Five years is a long time in football. As Uefa Euro 2016 drew near, things were very different. England fans were salivating at the thought of Dele Alli and Jack Wilshere terrorising defences from across Europe. A pre-waistcoated Gareth Southgate was managing the under-21s. And Phil Foden was balancing ball-boy duties with GCSE exams.

The list of corporate partners lining up for Euro 2020 in a few weeks’ time is almost as unrecognisable. Of the 11 headline sponsors, only Hisense and Coca-Cola remain from the 2016 roster. But what’s more interesting is that, just like England’s attacking midfield options, this new breed of sponsors is brimming with youth and vitality.

Major sports events have long been dominated by global mega-brands such as McDonald’s and Continental – so well established that they feel more like omnipresent utilities than consumer goods. This was reflected in the average “age” of Euro 2016 sponsors, standing at a seasoned 84 years. But just five years on, this has plummeted to just 44 years (or 30 years, if you remove Heineken from the list).


The global mega-brands of the past are seemingly making way for a different type of sport sponsor. A wave of fast-growing digital brands is seeing the benefits that major sports events can bring. Two standout names on the 2020 list (both of which we have created campaigns for) – Just Eat (pictured above) TikTok, the latter of which didn’t even exist during Euro 2016 – are proof that times are changing.

And the signs are there that this trend goes way beyond the Euros. Just Eat is soon to be replacing long-standing sponsor Nissan in the Uefa Champions League, while this year’s Olympics will be without McDonald’s for the first time since 1972, with Airbnb and Alibaba stepping in.

There’s no simple answer as to why these brands are pulling out of often long-standing relationships. Fragmenting media landscapes and an increased competition for audience attention are vital factors. But more than that, you get the sense that these megabrands just felt they’d hit a ceiling and the time had come to freshen things up. With those who had signed the original deals long gone, no-one is around to remember why those decisions were taken and, crucially, what life was like before the sponsorship.

The new wave of sponsor brands filling the vacuum consists largely of digital-first, scale-up businesses all at a similar stage in their development. How to grow beyond word of mouth, build familiarity at scale and gain public trust will all be challenges weighing on the mind of the marketing teams of these brands.

Tom Roach and System1 have put together brilliant research on how TV can be used to help with these challenges. But with the right property, sport sponsorship is a proven method of adding to the effectiveness of traditional channels and meeting challenges like the ones these brands face.

Being a part of established sporting events, not something available to every brand, signals that you mean business, resulting in an increase of credibility and trust. Meanwhile, live sport remains one of the last truly shared cultural experiences. Having a presence at or around a sporting event guarantees a large audience all receiving the same message at the same time and, crucially, knowing that everyone else is seeing that message too. Here, even TV is losing that power.


Euro 2020 will be a pivotal point in the development of a new era of sports sponsorship, where modern brands see the positive impact sport can have on a growing business. It will help to usher in a more open marketplace, where there aren’t the same dozen logos surrounding every tournament and where increased competition for engagement drives creativity when it comes to activation. In turn, this will speed up the trend of resources being pulled from corporate hospitality as the primary activation tactic. Instead, more budget, time and energy will be centred on making partnerships more interesting and distinctive.

Those of us in the industry can and should be thinking more creatively: who to sell to, how rights are packaged up and what activation methods to use are all up for debate. Any conventions we’re holding on to need scrutinising. What’s worked in the past may not be relevant to new brands with new problems. We should all feel liberated and terrified.

So remember, five years is a long time in sport. Brands looking for a ticket to mainstream relevance should be watching this year’s Euros with more than a keen eye, wondering what might be possible by the time 2026 rolls around.

Mark Lloyd is strategy director at Dark Horses