With large social gatherings on hold around the globe for the foreseeable future, traditional events have had to come up with creative solutions to maintain their presence and deliver value to partners to retain at least some of their sponsorship revenues.

While many events have effectively transitioned to full or modified virtual versions—with audiences quickly adopting these new models in the absence of other options—we anticipate the majority of events returning to the live “in person” model as soon as conditions permit.

It is human nature to crave social experiences in the real world. That’s one of the reasons why people prefer to watch live broadcasts in groups or how we justify spending exorbitant amounts of money on going to sporting events, festivals, and concerts.

Following this pandemic, some of our habits and behaviours will no doubt change in both our personal and professional lives. However, we strongly believe that people will want to come together more than ever in the short term, and, in the long term, there will be a newfound appreciation for the physical events that we previously took for granted.

In the meantime, here are five events that adapted to a virtual event model during Covid-19 and our sponsorship takeaways:


Formula 1 & Formula E – Virtual Grand Prix Series

The Virtual GP Esports Series was launched by F1 when the sport was looking for alternatives during the enforced absence of its 2020 season due to Covid-19. The virtual races run in place of every postponed Grand Prix, leveraging the official F1 2019 PC video game with slight modifications to the official rules to amp up the entertainment value of the races at the various gaming skill levels. With a grid of 20 rotating drivers, all competing on the same virtual track from their homes, fans can watch the races at no cost through a variety of social media and streaming platforms. While the series is strictly for entertainment purposes and certainly doesn’t mirror the real thing, it is a successful example of an event staying relevant and engaging during these unprecedented times.

The new virtual races have already attracted some celebrity fans. When Biffy Clyro’s lead singer Simon Neil joined Alpha Tauri driver Daniil Kvyat on a BBC Radio program, the Scottish rocker showed such admiration for the sport that the Russian driver offered up some lessons. Simon hopes that with the professional racer’s guidance he’ll get good enough to compete in one of the F1 Virtual Grand Prix races. The event was able to garner media coverage, despite being held on a virtual platform.

Formula E followed a similar model with all of their 24 drivers from the ABB FIA Formula E Championship jumping into the virtual world by way of a competitive eight round tournament. The organization teamed up with UNICEF to support the Covid-19 Global Coronavirus Appeal, protecting vulnerable children and families most at risk during the pandemic. As part of the partnership, Formula E will donate 10,000 euros for every round of the tournament in addition to donations made by fans.

With the Formula 1 Grand Prix and Formula E both taking place on virtual platforms, the biggest difference between the two events—engine vs. battery—has suddenly disappeared. Formula E is capitalizing on this by attempting to attract new audiences with a virtual Challenger Grid race for fans, which runs parallel with the professional Driver Grid. Gamers can qualify for the Challenger Grid by finishing among the top 18 track times leading up to the races. The biggest incentive to compete in the races is the opportunity to earn the ultimate driving experience: five laps around a real-world Formula E track in the Formula E Gen2 car. This also piqued fan interest in Formula 1.

Boston Marathon

The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon and ranks as one of the best-known road races. The event, which has taken place during wars, periods of tension, and unfavorable weather conditions, has been cancelled for the first time in its 124-year history. After initially postposing the event, organizers were forced to cancel the race and all related activities and shift to their first ever virtual model. Competitors will have the chance to complete the virtual race on their own anytime between September 7 and 14. Participants who finish in less than six hours will receive a program, t-shirt, medal, and runner’s bib.

The marathon, which typically injects an estimated $211 million into the city’s economy each year, is looking for ways to create value for their corporate partners for this year’s event. In an attempt to stay top of mind, organizers are planning additional virtual events like championship interviews, panel discussions, and downloadable signature race elements during the week of the marathon.

With the existing saturation of virtual events and an event model that is centered on participation and competition, many smaller organizations will likely have difficulty remaining relevant for spectators and providing value to partners in a virtual model.


Just For Laughs – HAHAHA FSTVL

Just For Laughs (JFL) was forced to reschedule the 38th edition of the event when governments announced that no festivals could take place during the summer. As a result, the group launched its first ever online comedy festival featuring local comics and provided all those living in confinement with more than 20 shows spread over four days.

While a lot of artists are creating or distributing free content online, this model isn’t sustainable for most people, especially if we see the crisis go on for more than a year. For this virtual event, spectators had to purchase day passes for $12 or a four-day pass for $40. After attracting significant audiences of 24,000, consuming, on average 2.6 hours of content. The organization decided to repeat the virtual festival this fall.

Pride Toronto

One of the world’s largest gay pride festivals, Pride Toronto summed their perspective up perfectly on their website: “After everything we’ve been through this past year, we’re still here and still queer!” The event is using technology as a platform to showcase the many talents of its diverse LGBT2Q+ community. During Pride Month, which takes place in June every year, they will feature innovative online programming that showcases the best of what’s happening in the city of Toronto. They’ve also made a curated list of local LGBT2Q+makers, creators, and vendors available as a way of encouraging Torontonians to support their local community.

