Tech Transformation and the Sponsorship Sector: Part 2 How Mobile Sponsors have transformed the face of sponsorship

It’s astonishing to think that mobile phones were a low penetration luxury item as recently as thirty years ago. Seemingly the preserve of city traders and movie producers, there were only around 35 million mobile subscribers globally in 1991. Three decades later, the figure stands at 7.1 billion – of which 6.4 billion are smart phones.

During that time, the mobile sector has emerged as one of the sponsorship sector’s most valuable partners. While market leader Apple has not been especially active in sponsorship (more below), handset manufacturers and networks have both ploughed billions into sports, arts and entertainment. In the process, they have countered the impact of lost revenues from areas like tobacco and alcohol.

One of the things that has made mobile such a fascinating sector to work with is the way that its networks have become so pervasive in all aspects of consumers’ lives. This was quickly apparent when they started sharing video content off the back of their sponsorship deals – but with a growing shift towards app usage (including music and finance), mobile brands have positioned themselves at the heart of society. As such, there’s an endless array of ways for mobile brands to activate their partnerships and connect with fans/customers.

Then there is the rapid rollout of 5G, a new enhanced level of connectivity that is expected to transform mobile communications at both an enterprise and consumer level. Fuelled in part by Covid-19, Ericsson predicts that 5G mobile subscriptions will hit 580 million by the end of 2021. Further out, it expects 3.5 billion subs by 2026.

With so much global opportunity for growth and an ever increasing appetite for data, there’s no reason to suppose that mobile’s use of sponsorship as a key marketing pillar will end any time soon. Below are a few recent high-profile investments by leading mobile networks.

3: For a long time, mobile network 3 appeared to favour advertising over sponsorship – not really competing head on for properties with its rivals (though it did have a track record of sponsoring premium properties in Eire). All that changed last year when 3 was named as official shirt sponsor of Chelsea FC. Covering the entire Chelsea family of teams, the three-year deal came at the perfect time – with the club going on to win the UEFA Champion’s League last season.

While brand exposure is clearly core to the deal, the partnership also offers 3 an opportunity to flex its 5G muscles. At the time of the deal announcement, the company said it would ensure Stamford Bridge was “5G-enabled within the first year of the partnership”.

Commenting on the deal, Chelsea FC chief executive Guy Laurence said: “Mobile technology has revolutionised the way football clubs and supporters interact with each other which makes Chelsea FC and Three such natural partners. We have a social media following of over 100 million and the official app, The 5th Stand, has had nearly four million downloads. We stream live women’s and Academy football with men’s first team highlights available soon after matches. Three will be at the forefront of (the 5G roll), helping to enhance the experience of being a Chelsea supporter.”

EE: Like 3, EE’s emphasis has tended to be on above the line advertising rather than sponsorship. That said, it did seek to emulate O2 (see below) when it signed a six-year sponsorship deal with Wembley in 2014 (though this deal didn't come with naming rights). More recently, EE is benefiting from the fact that its parent company BT has signed a £60 million, five-year deal to sponsor (2020-2024) the FA’s properties in England. Alongside access to England’s football teams, this new deal subsumed and extended EE’s partnership with Wembley. Under the new agreement, the iconic venue continues to be known as Wembley Stadium connected by EE. Echoing the Chelsea/3 partnership, EE is keen to ensure that Wembley retains its status as one of the best-connected stadia in the world, with fans set to enjoy an enhanced 4G/5G mobile experience and super-fast Wi-Fi.

As an added benefit of the wider BT deal, EE customers also receive exclusive England team match offers and tickets to FA events.


O2: O2 pulled off a coup when it secured the naming rights to the millennium dome in 2007. In 2017, it signed a ten-year extension through to 2027 – valuing the partnership at £12.5m per annum. The partnership has provided O2 with a massive brand exposure boost – and it has also allowed the company to innovate around ticketing technology and strategy. One of its most ground-breaking innovations was its Priority Tickets programme, which gives O2 customers access to shows 48 hours before anyone else, in-venue Priority offers and artist activations. The success of the partnership also encouraged O2 to extend the concept by sponsoring 20 O2 Academy venues.

O2 clearly places great store by longevity. Alongside the O2, it has been a sponsor of the England Rugby Team for 25 years. In October 2020, it renewed that relationship for a further five years. Key features of the new deal include parity across the men’s and women’s games, with O2 pledging to equally fund the men’s and women’s game over the course of the partnership. Through the Priority programme, O2 customers have access to early tickets, player meet and greets, matchday discounts on England Rugby kit and competitions. 

The deal also encompasses a vision for Twickenham to become more connected, utilising O2 5G and O2 Business products and services.

Nina Bibby, CMO of O2 said: “There has never been a more important time to get behind rugby, a sport we love and have invested in for over 25 years. We are proud to support the RFU through our extended partnership, which we believe is the longest shirt sponsorship in the history of UK sport. The future for English rugby is bright, and we want to make sure rugby emerges from the pandemic stronger than ever.”

