Media Perspective: Brands should think twice about taking to the sporting field

There's been a PowerPoint document circulating among US media agencies and sport broadcasters in the past couple of months. You may have seen it. It's an anonymous piece questioning the power and credentials of the cable/multimedia giant ESPN.

It claims, with bar charts and builds, that sport leagues who switch their coverage to ESPN get lower ratings than they did in previous seasons with mainstream broadcasters. ESPN has countered with its own piece ridiculing the shortsightedness of these claims and pointing out that there's more to life than ratings for a single show on one night, and that, with its reach across multiple channels, it can deliver much bigger cumulative audiences.

I'm not really qualified to debate the merits of the issue, but it did prompt a couple of thoughts that might be worth considering. First, what a brilliant tactic. Forget viral video and user-generated content: the future is clearly all about viral media strategy presentations. But, second, and more importantly, it points out what a complicated world sport marketing has become.

It wasn't so long ago that every brand was rushing to make a deal with some sport organisation or other. And it made a lot of sense. Sport comes bundled with all sorts of positive brand associations and probably a few free tickets, and, in a digital world, having access to some sport content and the unrepeatable thrill of sport spectacle is a sensible media move.

But now, a few years on, all these obviously good deals are looking a bit more complicated. Olympic sponsors must have had a few hurried and harried meetings in the past few weeks, CSR people and marketers trying to agree a position on Olympic flames, protests and Tibet.

And the media landscape makes the political terrain look calm and unruffled. Next year, for instance, Major League Baseball is launching its own TV channel in the States, carrying its own games, while continuing the deals it's already done with other channels. This is a smart move from its point of view, but adds a whole other set of wrinkles for a brand wanting to get involved with baseball. Imagine Premier League TV alongside Sky and the rest. That'd get confusing pretty quickly, wouldn't it?

All of which, if I ran a big brand, would make me think twice about hoping to ride some borrowed sport interest to media cut-through. The wide world of Big Sport might just be too cluttered, confusing and controversial. Sport used to be an easy way to wrap yourself in engaging content, but it's just another shortcut that's being taken away, reminding us all that if brands really want to connect with people, the best strategy is to rely on what's actually at the root of the brand.