From wealthy patrons in Ancient Rome (on our mind a lot recently) providing financial backing to successful gladiators for social clout, to 1900’s early-advertising-adopter brands promoting baseball cards with superstars of the day to drive sales; sports, branding, and entertainment culture have always intersected. This week's 52INSIGHTS is inspired by the Rugby World Cup, as we deep dive into sports collaborations and explore the youth conversation around sponsorship and branding in sports.


Sports brand sponsorship is big business. For example, during the Rugby World Cup kick off, we saw 15 million fans around the world tune into the opening game. An estimated half a million fans are forecasted to visit France to see the games live. This stimulus is expected to drive an additional billion dollars into the local economy.

The IRFU, Irish Rugby’s governing body, declared revenues of 84 million euro in 2019 with 10 million of that coming from commercial income and the remainder coming from brand sponsorships. While a popular game worldwide, rugby pales in comparison to football with organisers of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar was said to make somewhere in the region of 7.5 billion dollars. Shirt sponsorship for top flight football teams is worth huge sums; the Fly Emirates deal as main shirt sponsors for Real Madrid, for example, is said to be worth approximately 70 million euro to the club.

Teams and sporting organisations aren’t the only ones capitalising on the brand deals; individual athletes can be even bigger winners. NBA Stephan Curry’s lifetime brand deal with UnderArmour for example, is said to be worth in excess of 1 billion dollars in his lifetime.

I think every athlete wants to get sponsored. If you do really well in your sport, then I think sponsorship can help you get rewarded in that sense: doing what you can for your sponsor. It's just another achievement in life..” Bianca Walkden, Olympic Medalist


Fashion and sport have always gone hand in hand. Being a fan of a team comes with its own uniform. Brands know this… The controversial first shirt sponsor in British football started in 1973 to modest origins. Non-league side Kettering Town blazoned local business Kettering Tyres on their shirts, promptly followed by Liverpool’s sponsorship by Hitachi; with other teams (and sports) quickly seeing the commercial benefit. Sports sponsorship's high price tags are often still advantageous for brands, not only for the large scale exposure and talkability opportunities, but because of the prospect of continued connection with new generations of fans.

How do fans feel about the price of their fandom? A recent survey by YouGov of 1,000 Premier League fans said a 44% majority had no preference whether a shirt was sponsored or not, followed closely by 42% preferred a sponsorless jersey. Younger fans have only ever experienced this dynamic given that the practice is now widespread - and while there is recognition that commercial sponsorship benefits teams at a grassroots level, there are understandable misgivings around rising costs of fan merchandise.

“I'm actually Pro shirt sponsorships. Specifically iconic partnerships like Inter Milan and Pirelli, PSV and Phillips or even Ireland and Opel from the 90s. However I find it totally insane that betting companies are allowed to have such a stranglehold on English football.” Luke, 26, The Love Network


From conversations with young fans through The Love Network we see that ‘winning’ sports sponsorships or collabs are ‘iconic’ for a number of reasons. For some it’s about the must-have, fashion or design elements like Uniqlo and Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal and Nike - the ultimate combination of style and sports star power. For some, it’s their unexpectedly perfect nature; the combination of Grime artist Kano and Landrover, at the Rugby World Cup launch was a disruptive pairing that worked. Even just the use of the word ‘collab’ instead of ‘sponsorship’ can be deemed a more current, modern way to talk about branded partnerships as it implies value-adds on both sides, while leaning into digital and music culture language. Overall, the best sponsorships in youth terms are generally more interactive and collaborative; younger fans love the opportunity to be part of activity and to get closer to the teams and athletes that they identify with.

A great example of this is the New Balance x Coco Gauff partnership. Initially for only close friends and family, New Balance’s Call Me Coco Champion tees - made in support of tennis champion Coco Gauff - quickly became one of 2023’s most hyped pieces of clothing following the rising tennis star’s performance in the US Open. This led to a wildly popular commercial run for New Balance, powered by fans' desire to get involved and show support for their favourite athlete.

Younger audiences take no prisoners when it comes to mismatched or ill conceived partnerships. Lonzo Ball, at the time the No.2 draft pick in the NBA, signed an exclusive shoe deal with Ballr (his dad’s company btw) for his rookie season and he has since come to say the shoes themselves were of low quality and detrimental to his performance that season.


From fashion to music to celebrity, sports fandom often intersects with other mainstream fandoms. In very special circumstances, however, we see them multiply and together, go stratospheric. Just last weekend a cultural phenomenon was revealed in the unveiling of Taylor Swift and NFL wide-receiver Travis Kelce romance, at an NFL game. The star power caused NFL viewership to explode to 24 million viewers, powered by new-to-NFL Swifties watching the Kansas City Chiefs game. Kelce himself also had a big week with over 300,000 new social media followers by Monday, a 400% increase in merch sales and 7 catches and a touchdown in the day job. Heinz was quick off-the-mark in maximising this conversation, with their personalised product drop.


At the core, the team and the experience come first with fans

Sports fans care about financial investment that helps their team - and elevates their enjoyment of fandom. Heineken’s Green All the Way activations for the Rugby world cup have been bringing a fan focussed experience to pubs around the country to elevate the experience of going to the pub and watching the game.

Fans love to see fresh creativity when it comes to sponsorships

Younger fans love the chance to get involved in the fun. Brazilian beer brand Brahma has been involved in football sponsorship in Brazil since shirt sponsors became a thing, however with a change in local laws they could no longer put their name on any jersey. Instead they sponsored players to get iconic double dyed blond haircuts visually reminiscent of the beer in the glass - and became as virally popular amongst younger Brazilian fans as Ronaldo’s ICONIC (R9) 2002 World Cup cut.

Keep it real

We know that younger audiences are allergic to inauthenticity. When Messi signed a ‘burger’ endorsement with Hard Rock Café, fans had plenty to say about it: “The Hard Rock Cafe Messi burger is one of the worst combos I've seen recently. I just can't imagine a man with 7 Ballon D'ors eating many burgers larger than his own head.” Alan, 22, The Love Network.