A brief history of sponsorship

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The whole sponsorship thing feels very modern – but its roots go way back. We explored the roots and the close connections to philanthropy in an earlier post. So for now, we thought we’d simply tell a story, a brief history of sponsorship. Over 2000 years, execution has changed substantially, but its core purpose has remained the same : to shape the connection between sponsor and audience. 

The ancient Greeks had a name for everything

Sponsorship’s roots, as we all know, are in antiquity, not the 80s. And the wonderful thing about ancient Greece is: think of anything, and they’d already done it, classified it and given it a name.

Choregus is one such name, given to the upstanding citizen who funded and to a large extent led the production of festival performances, a major and very visible role, fêted on an equal footing with the performers. In ancient Greece, festivals were like a combination of Christmas and the World Cup – huge symbolic value infused with bacchanalia. Hugely significant in other words. The precedent here is interesting, because the recognition of the sponsor’s generosity was formalised socially: the better the staging, the greater the recognition.

A related concept is ‘euergetism’ – the practice of wealthy citizens providing collective benefit to a community, in the shape of funding civic buildings, social provision or the building of warships. Although honour, an outmoded term, plays a great role, it is clearly and overtly linked to benefit. Euergetism is framed by scholars as ‘social exchange’ – of personal investment in public welfare, in return for recognition and esteem, to put it bluntly. It’s likely that the ancient Olympic Games were in part sponsored by wealthy individuals as well as by the City of Olympia.

Patronage was effectively the ancient Roman equivalent : the Latin term was patrocinium. Wealthy patricians and emperors alike would sponsor gladiatorial games and chariot races to gain favour with the people. These events were often held to mark important occasions, such as victories in warfare or the ascension of a new emperor. Artistic and academic patronage are also to be found in ancient China. Unsurprising really – power always looks for ways to express itself in society.

The modern form of the word patronage, dates back to the 14th century – referring to a powerful protector or supporter. It first originated in a religious context, but by the late 14th century was being applied to the arts and culture The Medici family were renowned for their patronage of some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli. Historically, people in positions of power like kings and queens funded all types of visual artists to outfit their homes, cities, and important buildings like churches and town halls. If you were an artist and had a powerful patron, your financial security was all but guaranteed.

In the Italian Renaissance, patrons either took on artists and commissioned them work-by-work, or they fully took them into their estates and provided them with housing while the artist was “on-call” for all art needs. Depending on the scale of a project, an artist could be funded by patrons for years. The benefits to the patron in today’s terms – influence, respect, fame, buzz, perceived importance. Patronage has always been about the exercise of soft power, even if sponsorship for the most looks like a clean commercial discipline.

Sponsorship and patronage are closely linked – only separated these days by the contractual nature of public recognition.

And for 400 years there was only patronage.

The early days

The history of commercial sponsorship is of course linked to the growth of national brands and the development of mass markets, where sponsorship was grasped as a way to grow a customer base. So it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century, with the scaling up of manufacturing, retail and distribution, that the history of sponsorship begins to take off. 

It didn’t begin with sport.

In the late 1800s, tobacco companies such as W.D. & H.O. Wills and Duke & Sons sponsored traveling minstrel shows, which were popular entertainment acts that featured comedic skits, music, and dance. Meanwhile patent medicine companies such as Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound and Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription sponsored women’s clubs and societies to promote their products to female consumers. In the late 1800s, food and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola and Swift & Company were sponsoring county fairs and agricultural shows to promote their brands and products to rural consumers.

Then, just as the Franco-Prussian war was kicking off in Europe, the US tobacco industry, always one of the most aggressive advertisers, launched collectible tobacco cards. By 1888, cigarette companies were using cards with images of baseball players to stiffen their packs of loosely packed tobacco and thin paper wrappings. Players featured on the trading cards for years to come and could also be seen with a bulge of chewing tobacco in their mouths, providing implicit endorsement. Not sponsorship per se, the cards were the first widespread application of sport to product promotion.

In 1896 the first set with a sporting theme appeared in the UK,  a series by W.D. & H.O. Wills of 50 cricketers. In 1902, they published a set of 66 football cards. This included George Clawley (Tottenham Hotspur), Matt Kingsley (Newcastle United), George Hedley (Sheffield United), Jimmy Crabtree (Aston Villa), Ernest Needham (Sheffield United) and Fred Spiksley (Sheffield Wednesday). Interestingly, most of the players were photographed in suits.

