England cricket team: The sponsorship gamble

England cricketer Jonathon Trott Image copyright Getty Images

With England ranked as the best Test team in the world, it's a sweet moment for the team's sponsors, Brit Insurance.

The company's "calculated risk" in taking over the sponsorship - after England had suffered a 5-0 Ashes whitewash at the hands of Australia in 2006-7 - has really paid off.

One-day captain Alastair Cook leads his team against India in the first of seven limited-overs matches on Friday with the company's name branded across the England shirt.

But then Brit Insurance is in the risk business, as its chief executive Dane Douetil reminded me, ahead of the one-day series in India which starts on Friday.

"We did our research, as you'd expect," he says. "We thought the odds were very good that they would win more than they would lose and we would be associated with a winning team."

That's something of an understatement. Since Brit took over the sponsorship of the England cricket team last year, the players have won the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years; beaten India 4-0; and become the number one Test team in the world.

It's not always like that. For businesses, the lure of sports marketing can be very tempting - sponsoring events or stars, signing them up for TV commercials, inviting favoured clients or staff to matches, and being photographed with the players.

But it also carries a big risk - what if the players don't perform?

Top flops

Over the years, the back pages and business sections have been littered with headlines about the "Curse of Nike" or the "Curse of Adidas", as star players came a cropper.

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Image caption Sergei Bubka back in Spain and back on form

During last year's World Cup campaign, hundreds of articles and blogs gleefully pointed out how the stars of Nike's epic "Write the Future" commercial had fallen by the wayside.

The Guardian commented: "Not only have all the superstars featured in the three-minute spot been shamefully ejected from the tournament, but inopportunely-cast Roger Federer also suffered a confounding loss at Wimbledon that many are accrediting to the curse"

The Nike "jinx" stretches right back to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, when the hot favourite pole-vaulter Sergei Bubka failed to win a medal after a Nike poster had bragged about his prospects: "Spanish air traffic control has been notified".

In the 1998 World Cup, it was the turn of Nike's main rival to have its failures embarrassingly highlighted: this time, it was "the Curse of Adidas: Even Zidane has joined the flops".

The sponsors' curse seemed to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Four years later, the Independent reported: "World Cup struck by curse of celebrity endorsement as the stars fail to shine… the tournament surprises that have kept football fans enthralled have proved a marketing nightmare."

The curse can also work the other way, with the team and stadium sponsors - rather than the players - coming a cropper. BBC News reported in 2009: "Curse of the shirt: predicting crunch victims".

Nasty reminder

Against this background, the success enjoyed by Brit Insurance is even more remarkable. Brit was virtually unknown outside the insurance sector until it started investing in cricket. Now its awareness has more than doubled among its business audience - and a quarter of all adults have heard of it.

I asked Dane Douetil whether he had had any doubts about backing the England cricket team?

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Image caption Can England continue its winning ways?

"I have a confession to make," he said. "I wasn't a huge cricket fan when we started investing in Surrey and the Oval in 2003 - I was very much more of a rugby man. But it was a very hard-nosed decision. We thought it was the best value return for our target audience - people who watch cricket are the sort of people who run small and medium-sized businesses and buy from us."

Not surprisingly, he has now been totally converted and is an avid cricket fan. "In fact, that was a major problem during the Ashes series in Australia, because it's not good for the CEO of a large business to be awake between midnight and six in the morning watching Test matches."

Brit Insurance extended its investment, first sponsoring Sky Sports cricket coverage then, in January 2010, taking over sponsorship of the England team. That was a risk - in the 2006-7 Ashes series, Australia had beaten England 5-0.

So was Douetil worried that the team might be beaten again and his company might be associated with failure? Surely he couldn't have expected that England would do so well?

"I'd like to claim full credit for spotting this - but, joking aside, we had enormous respect for what we saw Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss doing with the team. We saw what they had invested in changing to central contracts and we think they're great leaders."

Even so, no team is perfect - and one-day cricket is not the same as Test cricket. Brit got a nasty reminder of what can happen when, last month, an admittedly young and untried England team lost badly in its last Twenty20 match against the West Indies at the Oval.

Brit is hoping that the next two weeks in India will show England back to its winning ways.