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Volume 21 No. 2

Marketing and Sponsorship

Visa has finalized a three-year extension with the NHL and NHL Players’ Association that will see the credit card company retain its Canadian marketing rights in the payment brand credit card category. The renewal comes two weeks after the NHL renewed its partnership with Discover Card as the league’s U.S. partner in that category.

A source familiar with the deal pegged it in the low-seven-figure range. Visa will retain in-stadium branding opportunities at NHL special events in Canada, as well as media rights with TSN, TSN2 and RDS, the league’s Canadian TV partners.

“It’s another opportunity for the league to monetize the value of its Canadian rights,” said Kyle McMann, NHL vice president of partnership marketing. “Being able to withhold rights opened up the opportunity to have Discover, and now we have two companies that have the desire to bring the league to life.”

While Discover had preferential branding during NBC’s Thanksgiving Friday telecast of Boston vs. Detroit last week, Visa’s primary event activation will be the NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa.

McMann said Visa will continue to promote its “Hockey Love Hurts” campaign, which it launched this year. The campaign featured a commercial showing NHL fans anguishing over defeat and proclaimed that “sometimes, being a hockey fan hurts.” The campaign included video interviews with players expressing the tougher moments of their hockey careers.

McMann said Visa also will have its branding integrated on the league’s online-sales website in Canada. Visa joined the NHL and the NHLPA in 2008.

“Promoting the card preference is a new piece over the last three years,” McMann said. “Our direct digital business and online store were in its infancy when [Visa] originally signed on.”

When light heavyweight boxing prospect Mike Lee first met executives from Subway to discuss endorsement opportunities earlier this year, the fighter came away from the sit-down at a Manhattan Starbucks thinking it was a courtesy call.

Senior writer Bill King on how Mike Lee's Notre Dame connection helped seal the deal, and what's next for the boxer.

Lee and Subway’s chief marketing officer, Tony Pace, both are Notre Dame graduates. With only five pro fights on his résumé at the time, Lee didn’t think it possible the brand would consider him for a campaign that had featured seven-time Pro Bowl participant Michael Strahan, 2006 National League MVP Ryan Howard and New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck.

After the meeting, Lee called his father, John, who handles his business dealings, to check in.

“They’re nice guys, but I don’t expect a call back,” Lee told his father. “I thought it was a nice meet and greet. I took it for that.”

A few hours later, Lee heard back from Subway. They wanted him to fly to Los Angeles for a test shoot.

Subway’s Tony Pace (left) on Mike Lee: “All you have to do is see him train … and you get it.”
Photo by: SUBWAY

“Next thing I know, I’m at Paramount Studios in a makeup chair,” said Lee, whose eighth fight as a pro is scheduled for Saturday at Madison Square Garden, on the non-televised undercard of Miguel Cotto’s pay-per-view bout against Antonio Margarito. “Little did I know that meeting would lead to what we’ve got going on today. It’s been awesome.”

That a boxer landed a speaking role in a national commercial, which was followed by a second and now a third, was surprising, considering the dearth of exposure for fighters in the U.S. That it was a boxer who had only five pro fights to his name when he landed the deal, and who still has only fought on TV once, on ESPN’s “Friday Night Fights,” boggles the mind.

The stable of promoter Top Rank, which signed Lee after he won his class at the Chicago Golden Gloves in 2009, is loaded with far more accomplished fighters, superstars of the sport such as Manny Pacquiao and Cotto. It includes more promising prospects than Lee, who makes less than $10,000 a fight. Yet, other than Pacquiao, none has landed in as visible a campaign as Lee did with Subway.

Subway's Famous Fans Laila Ali
Carl Edwards
Blake Griffin
Ryan Howard
Mike Lee
Nastia Liukin
Apolo Ohno
Michael Phelps
CC Sabathia
Michael Strahan
Justin Tuck
Ndamukong Suh

Source: Subway

“He’s unlike anything that’s out there,” said John Lee, Mike’s father and business manager. “Based on what we see in sports, world champions in boxing should be marketable. But, to corporate America, from what I’m told, they are not.”

The deal germinated, in part, because of Lee’s Notre Dame roots. Pace heard about him from an old ad agency friend, Tom Beusse, the president of the recently created USA Today Sports Media Group, who suggested the two should meet. Pace concedes that their common alma mater may have tipped the scales in favor of having coffee. But he insists Lee’s Notre Dame pedigree got him no further than the Starbucks table.

When they started talking about Lee’s training regimen, and the fact that he was a frequent Subway eater, Pace began to think more seriously about the potential. Subway wanted the image of a boxer for an upcoming spot that highlighted fitness. It was planning to use an actor. But here sat Lee, whose ritualistic routine includes inhaling a foot-long turkey sub after weigh-ins, looking and sounding like a brand ambassador.

Pace decided to give him a shot. When Lee got in front of the camera, he was a natural — so much so that Subway decided to expand his role. On the day before the weigh-in for a fight at Home Depot Center in July, Pace asked if Lee could make it back to the lot to shoot a speaking role. He ended up sharing the spot with Howard, Strahan and Tuck, which debuted during the NFL season opener on NBC.

“We were working with him as a real boxer and now, subsequently, as a famous fan,” Pace said. “He’s got a great physique and a great smile. He’s a fresh face. And he’s on the upswing.

“Would I have him as the sole fan in the spot? No. You have to have some of the more famous fans in there, too. But it’s all about what works. All you have to do is see him train and perform and you get it. All that stuff is good for the brand.”