The challenge during this pandemic year will be to maintain the same level of visibility and positive momentum that the event has enjoyed in previous years. The good news is that Pride Toronto is also all about inclusivity and accessibility, which a virtual version helps foster even more than a physical parade.

JUNOS – JUNOS 365 Songwriters’ Circle

The JUNO Awards celebrate excellence in Canadian music. After cancelling the 49th edition of the event, which was scheduled to take place right in the midst of the early lockdown, CBC Music and the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) launched a virtual version of the JUNOS Songwriters’ Circle. One of the highlights of JUNO Week, this event typically airs at noon on the day of The JUNO Awards broadcast. The free livestreams have brought fans from coast to coast together with some of Canada’s top songwriters who perform from their homes and discuss the stories behind their songs. Some of the participating artists of the JUNOS 365 Songwriters’ Circle include JUNO Award nominee Dominique Fils-Aimé, Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies and Buffy Sainte-Marie, and JUNO Award winners City and Colour and William Prince.

“The series became an opportunity to align our partners around a common cause. Given the challenges facing touring artists and the live music sector in general, the importance of keeping music alive is a theme that music industry organizations SOCAN and Music Publishers Canada, as well as JUNOS Lead Partner, TD Bank Group, all support,” explains Andrés Mendoza, Vice-President of CARAS/The JUNO Awards. “Our music community is resilient and, in this spirit, we are also working on a way to properly recognize and celebrate this year’s JUNO nominees very soon.”

Activations in the time of Covid-19

With no sign of large in-person events on the horizon, brands are temporarily shifting portions of experiential activation budgets to create digitally engaging content and experiences.

Ford is a good example of this pivot. The Toronto Maple Leafs sponsor typically hosts 150 lucky fans in the Ford Fan Deck of Scotiabank Arena for every game. The brand has switched gears with a digital trivia approach on their partnership Instagram account. Leafs fans who tune in to Instagram Live are randomly selected to answer trivia questions for a chance to win a prize pack. In the absence of NHL games, the account has also hosted various other social media contests and Q&A sessions with Leafs alumni.

Bosch, an existing Formula E partner, is capitalizing on the property’s virtual Race from Home Challenge with a digital contest where fans and designers can submit a trophy design for the event. The multinational engineering and technology company will then bring the contest winner’s creative vision to life with their Dremel 3D printers that use sustainable plant-based materials. The trophy will be presented to the winners of the event.

Properties often overlook or undervalue the benefits of digital assets in sponsorship proposals and agreements. In our experience, agreements lack a digitally focused strategy and still, somewhat shockingly, include web impressions or social media posts. During this temporary shift to virtual events, properties that haven’t done so already will likely shift resources to digital and social activities with the intent to monetize their efforts with digital partnership assets. In addition, we’ll no doubt also see streaming platforms introduce new engagement features that enable brands to interact with fans during livestreams, creating an additional source of revenue. We don’t believe this to be a long-term shift, as on-site activations are likely to return once properties are able to welcome fans back. But this current trend may have a lasting impact on the quality of the digital activations and assets that sponsors create in their efforts to reach a larger audience.

New sponsorship assets = Need for measurement and valuation

Never has measurement been more important for brands and properties as negotiations begin on contractual make-good assets or values owed on existing agreements. The same can be said for both brands and properties when it comes to creating new assets in virtual or crowdless events.

NASCAR is capitalizing on empty stands to fill the white space with creative developed by their sponsors. For their part, teams and drivers are branding the mandatory face masks that drivers are required to wear following the races. With new asset opportunities across all sponsorship mediums in virtual events, it is essential that brands stop the guessing game and pinpoint an exact value before agreeing to make-good or upsell opportunities.


Termination clauses in sponsorship agreements

From a brand perspective, it is key that sponsorship agreements for virtual events continue to include clauses that protect the organization from reputational harm resulting from scandals. With athletes and celebrities still adjusting to competing or performing within a virtual environment, two recent events have proven just how important such clauses can be for brands looking to distance themselves from bad press.

German racer Daniel Abt was disqualified from the Formula E Race At Home Challenge when it was discovered that he had a professional gamer compete for him in the virtual race. Although Daniel immediately apologized and admitted to not taking the virtual event seriously enough, Audi promptly suspended its relationship with the racer.

In the world of NASCAR, Kyle Larson was fired by his racing team and dropped by the majority of his sponsors for using a racial slur during a virtual race being streamed on Twitch. His actions resulted in McDonald’s and Credit One Bank issuing formal statements explaining their decision to part ways with the driver.


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