National Rugby League club Melbourne Storm were playing to lose last year. No matter how well they played, they couldn’t get any premiership points, meaning they started and finished the season rock bottom on the ladder.

They were penalised for breaching salary cap regulations, by a lot of money, over several years. They had their premierships stripped and their trophies snatched from their glass cabinets. It was a marketing nightmare for a growing club in a town where Rugby League is an after thought, if a thought at all. Club owner News Limited came under fire, many fans were disgusted, and major sponsors Hostplus and ME Bank dumped the Storm.

Jayco, Suzuki and Harvey Norman stuck by their team, however, and Storm matches racked up some pretty impressive attendances given the predicament.

Now in 2011, for the first time in over 5 years, the Melbourne Storm are back on a level playing field. No overpaid players, and they can accrue points and play finals. It’s a fresh start. And the Melbourne Storm marketing team have been pumping up a massive membership drive this year, which will be supported by a war cry print and TV campaign.

“The level of energy and the level of excitement here is palpable,” Melbourne Storm’s chief commercial officer Claire Murphy tells Marketing magazine. “We start fresh this year.”

Things are looking better already, with the Storm securing a jumper sponsorship from Crown Casino.

While they’re certainly not planning on big dramas this year, Claire Murphy says the sponsors who have stuck with the Storm have strong relationships.

“I can’t speak on behalf of what happened to the club on April 22, which is when the story broke. But we had a number of loyal partners that stood by us, including Suzuki and Jayco, “ Murphy says. “Strong brand partnerships stand the test of time, through the good times and the bad times. That’s why deep engagement is so important.”

Sponsorships agency Nexus MG's manager of acquisition and strategy Sam Attrill explains that sponsorships really come down to the right fit between the brands.

“There’s definitely a lot more strategy being put behind sponsorship dollars at the moment,” Attrill tells Marketing magazine. "I think even the mainstream brands these days are a bit more defined in the areas they’re willing to support. It comes down to the brand and what their key messaging is.”

"We look at brands like HostPlus and ME Bank, who withdrew from the Melbourne Storm sponsorship. They were more than happy to be involved in Football, but their key messages are based on transparency and honesty and handling people’s money, and they were supporting a club whose management did the total opposite. It doesn’t send the right message out to consumers. Now ME Bank is not too keen to be involved in Rugby League anymore.”

Attrill says while a good reputation is important, different brands want different results from sponsorships.

If you want to be aligned with a brand (sporting), you want it to be with their success,” he says. “But if the brandcan show a return on investment model, they sponsor will be more than happy to invest in you.”