It’s also good for Lee and, in turn, for boxing. He won’t get Lamborghini-rich from his sandwich spots. While neither Subway executives nor Lee’s camp would discuss specific financials, his father confirmed that, for now, his deal is structured more like that of an actor than a celebrity endorser, meaning most of his money comes from royalties, rather than from a large guarantee. Visibility has been the far greater payoff.

“He’s charismatic and he is doing a great job at rallying a different audience to watch him,” said Lucia McKelvey, executive vice president of business development and marketing and Pacquiao’s deal agent at Top Rank. “He’s getting mainstream. He’s in a commercial, putting his face and his brand next to the NFL. That’s nothing but good for him and it’s good for boxing.”

The Subway spots are the most visible differentiator for Lee, but he has set himself apart in other ways, parlaying his Notre Dame ties, first to sell tickets to his fights on Top Rank’s undercards and, most recently, to create a charity boxing event at his alma mater with Regis Philbin as the emcee.

On the week of the fight, Lee was in Chicago, prepping for a media workout with the TV on in the background, when Philbin mentioned him on his morning show.

“Regis was talking about me on TV, and Kelly Ripa asked if I was the Subway guy,” Lee said, chuckling. “It’s surreal sometimes.”

While most of his fights have been deep down the undercard, Lee has made a striking run of high-profile venues. His third fight was at Cowboys Stadium last November on the undercard of Pacquiao’s fight against Margarito. Now, he is set to play the Garden.

Where he goes from here, at some point, will depend on how he fares against better competition. Each time Pace speaks with John Lee, he jabs him with a good-natured reference to the unpredictable nature of the fight game.

“Mike has all those abilities that we look for,” Pace said. “And he better win in December.”

Terry Lefton
For the past decade or more, marketers have been bombarded with stats about the growing importance of action sports within the culture of the 18 and under set. Now we’re at the point that what once were called “extreme” sports generate $12.1 billion in annual domestic retail sales, while 12 million Americans skateboard each year along with some 2.6 million BMX riders. Still, the action sports landscape remains splintered, making it less advertiser friendly. Even media buyers have to decide whether to align with ESPN’s X Games or NBC’s Dew Tour — or both.

Looking to provide better connective tissue, a group composed of alt sports legend Tony Hawk, Marc Lucas at production house 12th Street Films and Peter Murray at William Morris Endeavor are developing an action sports awards show as a two-hour TV and live-event property for 2012. Distribution is not set, but Murray is hoping to finalize a broadcast or cable partner early next year.

The group developing the new event is hoping to lock in a TV partner early next year.
As it stands, there are two likely time frames: spring or fall. Holding the awards in May would put them in the same time as the Empire Open, a nascent alt sport competition that Madison Square Garden is planning for that time and also shopping a $3 million title sponsorship.

Another possibility is October, which would pair it with the final event of the Dew Tour season in Las Vegas.
Hawk described the concept as something “with the feel of an awards show, but a little more gritty,” with an almost equal amount of time dedicated to awards and musical performances. Honors will be awarded in skateboarding, BMX, snowboarding, supercross, surfing and FMX, with fan voting determining most of the results.

“We’re looking to coalesce the industry and celebrate the impact action sports has on culture, music, fashion and technology,” Lucas said.

Fox tried an Arby’s-sponsored action sports awards show in 2006, but it did not catch on, perhaps because an alt sports audience saw awards being presented by pop icons like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.

“All of our stars are pretty mainstream now, so we think it’s the right time,” Hawk said.

Said Murray, “Our ideal network would be one on which music is important, and of course we are looking at digital extensions. Done correctly, this is a platform and not just a TV show.’’

LOOKING FOR IRISH GREEN: We aren’t used to Notre Dame going out of house for much, so we felt it was worthy of note that Wasserman Media Group has a consulting assignment centered on the growth and potential of the Fighting Irish’s digital assets, along with the future plans for the traditional media rights of the school. As it stands, NBC’s TV rights package for Notre Dame football has another four years after the current season, but given the changing landscape at Comast/NBCUniversal, “a lot of new things are now possible within that arrangement that were not possible before,” said one party familiar with the arrangement. “And of course,” this party added, “Notre Dame has a national and international fan base that most colleges don’t.”

Anyone ready for a Fighting Irish Channel, be it broadcast or broadband?

Wasserman’s connections with Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick are deep. Previously, they worked together on a deal through which a consortium of the USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and USA Track & Field national governing bodies pooled their commercial rights.

HOOPS HYPE: The college hoops version of ESPN’s “College GameDay” is following in the same commercial footsteps as its gridiron antecedent, integrating broadcast talent for a series of commercials. Accordingly, the broadcast talent for “College GameDay Driven by State Farm,” which consists of Rece Davis, Jay Bilas, Hubert Davis and Digger Phelps, will assemble and shoot several ads for the insurer in New York City next month. The ads should air by January. “GameDay” will travel to eight college campuses for basketball this season, beginning with Florida State in Tallahassee on Jan. 14.

COMINGS & GOINGS: A few hires at the swelling USA Today Sports Media Group, led by Tom Beusse (SportsBusiness Journal, Oct. 31-Nov. 6). Bouker Pool, Competitor Group senior vice president of marketing, signs on as vice president, sports promotions. The former vice president of sports marketing and events at Rodale had been with San Diego-based Competitor since February 2010. Meanwhile, with the sports marketing group being assembled at Gannett having many Sports Illustrated alums, a current SI staffer also has been added to the mix. Rob Kligman, national advertising director at the Time Warner title, joins the sports media group as vice president, Eastern sales. Kligman had been with SI since 2009. … Bob Philp leaves 16W Marketing after 11 years to join CAA Sports, New York, as an agent.

Terry Lefton can be reached at