Controversial sports sponsorships—namely those in which the sponsoring company is involved in ethically questionable activities—is a relevant area of research. Currently, there is a limited understanding about how controversial sports sponsorships affect sponsored teams and their perceived impact on local communities (e.g., the home city experiencing a surge in popularity). This article presents two studies that examine the interplay between sponsor moral appropriateness and self-team connection. The obtained results showed that a controversial sponsorship’s lower moral appropriateness does not influence the propensity to support the team among consumers with higher levels of self-team connection, but it is critical for those with a lower self-team connection. When confronted with sponsors that are perceived as less morally appropriate, consumers with a lower self-team connection exhibit a lower propensity to support the sponsored teams and have a reduced perception that such teams might produce positive externalities for local communities.
Among all marketing communication instruments, sponsorship is one of the most common in practice. Indeed, global sponsorship spending has grown consistently in the last five years (International Events Group, 2018): With an annual growth rate higher than 4%, total spending has exceeded USD 65 billion in 2018. Sports sponsorships encompass a substantial portion of this total spending: In North America, for instance, 70% of sponsorship investments involve sports (International Events Group, 2018). The fact that sports receive the most sponsorship investments (Dees, Bennett, & Villegas, 2008) is likely due to their wider visibility, audience, and media coverage compared to other activities (Gwinner & Swanson, 2003; Plewa, Carrillat, Mazodier, & Quester, 2016). The literature typically understands sponsorship as an investment in an activity (whether in cash or in kind) in return for access to the exploitable commercial potential associated with that activity (Meenaghan, 1991; Roy & Cornwell, 2003). Prior academic research has mainly focused on the effects of sponsorship in two domains: the sponsoring company itself, in terms of corporate image and reputation (Cornwell & Maignan, 1998; Grohs & Reisinger, 2014; Meenaghan, 2001; Rifon, Choi, Trimble, & Li, 2000); and the company’s brands, in terms of brand awareness (Miloch & Lambrecht, 2006; Walliser, 2003), purchase intention and loyalty (Biscaia, Correla, Rosado, Ross, & Maroco, 2013; Sirgy, Lee, Johar, & Tidwell, 2008; Speed & Thompson, 2000), and word of mouth (Alexandris, Tsaousi, & James, 2007). While most empirical studies to date have investigated sponsorship from a sponsor’s perspective, very little is known about how sponsorship affects consumers’ perception of the sponsored activity.