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How Can Brand Partners Create Authentic Experiences at Sporting Events? Here’s What Industry Experts Had to Say

For this year’s Boston Marathon, new sponsor Bank of America added its logo to the medals, sparking runner outrage. Event profs weigh in on the controversy and explain how brands can activate in a genuine way.

Woman Start22 Boston M22
Photo: Courtesy of Boston Athletic Association

Starting with this year’s Boston Marathon, which took place April 15, Bank of America entered into a 10-year sponsorship deal with the race. Unlike the Chicago Marathon, which is officially named the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the Boston race has kept its name, with the “presented by Bank of America” tagline.

But the company did put its logo on finishers' medals. This was the first year the medal featured a sponsor logo, and some runners were not happy about it. “Extremely disappointed in these medals. 😞 They look very cheap and the Bank of America logo is so large that it’s taking away from the prestige of Boston. I truly feel like it’s ruining the history of the Boston Marathon by producing medals at lower quality. Please fix this Boston!” said one Instagram commenter on the marathon’s post announcing the new medals.

The principal image remained a golden unicorn, the longtime logo of the Boston Athletic Association, the marathon’s organizing body, with a Bank of America banner underneath. (Insurance giant John Hancock had been the race’s main sponsor for 38 years.) 

In a statement to WWD, the Boston Athletic Association said it “understands how much a finisher medal means to Boston Marathoners, and its symbolism of reaching the finish on Boylston Street.” 

An upside to the bank’s sponsorship: This year’s marathon doled out more than $1 million in prize money—a more than $250,000 increase over 2023’s purse. 

Did Bank of America fumble this sponsorship move, or is it fair game within the event marketing industry, where brands play a big role in funding events? BizBash reached out to the event prof community to hear what they thought and to ask how they think brand partners can integrate themselves into a sporting event in an authentic way. Keep scrolling to read their insights...

Add value 

“The No. 1 rule when you are a sponsor of an event, team, league, etc., is to add value,” said Dan Lobring, senior vice president of Stretch PR, a Chicago-based agency focused on business and sport. “As in, how do I as a sponsor/partner bring real value to either the athletes/teams, or, better yet, to the fan experience? Fans are so savvy these days and they will sniff out anything that feels inauthentic, especially if a sponsor is just slapping their logo on signage or co-branding for eyeballs.” 

In terms of adding value to an event, Eric Gunderson, performance consultant for Apex Predator LLC, offered some examples including the city of Long Beach, Calif., providing hydration stations at the Long Beach Grand Prix. “This highlights their quality water systems and engages government workers with the general public by providing a positive service,” Gunderson said. “It's simple, it's effective, and it's iterative, meaning they can do it at other scaled events.” 

HSS, the official hospital of New York Road Runners, has been hosting recovery zones at select New York Road Runner events like the Brooklyn Half Marathon and the NYC Half Marathon for about 15 years, said Tristan Mitchell, vice president of strategy at Excel Sports Management. Their recovery zones feature guided stretching, yoga mats, and foam rolling with support from HSS physical therapists and exercise physiologists. 

“This activation has been extremely well received by event participants because it helps them with their immediate needs—recovering after race day—while also introducing them to a future partner who can potentially support their active lifestyle,” Mitchell explained. 

“The best partnerships in my experience are win-win-win for sponsor, event, and patron alike,” said marketing advisor Deven Nongbri, who cited his past work with AT&T to equip the San Francisco Giants stadium with broadband and Bluetooth transmitters. “Those efforts helped the venues be better partners for their other sponsors, gave consumers in those markets access to what was then cutting-edge technology, and showcased those AT&T technologies to business clients. We leveraged those partnerships to showcase the technologies in action by bringing business prospects into the venues for games and letting them use those technologies themselves.” 

Alia Kay, principal at brand marketing agency Coffee & Champagne Problems, is a former D1 NCAA athlete who has worked on activations for the ESPY Awards, as well as campaigns for the L.A. Lakers and Sparks. 

