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French bank is tennis’ big hitter

Quick. As tennis season swings into high gear with the start of the French Open on Sunday, name the sport’s top sponsor.

It’s a company with a plethora of deals that span the globe, touching nearly every region and level of the game. And tennis is essentially the only sport it sponsors.

The correct answer, BNP Paribas, and the company’s tennis story is largely unknown outside of the bank’s home country of France, despite BNP being the French Open’s principal sponsor and having plans to spend at least 25 million euros ($32 million based on current conversion rates) in the sport in 2010.

That might not seem like much by NFL or Olympic standards, but in tennis, it’s sizable. Nike’s spending on athlete endorsements in tennis might be comparable in amount, and Corona’s new deal with the ATP World Tour is expected to grow in value for its second year to a sum roughly comparable to the $13 million annually Mercedes-Benz was paying before it bowed out at the end of 2008. There is no company in tennis, however, that sponsors and activates across so many regions and so many individual events as Paris-based BNP does.

Nonetheless, few in the United States have heard of the bank, France’s largest and the 11th largest company in the world, according to Forbes.

A recent survey conducted by Turnkey Sports & Entertainment on behalf of SportsBusiness Journal found that of more than 1,000 people polled, only 4 percent identified BNP as the top financial company sponsor in tennis. BNP scored behind Citi, which sponsors a single tourney in Asia; JPMorgan Chase; HSBC; and Barclays, which titles the ATP World Tour’s season-ending championship.

Here in the United States, BNP is the title sponsor of the country’s largest tournament outside the U.S. Open: the annual event in Indian Wells, Calif. BNP’s retail bank, Bank of the West, is the title sponsor of a smaller, summer WTA Tour event in Stanford, Calif. Still, when asked to name financial institutions involved in tennis, only 1 percent of the sport’s fans chose BNP, which sponsors three of the eight mandatory events for players on the ATP circuit and is the principal sponsor of both the Davis Cup and Fed Cup.

The results reflect the fact that BNP is a corporate bank, so it uses sponsorships differently than more consumer-based companies. Entertaining clients is a more significant driver of BNP’s sponsorship business than public brand exposure.

BNP made big hospitality changes when it
took the Indian Wells naming rights last year.

BNP’s retail banking in certain markets is executed through subsidiaries, like Bank of the West in the United States. In Italy, it’s through BNL, which sponsors the Italian Open. In addition, BNP’s big brand push into U.S. tennis began only in recent years.

“We have good visibility,” said Sebastien Guyader, BNP’s executive in charge of branding and sponsorship. And that is certainly true in France, where the bank’s research demonstrated that for three years running, it was the most-recalled sponsor among French sports fans. Outside the country, however, BNP has clear opportunity for gains in recognition.

But specific details about any U.S. growth goals have yet to be made available.

As a corporate bank, hospitality is at the core of BNP’s sponsorship strategy. During a recent round of matches in Davis Cup play, the bank entertained clients in countries including Bulgaria, Peru, Luxembourg, Mexico and Hungary. In Luxembourg, for a lower-level qualifying competition, BNP hosted 300 guests.

For the women’s Fed Cup, another BNP property, the company targeted competitions in Italy and Japan for key hospitality and outreach efforts.

“They really activate Davis and Fed Cup worldwide, sometimes in countries even we are surprised about,” said Jan Menneken, executive director, commercial, at the International Tennis Federation, which operates the Davis Cup and Fed Cup national team competitions.

Hospitality is at the core of the changes BNP brought to the annual U.S. event in Indian Wells, Calif., the largest stop, by attendance, on the men’s and women’s tours. The company in 2009 assumed title sponsorship of the event, which since 2002 had been known as the Pacific Life Open.

Through the influence of BNP, the tournament upgraded its VIP hospitality program and instituted a greeters system outside the gates to improve customer satisfaction, said Steve Simon, chief operating officer of the event, now titled the BNP Paribas Open.

“In most European tennis events, the level of service and quality of food provided in a VIP hospitality [area] is of the levels seen at a fine-dining restaurant here in the States,” Simon said. “Once we signed BNP Paribas, we began going through our suites and changed out the furniture to reflect more of a European feel, checked every detail in the presentation of the stadium [suites], worked with Levy Restaurants, our master concessionaire, to develop quality menus that blended a California/international feel, and trained the hostesses assigned to each suite to take the level of service to much higher levels.”

As a sponsor, BNP is somewhat of a throwback to an era when entertaining clients and displaying signage was the bulk of a sponsorship effort. European sports marketing, in general, has been viewed as trailing comparable U.S. business efforts, except in hospitality. The bank spends little on advertising or promotion behind the sponsorships, largely relying on the TV exposure it receives from on-site signage for branding.

The bank did this tennis-themed TV spot, but
spends little on ads behind the sponsorships.

The bank has featured one generic tennis ad that shows fans rushing two players on a clay court. The spot, however, has received some criticism in the tennis world in large part because of the 1993 attack on Monica Seles, who was stabbed by a deranged fan who ran onto the court.

Nevertheless, BNP’s ad budget is slight. Of the roughly 25 million euros the bank will spend in tennis this year, according to BNP’s Guyader, about 20 million is for the core sponsorship fees. For many companies, there is usually at least a one-to-one match between the fee spending and the promotional/ad spend.

