Beyond the paywall: why fan-centred models are ripe for football sponsorship

Beyond the paywall: why fan-centred models are ripe for football sponsorship

Broadening access for fans to the sports they love is a cornerstone of sports sponsorship. It follows that removing barriers such as paywalls from events emerges as a highly effective approach to fostering favourable brand association and expanding your reach to a broader audience of fans. 

Last month, Fortuna Düsseldorf announced plans to offer free tickets to all fans for at least three home games next season. The German second division club explained that it hopes to anchor the club to its city and fans as it seeks to return to the top division. Leveraging their innate connection to their fanbase, the club found local sponsors, including Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Provinzial, TARGOBANK, and Common Goal to compensate for the loss in matchday revenue. So why are these sponsors, who will spend around £40 million pounds over five years, doing this? 

Expanding an audience through a raised paywall positions sponsors themselves as architects and enablers of growth. A recent report from DAZN showed that 77% of clubs experienced an increase in sponsor interest following its free coverage of the Women’s Champions League on YouTube. While DAZN will be moving to a mostly subscription-based model next season, its 2022/23 sponsors reached unprecedented viewers in the sport because they backed a model that put fans first. To read more about why now is the right time to invest in women's sports, click here.

At a much lower level, sponsors can operate for the benefit of fans with more straight forward activations. In 2015, sponsors of the EFL SkyBet paid for Carlisle United fans’ travel to Plymouth, dubbed ‘the longest away day in the football league.’ The public reaction from the club itself was fantastic: “To sell 79 tickets for such a long trip on a Tuesday night is phenomenal from our fans and we’re pleased their loyalty to the club has been rewarded.” The resultant brand exposure through social media was immediate and positive, and showed a brand in touch with the event it sponsors and leveraging their sponsorship for the clear benefit of supporters.  

 As Thomas Preiss, co-founder of Common Goal, notes, "The future viability and relevance of clubs is increasingly determined by their social engagement, as well as their sporting success." If sponsors can support these ambitions operationally, those shared convictions around fan-engagement will return to bolster their brand. To give some idea of the desirability of fan-centred models, Isabelle Chevelard, CEO of Targobank, expressed that without Fortuna’s ticket project, the bank would not have partnered with Fortuna.  

For all its pioneering risk-taking, the plan is shrewdly simple.  

That said, the coverage on social media of Dusseldorf’s bold plan has been met with confusion as users en masse continue to question its commercial viability. From a sponsorship perspective, that suggests that the sponsors themselves have not yet cut through. To fulfill a community-conscious sponsorship plan, communicating its feasible finances will greatly increase both trust and belief in the project, and therefore garner more positive exposure for any sponsors. The challenge going forward will be to elucidate the sponsorship as both operational and mutually beneficial. It is unsurprising therefore that each of the sponsors have agreed to invest into women’s and children’s football to further support the club. 

What do we learn from these ‘beyond the paywall' campaigns?

  • Leveraging innate connections to the fanbase through sponsorship increases positive exposure.  
  • Fan-centred models will meaningfully reach the widest audience and secure long-term relevance. 
  • Commercial viability is an accusation levelled at sponsors helping to raise a paywall - communicating the practicality of these partnerships is therefore essential.  
  • Fortuna Düsseldorf’s plan shows a great deal of ambition, but it needs to secure a perception of long-term attainability.  
  • Investments in the community are one of the best ways to express sponsorship confidence. Fortuna’s sponsorships will be groundbreaking if they engage beyond the free tickets.