SBJ/Nov. 8-14, 2010/This Week's Issue

NHL is hoping it pays to Discover

The NHL has signed No. 4 credit card brand Discover as its latest corporate sponsor in a one-year deal that includes rights in the U.S. The agreement continues Discover’s recent ramp-up in sports marketing and makes it the league’s official credit card, as well as presenting sponsor of this season’s All-Star Game in Raleigh.

The sponsorship marks the NHL’s first credit card brand sponsorship in the U.S. since MasterCard left in 2007, after a 12-year run with the league. It also represents an upgrade in Discover’s prior position with the NHL, which saw it title-sponsor between-period shows during postseason games on Versus and NBC.

“We got good feedback internally and externally from our presence on NBC and Versus, so we wanted to expand that, and we just think that the NHL is a great communications vehicle that also adds value to cardholders in the form of rewards that match their interests,” said Jennifer Murillo, Discover’s director of advertising.

Murillo said there are no current plans for NHL team deals. She would not say whether Discover will do NHL-themed advertising in support of the sponsorship. However, several agency sources said Discover has already been making preliminary inquiries about the availability of some of the league’s top players for use in ads. Discover will not do co-branded NHL cards; Bank of America has those rights. Visa continues with Canadian NHL rights through this season, leaving the chance for a unified deal when that expires. Discover will continue with ad buys on Versus, NBC and NHL Network. Digital inventory on NHL.com is also included.

“This is a good match for both of our consumers, with value on both sides,” said NHL Group Vice President Dave Lehanski. “We’ve been able to customize well for them and they are really going to promote us aggressively against a large group of cardholders.”

As recession-related credit card delinquencies have stabilized, Discover has been increasing its marketing spend. Barclays Capital estimates that Discover will spend $461 million in marketing by the end of 2010 and will spend $502 million in 2011, up from $406 million in 2009. Discover’s deal with the NHL comes just a few months after the 25-year-old credit card brand, once owned by Sears, finalized a deal to be title sponsor of the Orange Bowl for the next four years.

Payment card brands, like market leader Visa, along with MasterCard and American Express, have long been among the largest sponsors of sports properties domestically and worldwide. But Discover’s more recent sponsorship platforms represent another degree of investment from its recent sponsorships with second-tier properties like the Arena Football League and WNBA.

“Owning the Orange Bowl is a very large statement for Discover, and so is the NHL, in terms of gaining more national presence, and they are both marketable ownership positions,” said Bryce Townsend, executive vice president and general manager of MediaCom ESP, a GroupM company, which handled the negotiations for Discover.

As “the card that pays you back,” rewards have always been integral to Discover’s positioning. Now it is integrating the Orange Bowl and NHL sponsorships with access-based rewards, including tickets, hospitality and unique experiences in and around the games, like spending a night in the NHL’s “War Room” in Toronto, where disputed goals are judged each night, or getting behind-the-scenes access at events like the NHL Awards or NHL Skills competition, or a single opportunity for a card member to spend a day with the Stanley Cup, a right until now reserved for a member or employee of the team that wins the Cup. This particular benefit may also be the focus of advertising.

As part of the sponsorship, the 50 million-plus Discover Card holders will get a 10 percent discount at the NHL Store in New York City, as well as when purchasing goods from NHL.com and from NHL “GameCenter Live.”

Discover is a brand in need of visibility, as the Nilson Report ranked Discover a distant fourth in consumer credit card spending in 2009, with a 5 percent share. Visa was the leader with 58 percent, MasterCard had 28 percent and American Express had 10 percent.

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