Orange: This French-owned brand ceased to be a player in the UK when it merged with T-Mobile to form EE. But it has a prestigious track record as a sponsor – having worked with F1, UEFA and European Rugby over the years. In recent times, it has placed emphasis on football, securing partnerships with the French Football Federation and Ligue 1 club Marseille (naming rights and shirt sponsorship).

Perhaps not surprisingly, Orange has also emerged as a key partner for Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The deal, which is reckoned to have cost Orange around £144m, will see the company install its high-speed broadband networks at all Games venues so that fans can share photos and videos at the event. Other sponsorships that underline the France-centric nature of Orange’s strategy include partnerships with the Tour de France and French Tennis Open.

T-Mobile: Like Orange, this brand ceased to be a player in the UK when the two merged to form EE. But it still has a key role to play as a global sponsor. Key investments include a partnership with Major League Baseball, which was extended by four-years in 2019. Still in the US, it also has a stadium naming rights deal with the Seattle Mariners.

T-Mobile also made a bold move into esports – but following the recent harassment scandal at Activision Blizzard there are reports that it has cut ties with the Call of Duty League and Overwatch League.

Verizon: US network Verizon has placed 5G at the heart of its sponsorship strategy. Last month, it extended its long term partnership with the NFL through to 2030. That means the two organisations will have been working together for 20 years by the time renewal rolls round again. As part of the new deal, Verizon will be the official 5G network of the league. Commenting, Verizon CEO and chairman Hans Vestberg said: “The NFL has embraced innovation for decades to bring fans closer to the game, from instant replay technology to outfitting players with microphones. As we embark on the next 10 years, our work with the NFL will continue to enhance and transform not only the fan experience, but also has the potential to improve player training and overall venue operations.” 

Verizon has similar 5G-centred relationships with NASCAR and the NHL. The network has also invested heavily in esports, partnering with Riot Games on popular franchises including League of Legends.


Vodafone: Vodafone has been a big backer of sports properties for decades, with historic partnerships including Manchester United and Formula One. Recently, however, it seems to have decided that rugby union is the right strategic fit. In 2016, it sealed a partnership with the Ireland Rugby Football Union, replacing incumbent partner 3 Ireland. That deal was later extended through until 2024. Clearly enamoured of the sport, Vodafone then signed up as lead partner of this summer’s British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa. It was a brave decision – taken when Covid-19 was still at its height (June 2020). Commenting at the time, commercial director Max Taylor, commercial director, said: “We think it is a really important time for big brands to stand up, be present, act responsibly and support sport. Sport has had its challenges and needs help and it is important to step up.”

In other recent moves, Vodafone signed up as Official Communication Partner of Porsche Motorsport when the automobile manufacturer entered the 2019/2020 ABB FIA Formula E Championship. The five-year deal marks a significant shift given the brand’s history with F1. At the time, Ahmed Essam, chief commercial officer of Vodafone Group, said: “There’s a natural alignment for Vodafone with Formula E, a next generation, technology driven sport that appeals to a broad and ever-growing audience and that has concern for the planet at its heart.”

Final Thought: As alluded to above, mobile handset manufacturers including Samsung, Huawei, LG, ZTE and Nokia have also been key supporters of sponsorship. Interestingly, the one handset brand that hasn’t really gone down the classic sponsorship route is Apple. There have been occasional forays – such as partnerships with American Idol and Bayern Munich, but for the most part it has stayed away.

The key reason for this seems to be its preference for celebrity endorsement as a marketing strategy. Because Apple products are the epitome of cool tech for young consumers, the brand has decided that the key to sustaining its competitive advantage is to put its products in the hands of high profile talent. As a US$2 trillion company, it would be naïve to quibble with their strategy. It’s worth noting however that Apple is open to sponsorship when it comes to its sub-brands. For example, its headphone brand Beats by Dre has a multi-year partnership with the NBA. So maybe we will see Apple start to explore more sponsorship opportunities for its flagship brand in the 5G era.

Did you know? Mobile sponsors are among the key supporters of the UK Sponsorship Awards, regularly appearing as Winners and Finalists at the annual industry celebration. In addition, there is also a Best Use of Mobile in Sponsorship category.  This category rewards brands that have made the best use of mobile’s attributes. The winner is the entry that has placed the unique capabilities of mobile at the heart of its strategy. Aside from mobile-first social media strategies, this could cover sponsorships that utilise mobile in areas such as audio, payments, ticketing, video content, VR, AR and gaming. Sponsorships that also take advantage of mobile devices as ubiquitous pieces of hardware that accompany people everywhere could also fit within this category. Tablets are also covered by this category.

Next time – a look at the rapid rise of esports sponsorship – key brands and partnerships, as well as the recent scandal afflicting the sector.



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