SBJ/Dec. 6-12, 2010/This Week's Issue

AmEx’s NBA spin move

American Express is returning to the NBA as a leaguewide corporate sponsor after a five-year hiatus.

Sources last week said the pending three-year deal was undergoing final revisions and is expected to be signed by AmEx Chief Marketing Officer John Hayes imminently. In addition to NBA rights, the agreement would give AmEx rights to the WNBA, the NBA Development League and to the NBA-marketed USA Basketball, except during the Summer Olympics, when Visa’s global Olympics sponsorship would take precedence.

Packaged with the deal are broadcast buys on the NBA’s television partners, ABC/ESPN and TNT, and advertising on league-controlled media. AmEx also is adding team sponsorship rights in Chicago and Miami, deals that complement sponsorships already held by AmEx with the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics. Also included is a commitment to add three to four additional team deals annually over the life of the deal.

AmEx agency Ogilvy & Mather is working on NBA-themed creative, and the new ads could be ready in time for the league’s Christmas Day doubleheader on ABC and its tripleheader on ESPN, industry sources said.

Steve Schanwald, executive vice president of business operations for the Bulls, and Steve Weber, executive vice president of sales for the Heat, each confirmed that his team had a pending AmEx deal.

As is the case with many payment card sponsorships, much of the value of an NBA/AmEx deal will be in providing AmEx with exclusive, behind-the-scenes access and unique experiences at NBA team and league events, which cardholders can access with reward points. Since AmEx is a partner of AEG and the Staples Center, the company is expected to make a splash with its new NBA involvement at the 2011 All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

 AmEx cardholders last year were given first crack at buying tickets to NBA Finals games given the company’s deals with the competing teams: the Lakers and Celtics. Last month, Wizards cardholders were invited to a meet-and-greet with team owner Ted Leonsis as part of AmEx’s rewards program.

The NBA had hoped to start the season with AmEx back in the fold, but the deal nearly went south after rival card issuer JPMorgan Chase signed a massive sponsorship deal across all of Madison Square Garden’s teams and facilities (SportsBusiness Journal, Sept. 6-12).

 AmEx, one of MSG’s largest and longest-tenured corporate partners, was angered enough after Chase took that deal that it wanted to kill the pending NBA league deal. However, the addition of team rights sold by Miami and Chicago team marketers assuaged AmEx’s concerns and allowed the league-level agreement to proceed, sources said.

The deal continues a hot streak for the NBA in corporate sales. Over the past 10 months, the league has added State Farm; BBVA, its first banking category sponsor; and Bacardi. The league also renewed deals with Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Cisco, Right Guard and Kia and renewed at the “promotional partner” level with Campbell’s Pepperidge Farm for its Goldfish snack crackers.

AmEx was an NBA sponsor from 1995 to 2005 and was a charter WNBA corporate patron. At the time of the company’s exodus, a source familiar with AmEx’s marketing plan said the company was less interested in sports and more interested in entertainment for its overall sponsorships strategy.

The return of AmEx now emphasizes, in part, the rebound of the financial services category after the recession. Recent deals among payment card brands include the Chase/MSG agreement and a media and sponsorship rights deal for Discover with the NHL.

AmEx is also a sponsor of the U.S Open Tennis Championships and the PGA of America. Wasserman Media Group represented AmEx in the league and team deals.

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