Not Exactly A Slam Dunk
As sports sponsorships have increased in popularity, companies have grown savvier about choosing where to spend. "I've watched the industry evolve from what I call vanity sponsorship. If the CEO loved golf, guess what the company sponsored?" says Ardy Arani, a 25-year veteran of the business and CEO of ­Atlanta-based Championship Group, a sports marketing and promotion company. "Today, almost every case is return-on-investment (ROI) focused from the get-go. Companies want to know how a sponsorship is going to grow their business."

Proponents of sports sponsorships say they can be an important part of a marketing plan, but success is hardly a gimme putt. It takes an enormous amount of effort, planning, and focus. "Too many people write a check and hope for the best," says Loring Barnes, president of Clarity Communications Group, a company that helps corporations capitalize on their sports sponsorships. "They're going to get asky box, they're going to eat expensive food on china, and they're going to have clients rubbing elbows with the right [people]. But that only scratches the surface."

Sponsoring a successful sporting event, experts agree, requires first knowing why you want to do it. Is it to raise awareness of your brand or of a new product? Is it to show valued employees, customers, and investors a good time? Is it to drive sales? "You have to have some rationale other than that the event is going to be on TV and your name is going to be splashed around the country," says Arani. The more focused a company's objective, the better its negotiating position with event organizers. If hospitality is the only objective, why not push for more ­tickets, rather than accept a standard package that includes signs you don't want?

Companies looking to build brand awareness should also be willing to stick with an event for a while. Michael McLaughlin, a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP and author of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants, says companies should sponsor events on a recurring basis. "One-time sponsorship is not a good use of money because it doesn't do anything to bond your targeted consumers with your brand," says McLaughlin, who generally is skeptical about the value of sports sponsorships. An exception for him is the Mercedes Championships golf tournament in Maui.

McLaughlin believes this tournament is effective for Mercedes-Benz because the sponsorship is part of a wider marketing campaign; it's not just sponsorship for its own sake. "They advertise it broadly,"he says. "You'll see it in print and TV, and if you go to the event, you'll see Mercedes everywhere. You're getting more than just a sponsorship event; you're getting a Mercedes event as well.They get a terrific amount of exposure from it."

The Kobe Factor
Any discussion of sports sponsorships these days eventually includes mention of Kobe Bryant. The L.A. Lakers' star player once was regarded as a corporate marketer's dream. Talented and charismatic, he might have been the natural successor to Michael Jordan as most-coveted pitchman. Then, of course, he faced criminal charges. Though the charges eventually were dropped (a civil case is still pending), Bryant's highly publicized legal troubles had a ripple effect on his endorsement business. Once ubiquitous in McDonald's, Sprite, and Adidas TV ads, the basketball court is almost the only place Bryant can be seen these days.

Sports marketers so often mention Bryant because he is an obvious example of the dangers of closely associating a brand with a player or team. As Loring Barnes of Clarity­ Communications puts it, "mud transfers." The examples are everywhere: the Indiana Pacers leaping into the stands to fight with fans, for instance, or baseball's ongoing ­steroids scandal.

Mud can transfer in the opposite direction, too. The Houston Astros paid $2 million to erase the Enron Field name off its baseball stadium.