SNOC issues formal warning to local athlete after spat over brand sponsorships

The Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) has issued a formal warning to national marathon runner Soh Rui Yong. This follows a series of exchanges which saw Soh being flagged for “ambush marketing”, following a candid mention of his personal brand sponsor H-TWO-O in a social media post.

Soh then publicly spoke out on the matter on how the blackout rule affects non-official SEA Games sponsors. He shared his private exchange with officials from SNOC publicly online, after SNOC reached out to him for a sit down chat between the two. The exchange led to Soh proposing other measures for non-official sponsors, which he confirmed to Marketing, was subsequently rejected by SNOC.

One such example Soh cited was when he suggested that instead of a blanket ban for non-sponsors, a “trade-off” can be arranged where every non-SNOC sponsor brand the athlete promotes on social media is followed up with a promotion of an official sponsor. Currently, Soh’s main sponsors include H-TWO-O and ASICS. Other sponsors he has worked with include Garmin and Oakley.

Soh also told Marketing that the blackout period has caused him to miss out on potential brand sponsorships, one of which was put on hold until after the SEA Games. This caused him to miss out on a monetary sum of at least SG$1,500.

Soh also added that for Singaporeans to consider sport as a viable career, there is a need for an ecosystem that makes it as easy for athletes to secure their own sponsorships. This is especially with the lack of full funding from the government for the athletes and their lifestyle. He explained that this year, while preparing for the SEA Games, he had to pay “a good chunk” of his training and competition expenses out of pocket. Part of which, was later reimbursed months later under a Singapore Sports Institute (SSI) SEA Games Gold medal funding program.

Without sponsors, I would not have that amount of money. Sponsorship money also covers the aspects of my life and training not covered by SSI.

Meanwhile, SNOC shot back saying rules such as the blackout period are set in place to prevent “ambush marketing”. The rules have been developed by the International Olympic Committee and are constantly reviewed, adapted and adjusted to the relevance of different markets. In Singapore, the rule protects official sponsors such as Tote Board and SIA. The current blackout period for the 29th SEA Games is from 5 August 2017 to 6 September 2017. It commences 14 days before the first day of the games, and ends on the seventh day after its last day.

Addressing the matter, Chris Chan, secretary-general of the Singapore National Olympic Council told Marketing that last week, SNOC members met with Soh to hear him out and explain the rules to him. During the meeting, Soh agreed to remove the infringed posts and focus on preparing for the SEA Games.

“However, since the [initial] meeting, he has reneged on his promises and repeatedly breached the team membership agreement. Despite many reminders and our constant guidance offered to him, he has not fully complied,” Chan said. This led to further enforcement from the Major Games Preparation Committee, which administrates and manages the SEA Games 2017 Athletics Team; and a formal warning being issued to Soh stating that failure to comply will result in disciplinary proceedings.

Chan added that since the formal warning, Soh has agreed to comply moving forward. A quick check by Marketing found that the posts have since been removed.

“Representing Singapore at the major Games is a privilege which many athletes hope for, but also one that must be treated with utmost respect and responsibility on the part of an athlete. As representatives and ambassadors of the country, there is a code of conduct which athletes and officials have to abide to. There is no exception to this. We hope Soh will now focus on his preparations seriously and cooperate with the officials to get ready for the SEA Games,” Chan said.

A need to rework the rules?

In a conversation with Marketing, Wu Swee Sin, managing director of Asia Pacific, MP and Silva, said it is easy to understand why athletes find reasons to gripe about sponsorship restrictions. This is especially when it comes to the crucial lead up to major sporting games, and when brands that pay a premium for advertising and marketing privileges want to be associated with those events.

“The blackout offers official sponsors a chance to project their investments during the games period. However, it penalises the direct sponsors of athletes, who are not able to capitalise on promotional activities during the athlete’s most crucial period of tournaments,” Wu said.

Olympics organisers also recently loosened the stance on the blackout rule to allow sponsors to create advertising campaigns tailored to Olympic athletes, as long as they do not include any Olympic symbols, marks or terms associated with the event. These rights need to be applied months in advance, subject to approval and could be allowed for a specific period of time. Wu added:

Policing social platforms continue to be a challenge as brands will need to be exercise creativity in order to avoid violating blackout rules.

As brands drive more value from sports sponsorship, inevitably conflicts of interest will arise between event sponsors and an individual athlete’s sponsors.

“There is no easy solution without potentially infringing on technical and legal grounds. However, if all parties focus on the virtues of their subject sponsorship, the parties may get to a good place. This is with a healthy dose of creative planning and execution, and sheer common-sense,” Wu added.

Agreeing with Wu was Sufian Yap, business director, Sports Star Network. Yap said that while the SEA Games committee has the right to enforce the rules developed by the IOC to prevent “ambush marketing”, a dialogue session could have taken place with athletes beforehand. This is to come up with solutions that could have been implemented that would allow the committee, brands and the athletes to come to a middle ground, where it will be a win-win situation for all parties.

“Brands will be affected by the blackout rule as they have committed time and resources to help these athletes in their journey. These sports brands have always been on the forefront of uniting people through sports,” Yap said.

The best way to mitigate this situation is through dialogue and discussion.

Committees also need to know on the ground what is needed from the athletes and better explain why such rules are in place, Yap said. In doing so, the dialogue would also help in discovering solutions to create a better ecosystem for the sports scene in the country.

For example, the Sports Council in Singapore can partner up with multiple sports brands to help sponsor participating Singaporean athletes. This is to ensure that there will not be an infringement during the blackout period as they would already be part of the official brands list.

“We believe that the most important part of an athlete’s journey starts with keeping the body and mind in balance. A large part of that constitutes to not worrying regarding their funding and equipment sponsorship during their training,” Yap said.

Hence, having a long-term partnership with a brand allows athletes to train without worry, knowing that they are supported fully, even in terms of sponsorship. At the same time, brands will get the exposure and reach at all major sporting events as the official sporting apparel for Team Singapore.

How national athletes can obtain permission for personal sponsors

Meanwhile, to obtain permission, athletes can write in to the SNOC or approach its office to seek guidance or clarity on the parameters of the promotional and advertising restrictions during the blackout period. All athletes and officials representing Singapore at the major games also sign a team membership agreement.

SNOC’s Chan said:

The sponsors black out rule is not new. Athletes can work with their sponsor all year round in promotional activities except during the blackout period.

Chan explained that only official sponsors and partners who have invested in the Games and the SNOC can leverage on their association for their campaign activation during the blackout period. The rationale is to protect the official sponsors and partners such as Tote Board and SIA which have invested in supporting the team, for example, sending them to the games.

Following Soh’s public apology from the initial exchange, Chan said that the SNOC has accepted the apology and is helping him to “move on from this episode” to allow better focus on his preparations for the upcoming 2017 SEA Games.

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(Image courtesy: Soh Rui Yong Facebook)

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