New Balance's decision to terminate its sponsorship agreement with Ben Stokes leaves one of cricket’s hottest properties with a cloud on his horizon and without a main sponsor. The question is: which brands might take the gamble and sponsor Stokes?
Matt NicholsAnalyst, Sportcal Sponsorship
“Ben Stokes: what have you done?” has been the question on most English cricket fans' lips for the past few weeks. The fiery all-rounder’s behaviour outside a night club in Bristol, plus much-criticised use of Snapchat have made him front-page news for all the wrong reasons.
His actions, although they have not resulted in a criminal charge as of the time of writing, have already hit him financially. Along with potentially missing out on the 2017-18 Ashes series, it was announced on 11 October that Stokes’ £200,000-a-year kit supply deal with New Balance had been terminated.
Anyone familiar with New Balance’s sponsorship strategy over the past 30 years will not be surprised.
New Balance has always taken a very principled approach to responding to personal misdemeanours. For nearly two decades, the company did not sponsor any individual athletes as part of its “Sponsored By No One” campaign after the LA Lakers’ James Worthy was arrested in 1990. This policy was later reversed in 2009.
In contrast, New Balance’s rivals, such as Adidas and Nike, have taken more liberal approaches to bad behaviour by both federations and individual athletes. Notably, Adidas has stuck by Fifa through its well documented troubled times, and Nike has continued to support Maria Sharapova throughout her drugs ban.
The decision by New Balance and Stokes’ actions leaves one of cricket’s hottest properties with a cloud on his horizon and without a main sponsor. The question is: which brands could to take the gamble and consider sponsoring Ben Stokes?
MRF could rubber stamp it
MRF sponsoring Stokes would make a lot of sense. The tyre brand has a long history both in the sport: MRF has supported cricket in India since the 1980s through the MRF Pace Foundation, a cricket training centre to help the nurturing of seam bowlers, and has sponsored previous greats such as Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara.
The brand currently sponsors three well-known cricketers: Indian captain Virat Kohli, Indian opening batsman Shikhar Dhawan and South Africa’s AB de Villiers. Stokes fits into the mould of these three: like them, he’s a global cricketing superstar in all three formats of the game and is a high-profile draw in the IPL, the major T20 tournament in MRF’s primary market.
Furthermore, sponsoring Stokes would fit into the brand’s plans to expand into Europe. In 2017, MRF became a sponsor of three Premier League soccer teams in order to boost its profile in the UK and beyond. With the Indian cricket team touring England in the summer of 2018, sponsoring Stokes would give the brand year-round exposure in the UK, as well as a further presence in its home market.
MRF also has an advantage over a number of brands in that it has the budget for it. The tyre company’s deal with Kohli is worth $2.14 million a year, meaning that spending north of £100,000 a year on Stokes should be feasible.
There is however some doubt as to how MRF will react to Stokes’ actions. Part of MRF’s involvement in personal endorsement deals is to make themselves an aspirational brand to young Indian fans. Will sponsoring someone with a chequered personal background fit MRF’s strategy?
Puma could pounce
Germany-based multinational sports brand Puma could go in for Stokes. Although the company has stepped back slightly from cricket (in the mid-2000s the company seemed to sponsor any wicket keeper of note), it still has a presence in the sport through its shoe sponsorship agreements and its support of a handful of players, including New Zealand star Brendon McCullum. Puma also sponsored Stokes before he started working with New Balance.
Puma sponsoring Stokes would be a big statement of intent in the Indian markets. Puma has looked to grow in India and has used cricket, in particular the IPL through personal shoe endorsements, to do so. As a growing soccer market, further increasing its profile in India through its major sport could reap rewards in different areas for the brand.
Three stripes and you’re out
As mentioned previously, Adidas do not shy away from controversy. Could the multinational brand see past Stokes’ recent behaviour and sign him up?
Signing Stokes would be a way of Adidas countering New Balance’s impact on cricket. New Balance took the England kit supplier deal from Adidas in early 2017. Since then, Adidas has signed England wicket keeper Jonny Bairstow as a brand ambassador whilst also retaining its deal with fast bowler Stuart Broad. Like Puma and MRF, Adidas would have the budget to cover the cost of supporting someone like Stokes, so adding a third Lion to their roster could be a way forward for Adidas.
Gray-Nicolls could come swinging in
Gray-Nicolls, the Sussex-based bat makers, is the only English manufacturer on the list, and like Puma, also used to sponsor Stokes. English brands are working on fine profit margins, so spending a lot on a single player is probably limited to Gray Nicolls because it is arguably the biggest English cricket brand. Former England captain Alistair Cook is reported to be on a similar-sized contract to Stokes’ deal with New Balance.
Gray-Nicolls’ athletes have also not been strangers to controversy, and the brand has stuck with them in tough times. Australian opener David Warner has not been dropped by the brand, despite multiple disciplinary problems, including punching now-England captain Joe Root in a bar in 2013.
Stokes’ position in the IPL could also be of interest to Gray-Nicolls. The company manufactures bats in the country, and sponsors two Indian batsman, Manish Pandey and Karun Nair. Stokes could help raise its profile in the biggest cricket market in the world.
An Aussie twang
Australian brand Kookaburra could see Stokes as an appealing option. The company has lacked a three-format heavyweight endorsee since ending its association with de Villiers in early 2017. The company has a strong presence in one-day international cricket and the IPL through Jos Buttler and Glenn Maxwell, but Stokes could help give the brand red ball credibility outside of Australia.
Stokes’ participation in the Ashes this Australian summer could swing the deal. Kookaburra currently sponsors none of the England squad taking part in the Ashes, with ambassadors Keaton Jennings (not selected) and Toby Roland-Jones (injured) missing out. Signing Stokes could give the brand a boost both at home and in the UK.
Back to Blank
Depending on the outcome of Somerset and Avon’s Police’s enquiries, Stokes could go into his next match without a sponsor if his stock falls too far.
This situation could create an opportunity for some of the less well financed English cricket brands to step into the breach, or one of the number of Indian bat makers looking to grow in the UK market, such as SS or BAS, to put their faith in Stokes.
However, going without a sponsor for a period might help Stokes in the long term. Stokes could use this time to let his cricket do the talking. This worked for former Australia captain Michael Clarke, who put in some stunning performances for his country whilst not sponsored after a disagreement with his former kit supplier Slazenger, including scoring a test match triple hundred, ultimately helping him secure a lucrative kit contract with Spartan Sports.