SBJ/March 13 - 19, 2006/This Weeks News

Brand expert gets marketing post at NBA

David Stern is inseparable from the marketing of the NBA. But now, as the business of pro basketball becomes increasingly complex, he’s shedding some of those responsibilities by adding a senior marketing executive.

"Truth be told, I'm replacing myself."

David Stern
NBA Commissioner
Greg Economou, CEO of Charlotte-based marketing agency Brandthink, has been hired by the NBA as senior vice president of marketing and communications; not quite the NBA’s chief marketing officer, but not far removed.

“If truth be told, I’m replacing myself,” said Stern, long the league’s de facto CMO. “We have three leagues to market; we have three TV networks we work with [ABC, TNT and ESPN], we have NBA TV, we have all our marketing partners and a $3 billion consumer products business, and we’re in the process of doing all of those globally. We’re getting bigger and the sheer act of coordination is now amazingly complex.”

Economou, 40, has a broad sports branding background and has worked with several NBA teams. Most recently, Economou was retained by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He will report to Adam Silver, president of NBA Entertainment and will be responsible for brand strategy, while overseeing corporate communications, including media relations, marketing communications and public affairs — fulfilling some of the PR duties held by former senior vice president of communications Tim Andree. He will join the NBA on April 3.

Stern’s decision to fill the new marketing position is part of the growing trend of leagues creating chief marketing officer titles or specific marketing responsibilities within their organizations (see related story).

“We needed some centralized coordination,” Stern said. “That will be much easier with someone like Greg at the center of it.”

The arrival of a new marketing officer inevitably raises the question of whether a brand repositioning is in the offing, but Stern and a number of team officials do not anticipate sweeping changes.

“I don’t think anything’s broken,” said Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts, who was the league’s last CMO before leaving in 1999. “There are just a lot of things under way that could use somebody shepherding them full time. … Someone who is going to take it to the next level is what he [Stern] is looking for more than someone that will change the whole brand.”

Economou said his first task will be to understand the various brands under his direction — NBA, WNBA, the D-League and USA Basketball — and work “to make sure everyone is speaking the same language.”

As for the shape of “Brand NBA”?

NBA branding has included the “I Love This
Game” campaign with help from (from left) “NYPD
Blue,” “Sesame Street” and “Whoopi.”
“We’ve got a great future with young stars like LeBron James and clubs that stress teamwork, like Detroit and San Antonio,” said Economou, who played college ball at the University of Connecticut and professionally in Europe.

“Sports brands are consumed with a level of emotion that’s rarely seen with consumer brands,” he said. “So one of the things you need to do is create a brand architecture with some insulation. Then when you do have those inevitable lows you are protected and when you are up, you can really take advantage of fans’ emotional connection with brands.”

There was a consensus around the NBA that the league’s growing businesses, along with a rapidly evolving media landscape, made the addition of a brand steward other than Stern essential.

“David was sports’ first brand manager,” said Tom Fox, senior vice president of sports marketing for Gatorade, a longtime league sponsor. “But now, your brand is talked about and defined in so many ways. Does it make sense to control the message throughout? Yes.”

In the 1980s, the league’s marketing efforts were pinned to its “NBA: It’s Fantastic” tag line, followed by the “I Love This Game” in the early 1990s. After the 1998 lockout, the league adopted its “I Still Love This Game” to renew fan interest, while “100 Reasons to Love the NBA” and most recently the “Love It Live” campaign were also used.

While Economou will be the NBA’s brand steward, the NBA’s creative services division, which helped produce those campaigns, will continue to report to NBA Entertainment executive vice president Gregg Winik.

Economou has created new marketing campaigns for a number of teams, including the Detroit Pistons’ acclaimed “Going to Work” campaign. Economou’s consumer brand experience includes work with Anheuser-Busch, Sprite and Drakkar Noir.

“To me, the bonus was his sports background,” Stern said. “But that wasn’t the driver.”

Still, the question of a new umbrella campaign for the league is one that certainly will be raised.

“You have to keep reinventing yourself,” said Tom Wilson, president of Palace Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Pistons. “What you need is a brand cop. Teams and leagues have to take a good, hard look at who they are, and Greg is really good at that.”

Stern said creating the new role is not indicative that the NBA brand is troubled.

“[Economou] is coming in to help us navigate a series of tributaries we have that are relatively well-defined and to help steer a number of vessels that are already in the water,” he said. “We need somebody at the center whose job it is to focus on the marketing ongoing across every aspect of our business.”

Before Brandthink, Economou was CMO at SME Branding before becoming part of SFX Sports’ brand consulting group. He will close Brandthink, with minority partner Jim McPhilliamy opening his own firm.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, one of the most vocal owners lobbying for a more comprehensive league marketing effort, said he welcomes the change.

“It will bring a fresh perspective and also create opportunities for the league,” Cuban said.

Stern said Economou’s position was in the making for some time and is not part of an expected reorganization catalyzed by deputy commissioner Russ Granik’s pending retirement.

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