SBJ/January 21-27, 2013/Marketing and Sponsorship

Why T-Mobile’s baseball deal is a new kind of sponsorship

Terry Lefton
As noted in these pages, balancing the various, and in some cases competing, constituencies to fashion the MLB/MLBAM sponsorship deal with T-Mobile wasn’t quite as tough as the 1,555-foot tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. Still, there was a substantial degree of difficulty.

Our view a week removed from the deal is that, other than getting a lot of moving parts to work in sync, the most notable element about the deal is that it is a harbinger of a new kind of sponsorship. The precursor to all this was packaging media and IP rights, which is hardly new. Then a few years back, we began to see content and IP rights melded, as in the case of Verizon’s NFL rights deal. T-Mobile’s move onto the field of play with branded wireless dugout phones is the indication of a new kind of sponsorship, one in which sponsor integration on the field is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Properties will proceed gingerly, of course, and we will hear how the integration must be natural.

Is the Nationals’ Bryce Harper hearing a change in the way leagues do tech deals?
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Still, if MLB/MLBAM can cash a big paycheck for wireless telecom integration, what are the sideline rights to the NFL worth, where Motorola’s rights ended after last season? We hear Samsung is in deep discussions with the NFL for a deal that would give its smartphones access to those valuable NFL sidelines, which already offer great TV exposure for Gatorade. If the MLB/MLBAM deal can get done, how long can it be until tech auctions for other properties are complete?

According to urban legend, Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” While we don’t put most sports marketers in the same category as those on the “Most Wanted” list, in this case the motivation is similar.

Traversing those tightropes and sorting out the competing interests of the league, clubs, national and local sponsors, along with the stewards of the game and tech wizards, is not easy. However, at a time when most fans are engaged with a third screen of some kind all day, not to mention at the event itself, how anachronistic does it look to see NBA coaches using clipboards and NFL coaches flipping through Polaroids on the sideline? Further complicating the deals are the varied and competing interests within the tech sector. What’s the difference between a tablet and a phone? Largely that depends on the manufacturer, though which rights get streamed to which is also something we have found to be beyond Byzantine.

Then you have the interests of the wireless carriers, which can be brought into line, assuming carrier X sells handset Y. We notice, for example, that NFL rights holder Verizon sells Samsung handsets, among others. If you are wondering how it is that Dell would fit in with Lenovo’s NFL rights for PCs and tablets, so are we, but for right now that is a rhetorical question.

Again, it’s a balancing act. Verizon has another year to go in its NFL rights deal. What would it take to bring them back? Uncertain, because of a tech landscape that moves more quickly than Adrian Peterson reverses his field. The company is in its third year of a four-year deal conceived when tablets brought to mind an analgesic instead of a handheld computer.

“We’re looking at how we can impact the [NFL] game, not only on the field, but also the experience for that connected fan from home to game,” said Monique Harrison, associate director of national sponsorship for Verizon. “We want to impact a bit on the field and that means everything from coaches to players and player safety. It’s time for us to enter that space where technology plays a part there in a greater way.”

“You’ll continue to see the integration of technology into the organic makeup of sports,” said former AT&T sponsorship chief Tim McGhee, who now heads consultancy MSP Sports. “The push and pull from the various constituencies involved will be fascinating to watch.”

It’s a value add everyone’s looking at.

“Advertisers are looking to integrate into the field of play, and properties are looking at organic ways to do that,” said Mark Tatum, executive vice president, global marketing partnerships at the NBA, which is considering allowing advertising on its jerseys for the first time. “It has to fit naturally and you will see other examples. These are very complex deals. You can’t ever compromise the integrity of the game, and there is a minefield of marketing issues, but that’s what everyone’s focused on.”

Still, for all the talk about how vital content rights are in all of these deals, we have yet to be convinced that any sort of proprietary content, even NFL games, is compelling enough that it will convince consumers to switch carriers. While every dealmaker will insist on those rights, it seems more important for differentiation or a means to demonstrate a handset’s capabilities than a real competitive advantage. For now, the third screen is the least desirable for consumers. If that changes, the size of those deals will start to threaten media rights deals.

“Proprietary content is almost table stakes, but it can be a great way to demonstrate your network capabilities,” said Mike Belcher, T-Mobile vice president, media and sponsorships, adding that being presenting sponsor of the MLB All-Star Game FanFest in New York this summer was another key asset. “In-game technology integration is something we insisted on in this deal and something we’ll insist upon for any deal moving forward.”

IN THE SOUP AGAIN: Longtime NFL corporate patron Campbell Soup Co., one of the league’s oldest corporate partners, is close to announcing a three-year renewal of its league rights deal. The announcement will likely come during Super Bowl week, according to sources.

The revitalization of the once moribund Chunky soup brand through NFL-themed marketing remains a textbook case for the league. More recently, Campbell has reduced its marketing around multiple players in Young & Rubicam’s “Mama’s Boys” campaigns, launched in the sponsorship’s first year in 1997, to just one, with New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, along with his mom, sharing the spotlight this season.

Soup sales have been hit by concerns about calories and sodium content. However, we’re told that next year’s Super Bowl being played in New Jersey, the site of Campbell’s headquarters, was one factor convincing the company to renew.

Chriss
COMINGS & GOINGS:
Brands preach the value of integrated marketing efforts, even as their company splits functions of marketing, media, sponsorship and in-store marketing. Integrated efforts to consumers must begin from within; that’s the idea behind Stephen Chriss’ new role at Mondelez International, the former Kraft Foods. Chriss, senior director of consumer engagement and marketing services, adds domestic media to his role directing other marketing efforts behind cookies, crackers, candy and gum. “We’re breaking down silos and that’s how it should be,” he said. … Three vice presidents in the NBA’s marketing partnerships unit have achieved seniority. Kerry Tatlock, Kelly Flatow and Dan Rossomondo move to senior vice president. Rossomondo leads the charge in global business development and media sales; Flatow heads the marketing solutions group; and Tatlock returns from London to a new role, sharing best practices and generating new global revenue and integration.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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