Outdoor/Ambient: Pitch Invaders

Sports events offer huge audiences but to impress fans advertising needs to be innovative yet appropriate.

It is a pivotal moment in a big match. A dead-ball wizard composes himself by the Green Flag-branded corner flag. He flights the ball on to the head of the burly striker, who powers it towards the AOL net. But, no, it ricochets off the All Bar One crossbar. Chance missed. But wait.

The Specsavers-sponsored referee has blown his whistle and is pointing to the spot. He's spied some nonsense in the box. Before the penalty can be taken, a player is carried off on a General Accident stretcher. The perfect opportunity for a streaker with Innocenti logos on his buttocks to keep the crowd amused.

Fantasy football? Only up to a point. Referees in Scotland are already sponsored by Specsavers. And Vodafone famously painted a streaker with its logo at a rugby match in Australia. One suspects it is only a matter of time before a cunning medical or insurance advertiser pays for the privilege of putting its name on stretchers at big matches.

Fifa regulations prohibit advertising on the pitch and at the so-called "appurtenances" of the game, including the goals and corner flags. But the relentless commercialisation of top-flight sport means there is a host of other opportunities to be explored.

"Advertisers need to focus on this space more and, when they do, they need to think more creatively about execution," the Sports Revolution managing director, Mike Hodges, says. "The nice thing about football clubs is they don't mind you doing something a bit risky if it's done in a nice way."

Sports Revolution has media agreements with 17 Premier League clubs and a number of leading rugby clubs. Among the more interesting media executions it has worked on are "talking panels", triggered using infra-red beams, that have appeared in stadium toilets.

Innovation of this kind is to be applauded - if not given a terrace chant - because while the audience to be found at big sporting events is a good one for many advertisers, achieving stand-out in such a cluttered environment is a stiff challenge. "If you are a brand, how do you get cut-through and how do you do things differently from the competition?" Phil Carling, Octagon's senior vice-president and head of football, muses. "You need to do it in a way that sets you apart from the crowd."

Ordinary perimeter boards, while still delivering impact, are hardly the height of originality. Carling thinks ideas such as sponsoring referees have great potential and feels there may be opportunities to do this in more innovative ways. The "ref-link" device that allows you to hear what rugby referees are saying might offer an interesting opportunity if the right kind of deal can be negotiated.

Electronic perimeter advertising, already in use in Spain, will inevitably catch on in the UK, Carling believes. "In the elite leagues, static signage will become a thing of the past. Rotational signage will be something for creatives to get their teeth into," he says.

Craig Leiper, the director of Tranzformer, Poster Publicity's ambient arm, believes branded "blimps" will soon be flying over sports stadia.

Originally a pie-in-the-sky security measure used in Germany, these zeppelins will be smaller, remote-controlled versions of the Goodyear balloons popular in the US.

Several advertisers have already tried branding dug-outs, while Tranzformer fixed plastic envelopes to seat-backs so Ultimatebet.com could fill them with promotional material. It did this at Manchester City, Blackburn, Birmingham, Newcastle, Fulham and at Hampden Park for the Scottish Cup final.

But it is arguably cricket that has led the way with interesting ambient opportunities. NatWest branding has appeared on boundary ropes, npower has used Astroturf pitch mats bearing its name in the outfield and stump branding is a regular occurrence. Sports Media has produced branded cards with "four" on one side and "six" on the other to be held up by the crowd when a boundary is scored, used by Tote and others.

The Grand National sponsor, Martell, a client of the sports marketing company SBI, plastered its logo across the jockeys' weighing room at Aintree, gaining plenty of TV coverage before and after the race. There is even the opportunity to secure a small ad on jockeys' silks by negotiating with the racehorse owners.

But, according to some experts in the sports marketing business, research carried out by several advertisers has found that branding on the field of play can annoy avid fans. There are also dangers in the execution. The SBI managing director, Rob Mason, recalls a rugby match when the sponsor, Lloyds TSB, left its pitch painting a little late. "Within five minutes, players were covered in paint and the logo was smeared and smudged," he says. The lesson?

Make sure the result looks good for the duration of the game.

A big problem with ambient at sports events is that sponsors often have all the best options sewn up. The bigger the event, the more likely this is to be the case. "Opportunities for advertisers to take up ambient opportunities in sports arenas are declining fast because they are reserved for the sponsor which, because it is paying large fees, is not keen to be ambushed," Mason says. "If you've paid a couple of million quid to sponsor Arsenal, you won't want to see another brand on the steps and gangways."

Yet canny marketers can often find a way to achieve massive exposure by using guerrilla or ambush marketing.

Nationwide was a good example of this during Euro 2004. Although it is one of the five official sponsors of the England team, Nationwide was not a tournament sponsor. This did not deter it from creating a 50ft flag of St George, complete with Nationwide logo, which was proudly displayed by the crowd during the England v France game.

After the match, Uefa discreetly asked Nationwide not to repeat the stunt but by then the flag had already been seen by millions of viewers - not just in coverage of the one match but in TV montage sequences throughout the competition. Nationwide also provided a "fans' embassy", a mobile advice centre that travelled around the games in Portugal, providing fans with information.

The MediaCom outdoor head, Emily Hirshman, has used sports events to combine brand advertising and product sampling for clients such as Wrigley.

But although she agrees there are some interesting opportunities, she feels the nature of both the brand and execution are vital. "We have to make sure we are planning things that will be seen because there is a lot of clutter in these environments," she asserts. "Also, are people in the right mindset to consume?"

Or are they too busy holding their heads in their hands as David Beckham blasts another penalty over the bar?