Paralympic sponsorship

The ability of disability sports to attract sponsorship for marketing purposes remains a relatively new phenomenon when compared to mainstream sports. In fact, prior to the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, sponsors were concerned of associating their brand with the Paralympic Games as they were concerned of being perceived as ‘exploiting’ para-athletes (Legg and Dottori, 2017). However, the growth in the professionalization and commercialization of disability sports have reduced such concerns (Macdougall, Nguyen and Karg, 2014). The Paralympic brand is seen as relatively protected and strong (Cottingham and Petersen-Wagner, 2018) and, according to a 2016 Nielsen report, the Paralympic brand echoes with notions around disability and is strongly associated with words such as ‘Inspiring’, ‘Strength’, ‘Brave’, ‘Competition’ among others (Nielsen Sports, 2016). Moreover disability sports sponsorship landscape remains uncluttered compared to mainstream sports (Legg and Dottori, 2017; Seguin, Richelieu and O’Reilly, 2008). Studies also demonstrated that Paralympic sponsorship had positive effects on corporate image and consumers' purchase intention (Nam and Lee, 2013).

Nevertheless, one could argue that Paralympic sponsorship encompasses unique challenges compared to mainstream sports sponsorship. As mentioned earlier, the narratives developed by the IPC around the Paralympic Games is actively oriented towards elite sport competition (Cottingham and Petersen-Wagner, 2018) in which disability is presented as merely incidental (Silva and Howe, 2012). Similarly, the 2001-2016 IPC President Phil Craven encouraged the media to drop off the word ‘disability’ in relation to the Paralympic Games, arguing that “This is sport. It is not disability anything” (Gibson, 2012). However it has recently been suggested by Legg and Dottori (2017) that disability could be used as a point of differentiation in a highly saturated media and sponsorship environment. This would also offer a greater reliability and connection with the disabled audience (Silva and Howe, 2012), an argument that is elaborated later in this chapter. This idea is also supported by studies from Cottingham and colleagues (2013, 2015) highlighting that consumers in disability sports are motivated by unique factors such as attachment and involvement in the disability community (e.g. inspiration and a desire to watch athletes to overcome) that differentiate them from mainstream sport consumers’ behaviors.

From a sponsor point of view, Macdougall, Nguyen and Karg (2014, p. 86) found that “a strong emphasis [was] placed by sponsors upon value and mission congruence within brand and health objectives focused versus specific sales objectives”. Similarly, Cottingham, Gearity and Byon (2013) found that sponsors of disability sports events are more interested in serving the athletes rather than the spectators. They added that sponsors also seemed, implicitly or explicitly, motivated by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Even if IPC’s strategy and sponsors’ needs and objectives seem contradictory, it led Legg and Dottori (2017) to argue that if the IPC manages to find the right balance, the Paralympic movement has the potential to become “a one-stop shop for organizations seeking associations with performance-excellence AND social responsibility” (p. 274).

The role of communication, media and the Paralympic brand

The Paralympic brand, media coverage and communication around the Paralympic movement has evolved over time. If an ‘athlete-frame’ is now common to portray Paralympians, it was not always the case. For example, Tynedal and Wolbring (2013) found that the coverage of the Paralympic movement by the New York Tinies between 1955 and 2012 was not only minimal compared to the Olympic Games but also stereotypical in different ways. Para-athletes were frequently presented as victims or “suffering entities” as the newspaper used a medical rhetoric to report on para-athletes' performances. This is perhaps not surprising given the birth and development of the Paralympic movement within the medical and rehabilitation sector as explained earlier in this chapter. Similarly, French and Le Clair (2018) found that media portrayal of para-athletes has mainly been paternalistic or that disability was central to the narratives, not the sport achievement. They also acknowledged that new media and in particular social media such as Twitter open the door for more contested or negotiated representation of disability in sport.

A second stereotype frequently reported by the literature is the one of the ‘supercrip’. According to Silva and Howe (2012, p. 175) supercrip “implies a stereotypical process that requires an individual ‘to fight against his/her impairment’ in order to overcome it and achieve improbable ‘success’”. The source of this narrative is to be found in society's low-level expectations placed upon people with an impairment, resulting in the fact that para-athletes become ‘super’ or ‘heroes’ in situations where someone without a disability would be perceived as normal. As a consequence, the supercrip narrative perpetuates the understanding of disability “as a problem" that needs to be overcome (Silva and Howe, 2012).

The supercrip narrative and more broadly stereotypes related to disability impact the ways in which sports organizations, media and sponsors communicate about Paralympic athletes. As an example, para-athletes and disability sport marketers have long discussed if athletes’ personal stories should be part of the communication mix. So far, research has been contrasting. Cottingham, Gearity and Byon (2013) studied the perceptions of Paralympic sponsorship from three disability sports administrators. Their results showed that for some individuals, athletes’ background is part “of the product” they are selling (p. 95). Others called for more traditional sport marketing strategies and a full focus on athletes’ sport achievements and results.

The complexity of this debate becomes apparent when considering the dual role Paralympic athletes have in society, for both the ‘able-bodied’audience and the disability community. Following Purdue and Howe (2012), it can be argued that able-bodied spectatorship of disability sports is interested in Paralympic athletes’ sporting achievement. On the contrary, a disabled audience is more likely to appreciate Paralympic sport performances and, at the same time, can be “encouraged to identify with the impairment the athletes have” (Purdue and Howe, 2012). This led these authors to theorize the idea of “Paralympic Paradox” that has been described as follows:

Firstly, there is a fundamental need for the able-bodied audience to be able to identify the Paralympian as having some form of impairment, to ensure the individual is seen as a credible and justified member of a disability sport competition. Secondly, the more an impaired athlete’s disability is de-emphasized (the desired reception of able-bodied audience), the more that those viewers with disability may become alienated from their own bodies and disability sport in general. The athlete being viewed at the Paralympic Games may no longer act as a credible role model for individuals with disabilities, as they seemingly distance themselves from particular conditions of disabled people.

In other words, the Paralympic Paradox reflects a tension in terms of identities for an athlete being viewed as an elite athlete as well as a member of the disability community (McNamee, 2017).

The Paralympic paradox can be seen as a key tension within the Paralympic brand, that has the potential to undermine IPC’s abilities to foster change in society for all people with an impairment. This aspect is further explored in the next and final section.

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