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Ambush marketing in sport – the issues

Ambush marketing in sport – the issues

Legislation will go some way towards solving the problem of ambush marketing in sport, says Department of Marketing researcher Professor Janet Hoek.

However, she warns that it is only one part of a complicated equation that includes the rights of individual players.

The Minister for the Rugby World Cup Trevor Mallard has said the government hopes to introduce legislation to provide greater protection to sponsors of major sporting events from ambush marketing – in which a company engages in promotions that may encroach on a rival’s sponsorship.

The Minister says such legislation is in line with international moves: Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa and the West Indies are all moving to protect the commercial interests of sponsors of events such as the Olympics, FIFA World Cup and the Cricket World Cup.

New Zealand’s successful bids to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the 2015 Cricket World Cup both included a commitment to ensure adequate provisions to protect sponsors. The New Zealand Rugby Union’s failure to promise a stadium free of ambush marketing was partly blamed for the loss of co-hosting rights to the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

Professor Hoek says despite protection provided by the proposed legislation, event owners will still have responsibilities. “They will have to exercise caution in the number and range of sponsorship packages they sell, because they can unwittingly set up conflicts by selling different packages to competitors.

“It will also be important to recognise the sponsorship contracts that individual players have entered into; for amateur athletes, these contracts provide long term support. They may be reluctant to curtail these relationships to conform to the requirements of an event. The concerns over conflicts between official sponsors of the Commonwealth Games and sponsors of athletes such as Sarah Ulmer, Hamish Carter and Bevan Doherty illustrate the need to consider a wide range of stakeholders.

“It is also very important to ensure that legitimate traders are not prevented from using images or individuals that have featured in earlier campaigns.”

“While ‘ambush marketing’ is an intriguing term, we should not lose sight of the fact that it refers to the well-established legal concept of ‘passing off’. Sponsors may be irritated by their competitors’ behaviour, so long as this does not involve mis-appropriation of trademarks or misleading behaviour, but they may have little recourse if their competitors have not breached trademark or fair trading statutes.

“If advertising rights to events that a rival already sponsors are available for purchase, we can hardly criticise companies for taking up these opportunities. Clarification of contracts and better definition of what rights they confer on sponsors may eliminate some loopholes and allow prospective sponsors to evaluate those that still remain.”

Professor Hoek notes that the Minister has stressed that ample safeguards will be put in place to ensure legitimate commercial practices are not unreasonably curbed by the legislation.

“We need more detail on these safeguards and on the proposed legislation before knowing how it well it protects the rights of all parties to operate in a competitive environment,” she says.

Professor Hoek, postgraduate student Zoe Wood and Department of Marketing head Professor Phil Gendall presented a paper on ambush marketing at last year's Australian and New Zealand Marketing Academy conference. The paper won best in section in the sports marketing track.


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