The first recorded instance of sports sponsorship in the modern sense began in the mid 1880s, when Brown & Williamson, a tobacco company based in Louisville, Kentucky, sponsored the Louisville Colonels baseball team. The Louisville Colonels were a professional baseball team that Brown & Williamson sponsored until the team disbanded in 1899. As part of their sponsorship agreement, Brown & Williamson provided the team with uniforms that prominently featured the company’s logo and name.

Around the turn of the century, branded teams and clubs began to emerge. Rowntrees Football Club was founded in 1890, Bayer 04 Leverkusen in 1904, and in 1910, the Philips Elftal was created, becoming PSV Eindhoven in 1913. These clubs, founded by large local employers in each case, again aren’t examples of sponsorship, but they are examples of how the idea of brand was growing – as employee welfare took on a brand dimension.

As baseball continued its rise in the US, purpose built stadiums began to be built, with Fenway Park in Boston the first in 1912. Signage was present from day one, becoming a regular fixture.

Fenway in itself is an early example, if not of naming rights, then at least of promotional usage of the name. The owner of Fenway Park owned a realty company called ‘Fenway Realty’, so he was squeezing brand value out of the stadium’s name.

Mass media

The history of sponsorship, like any advertising medium, is closely connected to the evolution of mass media – and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that sponsorship became a widespread marketing strategy, with the rise of radio broadcasting.

Radio sponsorship in the US and the UK had its early beginnings in the 1920s, when radio broadcasting first emerged as a popular form of mass media. In both countries, the development of radio sponsorship was driven by the need for broadcasters to find ways to fund their programming.

In the US, the first radio sponsor was the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Company, which began sponsoring a weekly music program in 1922. Other companies soon followed suit, and by the mid-1920s, radio sponsorship had become a common practice. Sponsors would typically pay a fee to have their products advertised during radio programs, and in return, their products would be mentioned by the announcer or featured in a commercial.

In the UK, radio sponsorship developed slightly later than in the US, with the first sponsored radio program airing in 1924. The first UK radio sponsor was the Daily Mail, which sponsored a program called “The Daily Mail Radio Review.” Other companies soon began to sponsor programs, and by the early 1930s, radio sponsorship had become a key source of revenue for broadcasters.

During the early days of radio sponsorship in both countries, sponsors had a great deal of control over the content of programs. Sponsors would often dictate the types of music or programming that would be featured, and they would have final approval over scripts and advertisements. This led to concerns about the commercialization of radio and the potential for sponsors to exert undue influence over programming.

In response to these concerns, broadcasting regulations were introduced in both the US and the UK to ensure that programming remained independent and objective. However, radio sponsorship remained an important source of revenue for broadcasters, and it continued to play a major role in the development of radio programming in both countries.

The 1950s saw the rise of television, and with it came the opportunity for businesses to reach an even larger audience. Companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi started sponsoring television shows and events to promote their products to a national audience. The first commercial television broadcast in the United States was in 1941, and by the end of the decade, television had become the dominant medium for advertising.

The age of the soap

The soap opera, so called because of the proliferation of washing and hygiene sponsors in the early years, were a prime vehicle, reaching a large female audience.

Procter & Gamble dominated radio soap operas and sponsored the first soap opera on TV, “The First Hundred Years,” which premiered on CBS on December 4, 1950 and ran until June 27, 1952.

P&G were so invested in production that they created their own production studio, so the model was actually full on branded content.

The emergence of sports sponsorship

Radio also opened the door for the sponsorship of baseball coverage and the first sponsorships of radio broadcasts of baseball matches in the US in the 1920s were a significant development in the history of sports broadcasting.

One of the earliest examples of baseball radio sponsorship was the broadcast of the 1921 World Series by radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh. Westinghouse Electric Corporation sponsored the broadcast, which featured the New York Giants and the New York Yankees. Westinghouse paid a fee to KDKA to sponsor the broadcast, and in return, their products were advertised during breaks in the game.

In the following years, other companies began to sponsor baseball broadcasts, including Wheaties cereal and Ford Motor Company. These sponsors would pay a fee to broadcasters to have their products advertised during the game, with in game mentions by the commentator, and products featured in commercials.

But 1928 marks the beginning of the modern era with Coca-Cola’s epic partnership with the Olympics. Just over a decade later, the first televised sporting event occurred and gradually TV offered sponsorship ever greater growth potential.

The golden era of sponsorship didn’t really begin until the 1960s and 1970s, but we’ll go no further for now. At that point, the history of sponsorship gets very complex, very quickly.