March 11, 2005

Sponsorship is sport

By the time this editorial is printed, a resolution should have been arrived at in the crisis which has engulfed West Indies cricket.

This week has seen feverish discussions being mediated by Grenada’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell in an attempt to resolve the impasse created over sponsorship of West Indies cricketers. {{more}}Indeed, on Tuesday 8, Dr. Mitchell announced that “a number of areas of common understanding for West Indies cricket” had been arrived at “to permit a settlement of the major areas”.

The level to which this controversy had descended was bound to happen and the sponsoring companies should have seen it coming. In the world of business and endorsements, directly competing companies feverishly avoid what they term conflicts of interest. We hear terms such as “ambush marketing” and the like bandied about. Sponsors studiously avoid stepping on each other’s turf.

But, in this case, we saw the fever-pitched battle of telecommunications providers spilling over onto the field of play, literally. We were supposed to see the display of logos on players’ clothing, on the field, stumps and billboards. What we were not bargaining for was the exclusion of players from the West Indies squad over allegiance to one brand or the other.

Make no mistake, sponsorship is no sport; this is very serious business. And what we are experiencing are the birth pains that come with getting accustomed to dealing with competitive business at this level. The telecommunications war is aggressive business and no one side wants to cede ground.

It is clear that the West Indies Cricket Board made some fundamental errors when they were negotiating the new sponsorship deal with Digicel, coming as it did after a long relationship with Cable & Wireless. Digicel too may have overlooked the sticky wicket it found itself batting on with their sponsored team’s major stars still married to its major competitor.

And, whatever the results of this week’s talks, there are important lessons being learnt. For one thing, we can expect sponsors to be a lot more careful when entering into deals with sporting bodies. What we do not wish for, though, is that would-be-sponsors back off completely from what could be mutually beneficial relationships with sports. There are more sporting disciplines, tournaments and players who need sponsorships than there have been businesses willing to sponsor them.

This issue has gone too far. Our players are still having difficulty just dealing with their star status, the idol worship and money that comes with it. They certainly do not need this controversy distracting them any more.

We need to go beyond what may be just legally right and deal with what is in the best interest of West Indies Cricket. There is too much at stake.