across the UK have missed their favourite teams, players and events greatly, so before we get into any specifics – it is fantastic to have it back up and running. I believe the sports organisations deserve a lot of credit for getting things going, in a safe and responsible way – all in a backdrop of uncertainty and negativity. Whilst I don’t have any hard evidence to hand, I feel confident in saying that there is likely to be a link between the return of sport and the overall optimism of the nation, and that can only be a good thing.

The only thing that has suffered is the on-field product itself. It isn’t the same. It is hard to blame anyone for this but if I take Premier League football as an example, it doesn’t have the same excitement around it, like it did pre-COVID and the action on the pitch doesn’t seem as compelling. Certainly fans not being in stadia contributes largely towards this as does the fact the players had to get back up to full speed very quickly. Plus the fact that Liverpool only needed a couple of matches to secure the title. None of those things are anyone’s fault but the sooner we can get back to some sort of normality, the better. We’re hearing some cautiously optimistic signals from the sports authorities and government that we may see fans in stadia in the relatively near future.

Whilst ensuring we are safe and responsible – the sooner we can get back to “normality” the better, but the fact that we have top level sport back in any capacity is brilliant.

Still all without fans – what do you personally miss most?

I miss it hugely. I am an avid Celtic supporter. For any US readers, that isn’t a typo – I’m referring to Glasgow Celtic. Going to Celtic Park with my family is a huge part of my love of football, and in particular Celtic. We call the stadium Paradise and all this time without a trip to Paradise has been tough.

Putting my own personal experience to one side, empty arenas are not what anyone wants. Whilst we believe that the sports industry needs to progress its digital credentials this does not stretch to fully digital experiences where fans no longer need to attend the live event. Certainly the in-stadia experience should be improved and digital and tech solutions utilised to improve opportunities for sponsors. The rest of the world is behind the US on this. I do believe that the time we’ve had could be used to upgrade venues to offer better experiences for when fans return. Easier said than done but it is an investment that could drive increased revenues upon return to full venues.

Why is sports sponsorship so significant to global brands?

In a world where brands are finding it more difficult than ever to connect with their audiences – sport can provide a unique opportunity. It has the power to unite people and for brands to deliver meaningful connections. There are a number of levels through which this can work from; placement in and around emotionally charged moments, to distinctive activation via exclusive assets to experiences linked to product consideration, trial or purchase.

Brands that invest in sport sponsorship give themselves a large and consistent platform through which to communicate and whilst there are improvements we can make as an industry with regards to how we deliver and measure the impact of these platforms – the value is there for brands to extract.  

Given today’s environment, how would you advise a brand that deals with global properties to extract the most value from their sponsorship?

Firstly, the industry is and will increasingly find itself in “loss of value” and “compensation” discussions. My advice to brands is to be partners to their rights holders and seek value and compensation based on the true situation as well as how value may be delivered in the time that is left on contracts. There are scenarios where value could increase or additional assets instead of cash could hold a higher value – so a quick cashback solution may not be the answer.  

Moving to activation, there is a definite need to act with a degree of caution when thinking about the here and now. In my opinion, big, flashy activations with little substance or benefit to the audience are not the way forward. However, activations that offer fans something special now are gold dust – everyone has had a hard time, so to reward with some sort of experience be that digital or physical will be very well received. We’ve seen lots of good examples of brands providing increased access to talent or unique digital experiences through lockdown.

Additionally, sport has really found its purposeful voice during the pandemic and wider social issues of the past few months. Organisations and athletes have shown up very well.  So, for brands involved in sport sponsorship – what can they do to support and deliver purposeful messages through sport?

How do you envision the sports industry in general and the sports sponsorship industry more specifically recovering from this pandemic?

I recently wrote a piece that was featured in SportsPro on five changes I believe we must implement to affect positive change in the sports marketing industry – these are:

  1. Improve our measurement capabilities. As of now, we largely deal in outputs, e.g. media value, percentage of fans aware, not impact e.g. true impact on brand or business metrics. We need to be able to prove the impact of our activities in the same way other channels can or we risk losing investment.
  2. Accelerate our uptake of digital. More than 50% of global ad expenditure is now spent on digital channels. However, analysis we conducted showed that less than 25% of partnership assets can be classified as digital. We are not supplying the demand – again we must address this or risk losing investment.
  3. Ditch some legacy ways of working. This is a more general point but we need to be more performance focused in order to succeed. Anything we used to do that doesn’t yield results should be questioned whether it is a form of activation or the way we sell our rights and / or services.
  4. Sponsorship contracts need to be more flexible. Current contracts are too rigid. Rights holders ask brands to sign up to multi-year contracts but give very limited flexibility during that period to adapt them. As brands’ priorities and needs change, contracts need to allow for more flexibility.
  5. Rights holders should never be sold out. New technology, innovative ideas and a constant review of our infrastructures should result in a situation where we are never ‘sold out’. New activations utilising tech, in particular a link with esports has shown this to be true – we need to continually innovate to create new rights and opportunities.


How do you see your clients’ guest experience changing when sports return with fans in attendance?

There is likely to be a period when guest experiences are more limited, even when crowds are allowed to gather again. I suspect this will be due to budget restrictions and lower confidence levels in guests willingness to travel and attend. However, in the long-term things will return to normal as experiences at major sports events will retain their value and appeal.

I expect to see the processes and elements of the experience to be refined to create more efficiencies for brands and rights holders to reduce associated costs. My belief is that this will take the form of digital experiences and an increased use of tech as part of the overall guest journey. However, it is important to say that I do believe the core experience will stay relatively consistent and it will retain its special value.   

We’re finding increased interest in our solutions that streamline processes surrounding sponsorship and event management. Is improving efficiencies something you and your clients are even more focused on during this time?

Yes, absolutely. To our clients’ credit (most of the time), they are always pushing us to be more efficient and that helps us continually refine our offering. The reality of budget cuts due to the pandemic means that in some instances this has become a mandatory but it is for all of our benefit that we offer the most efficient service – without compromising the quality.   

How is FUSE leveraging COVID-19 downtime to better position your agency and your clients for the return of live events?

We are spending a lot of time thinking about this and how we pivot our business in order to be more future focused. We’ve always considered ourselves restless and this is the time where we need that attitude more than ever. It is important we don’t react purely to the impact of the pandemic and think longer-term but we do believe there are important areas we need to invest in for the long-term health of our business. Work is underway so I can’t say too much more at this stage but we aren’t standing still, we are looking forwards and to how we can become even stronger in the long-term.  

At this point, has FUSE developed a back-to-office plan for when your team returns to working from your London office?

We are fully owned by Omnicom and we share office space with other Omnicom agencies so there is group wide plans underway, which we are involved in. We will work closely with our group and make sure we do things in the best and most responsible way possible. Whilst the role of the office will undoubtedly change, for the better in my view, I am personally looking forward to getting back to the office and seeing some of my colleagues for the first time in months.

Finally, care to share a favorite personal activation story?

I am very proud of the work we have done with the FA and Kensington Palace on the Heads Up mental health initiative – using football as a vehicle to encourage more people to talk openly about their mental health. With the support of Prince William, multiple leading footballers, the FA and multiple football organisations we were able to create a really powerful campaign over several months that promoted the idea that your mental health is just as important as your physical health. The response we have had so far has been phenomenal. It was due to culminate at the FA Cup Final in May which obviously hasn’t happened so we are looking forward to restarting that work again when possible.