In 2011 and 2012 at the ESPY Awards, L'Oréal hosted a beauty activation for the women athletes—a lounge filled with makeup products. “This was authentic L'Oréal without compromising the integrity of the ESPY brand. The people who had their glam done will remember how L'Oréal enhanced their beauty,” Kay said. 

Understand the culture 

“I believe that the key to an authentic partnership lies in the alignment of values and goals between the brand and the sporting event,” said Matt Little, director and owner of Festoon House, an outdoor lighting company based in Australia. “It’s crucial that the brand shares a genuine interest in the sport and understands its culture. This goes beyond just knowing the rules of the game. It’s about understanding the spirit of the sport, the passion of its fans, and the values that it upholds. When a brand truly appreciates these aspects, it can create campaigns and initiatives that resonate with the audience and feel like a natural extension of the sport rather than a commercial intrusion.” 

He added that “collaboration and co-creation with event organizers and athletes can also elevate the authenticity of brand partnerships. By involving them in the planning process and incorporating their input, brands can ensure that their involvement feels integrated and organic rather than imposed. This collaborative approach not only strengthens the partnership but also enhances the overall authenticity of the event experience.” 

Mitchell expressed a similar philosophy, saying, “Brand partners must have a strong understanding of the fans they want to engage with at any sporting event. What drives their fandom? Why is a particular event important to them? It is through this understanding that brands can figure out the best touchpoints through which they can build genuine connections with fans.” 

He said that connecting with Boston Marathon runners in advance about the medal design change may have reduced the fan frustration. “Bank of America has shown itself to be a strong supporter of marathon running for years and has committed to raising millions for charity through its marathon partnerships. Helping fans understand its deep ties to the sport and dedication to positively impacting lives through sport might have reduced some of the initial anger around the medal’s redesign.” 

As a nine-time marathon runner, Channing Muller, principal of DCM Communications, agrees that Bank of America has the right to be included on the medal. “As the title sponsor of any race, it is 100% expected, and as a marketer, I would absolutely tell someone to get their logo included. However, the way in which you do that has to take into account the overall event history and the attendees (and athletes), and make sure the point of your sponsorship isn’t lost by having your logo present. In the case with Boston, the positive impact the sponsorship should have created got completely undercut by the way it was executed.” 

She cited the Chicago Marathon, which includes the Bank of America logo in a “tasteful” way. 

Engage the larger community 

“Another important aspect is the brand’s contribution to the sporting event and its community,” Little said. “This can be achieved through initiatives that enhance the fan experience, support the athletes, or give back to the community. For instance, a brand could sponsor training programs for young athletes, create interactive fan zones at the event, or organize charity matches to raise funds for a local cause. These actions demonstrate that the brand is not just there to advertise, but also to add value and make a difference.” 

Colt Agar, head of SEO at Red Stag Fulfillment, echoed that sentiment, saying that brands should “use [their] resources to amplify others' relevant voices. Focus on how your sponsorship can expand the reach of folks who are really making a difference. Maybe that’s organizing workshops and events with nonprofits themselves, or sponsoring speakers and dedicated local campaigns around a specific cause or event. The point is to ask yourself how you can be a catalyst, not the star of the show.” 

"In terms of creating authentic partnerships, I’ve found that supporting grassroots initiatives and athlete development can be highly effective,” said Sergey Taver, marketing manager of Precision Watches. “This approach allows the brand to be part of the journey, growing alongside the athletes and the sport itself. It’s about being more than just a logo; it’s about being a partner in the truest sense of the word.” 

Taver cited Rolex's integration into tennis as a great example of a successful partnership. “They've managed to become synonymous with the sport without overshadowing it. Rolex has achieved this by being a consistent sponsor of major tennis events like Wimbledon and the Australian Open for many years. They also support individual athletes, further deepening their connection with the sport.”

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