And then there’s the other unusual element of BNP’s sponsorship strategy: Other than its backing of Belgian soccer club Anderlecht FC, a deal the bank only assumed with its acquisition of financial firm Fortis last year, every penny it spends in sports is in tennis. The bank cites the sport’s global reach and elite demographic as reasoning behind the choice. That strategy, of course, carries certain risks.

“Putting all of your money into one sport sort of makes you susceptible to the sport not doing well, or reaching only a tennis-fan audience,” said Bob Basche, chairman of sponsorship outfit Millsport/The Marketing Arm. On the other hand, he added, “they can make a bigger impression in one sport, in a sport that would seem to match up with their financial objectives.”

BNP’s Guyader defends the tennis-only approach, noting that to sponsor the Olympics or next month’s FIFA World Cup would entail a major financial commitment. Tennis also brings great TV visibility, he said, because any single game in a match can last awhile, leaving the sponsor signage in sight longer than other sports. The sport extends nearly through the entire year, he added, and has the same rules no matter where it is played.

“It is a good price,” he concluded “for the money.”

BNP Paribas sports sponsorships
Events Comment
French Open The deal that started it all in tennis for BNP; this will be the bank’s 37th year sponsoring the clay-court spectacle.
BNP Paribas Open Comprises the largest events, by attendance, on the ATP and WTA tours; BNP in March completed its second year of a five-year sponsorship.
BNP Paribas Masters A fall ATP event in Paris.
Internazionali BNL d’Italia Sponsored by BNP’s Italian retail bank, the events are top ATP and WTA stops; BNL used them for a major Italian branding campaign in 2008.
Bank of the West Classic Sponsored by BNP’s U.S. retail subsidiary, the event is a midtier WTA event.
BNP Paribas Showdown Annual tennis exhibition at Madison Square Garden.
BNP Paribas Fortis Best of Belgium New exhibition this July seeks to fill 40,000-seat Belgian stadium with exhibition between Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.
Davis Cup and Fed Cup BNP has been the principal sponsor since 2002.
ITF Wheelchair Tennis One of four sponsors, though not the title sponsor (NEC holds that designation).
Several national tennis associations, 2,000 clubs, 500 amateur tournaments, numerous educational programs Like any good sponsor, BNP also works the grassroots level.
Anderlecht FC BNP’s one non-tennis sponsorship; obtained through its purchase of Fortis 12 months ago
Sources: BNP Paribas, SportsBusiness Journal reporting
 
WHO KNOWS BNP?
BNP Paribas is generally unrecognized as tennis’ top sponsor, even among tennis fans, despite the company using the sport as virtually its sole sponsorship vehicle.
When you think about tennis, what sponsors / companies come to mind?   When you think about financial institutions involved in tennis, what companies come to mind?
Nike 24% Bank of America 14%
Wilson 8% Citi 7%
Adidas 7% JPMorgan Chase 7%
Coca-Cola 4% Wachovia 2%
Gatorade 4% Wells Fargo 2%
Rolex 3% AIG 1%
Reebok 3% Bank of the West* 1%
Head 2% BNP Paribas 1%
Mercedes-Benz 2% HSBC 1%
Chase 1% * BNP U.S. retail bank subsidiary
Note: Results from survey respondents who were designated “tennis fans.”
BNP Paribas 1%
Which of the following companies are you familiar with?
  U.S. population Tennis fans
Citi 61% 75%
JPMorgan Chase 58% 68%
HSBC 35% 44%
Barclays 20% 28%
Credit Suisse 11% 18%
BNP Paribas 5% 10%
None of these 24% 11%
Which of the following companies do you most associate with the sport of tennis?
  U.S. population Tennis fans
Citi 15% 26%
JPMorgan Chase 12% 23%
HSBC 7% 14%
Barclays 6% 13%
BNP Paribas 4% 9%
Credit Suisse 4% 9%
Not sure 72% 51%
 
Which financial institutions do you think are a sponsor of each of the following tournaments or do you associate with the event?
Indian Wells, Calif. U.S. population Tennis fans French Open U.S. population Tennis fans U.S. Open U.S. population Tennis fans
Citi 6% 11% BNP Paribas 10% 18% JPMorgan Chase 12% 24%
JPMorgan Chase 6% 11% Credit Suisse 10% 16% Citi 14% 23%
HSBC 6% 10% Barclays 7% 13% HSBC 7% 12%
Barclays 5% 9% HSBC 4% 10% Barclays 4% 9%
BNP Paribas 4% 7% JPMorgan Chase 5% 9% BNP Paribas 3% 7%
Credit Suisse 3% 6% Citi 5% 9% Credit Suisse 3% 6%
Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, through its Turnkey Intelligence operation, conducted a national consumer research survey among a sample of 1,050 members of the Greenfield Online Omnibus panel who were at least 18 years old. Respondents were asked to rate their level of fan avidity with regard to professional tennis, with a score of 1 representing “Not a fan” and 5 being the most avid. “Tennis fans” data shown here reflects the views of the 397 respondents that selected a “2” or above to that avidity question. The survey was conducted April 12-17. Greenfield Online is part of the Toluna Group. The percentage responses listed have been rounded, and the margin of error for each survey question is +/- 4 percent.
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