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Volume 21 No. 1

In Depth

Sports sponsorships can be like a new puppy. Initially, they receive universal affection. A few years later, as markets change and the CMOs who approved the deals are elsewhere, they aren’t quite as appealing. Bang, they’re off to the pound.

Still, there are those sports sponsorships that are as enduring as Mount Rushmore. While Gillette’s claim that it has been an MLB sponsor since 1939 is specious, the disposable razor blade pioneer started using pro baseball players in its marketing more than a century ago. In the pre-television era of the 1930s and ’40s, it flexed its marketing muscles by buying all of the ad inventory for national World Series radio broadcasts. All this time later, Gillette is still affiliated with MLB.

In a spot featuring San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, Visa asks NFL fans to dream up their own football fantasy prize.
“The challenge for any long-term sponsor is making it continually relevant,” said Greg Via, director of global sports marketing at Gillette. “Some responsibility for that is on the property, but it really gets to the creativity gene of sponsors. It’s easy to do something around the Super Bowl or any time when consumer interest is high. To get more space at retail, the challenge is to be creative and build something that works when it is not that peak time of year.”

Visa’s NFL rights began in 1995, before widespread Internet use, and at a time when the league had a different commissioner. In the 18 years since, Visa’s marketing personnel has turned over more than a few times, as have most of its agency relationships.

So what’s the leading payment card’s secret for sponsorship longevity at a time when so many marketing assets get jettisoned like last Sunday’s newspaper?

“After this long together, we know the NFL drives transactions and it’s something our card issuers and merchants

want,” said Alex Craddock, Visa head of North America marketing. “Still, every year we have to ask ourselves, ‘How are we going to make this connection different and valuable to fans that are our cardholders?’”

Like most NFL sponsors, many of Visa’s previous NFL promotions paid off in Super Bowl trips, whether it was an offer of Super Bowl tickets for life (2010) or a Super Bowl trip for 11 people (2011). Visa’s “My Football Fantasy” promotion might be termed a “user-generated promotion,” since it asks consumers to dream up their own ultimate gridiron prizes. Eight winners will be picked and Visa is seeking entries via Twitter and Instagram for a contest that runs from the beginning of this NFL season to Feb. 2.

“It’s not something that comes easily. You have to delve into how fans are experiencing the game and the insight we came up with there was that the NFL has become more of a year-round sport,” Craddock said. So instead of a Super Bowl payoff, it could be any kind of football fantasy, so long as the cost doesn’t exceed $100,000. Added Craddock, “We thought this was the best way to give them experiences that got them closer to the game.”

Closer to the game. Behind the ropes. Unique experiences. A property’s ability to provide all of those to sponsors and their consumers has become an imperative. Branding has decreased in importance, especially since most of the brands buying top sports sponsorships already have nearly 100 percent unaided brand recognition.

“Back in the day, it was all about selling inventory centered on signage and exposure,” said Derek Aframe, senior

MasterCard has an 18-year relationship with the PGA Tour.
Photo by: Getty Images
vice president at Octagon, which administers many long-term sponsorships, including MasterCard’s 18-year-old sponsorship with the PGA Tour. “There’s only one experience of being on an NFL sideline during a game or being behind the ropes at a PGA Tour event. Now our clients can actually differentiate through these relationships.”

As a paradigm, Aframe offered a digital sweepstakes during the British Open that married new technology with the delivery of a decidedly old-world grand prize: The winner got to hoist a pint at a local pub with golfer Graeme McDowell.

If a property is flexible, a sponsorship can endure, even with the most extreme changes in market conditions. Bank of America’s MLB league rights date to 2004, or 1997, if you include MBNA’s payment card rights. Bank of America’s sponsorship portfolio also includes nine MLB team deals.

Over the years, those rights were used by the bank for branding and product-specific marketing, including affinity banking products. Then the recession of 2008 hit the entire banking category like a fastball to the jaw.

“Our brand metrics were at all-time lows,” acknowledged Charles Greenstein, senior vice president of global sponsorship marketing at Bank of America, which has about 18 sports sponsorships. “So the [MLB] sponsorship became about shared interest and capturing the equities of baseball for the benefit of the bank’s image.”

Consequently, much of Bank of America’s baseball-centric marketing refocused on corporate social responsibility, including an “Express Your Thanks” platform allowing fans to support returning veterans and the Wounded Warrior Project.

“The bank had military relationships dating back 90 years, so there was some synergy, but this was a way to reconnect the brand and recapture some positive sentiment, which was a real win for us,” Greenstein added.

Coke has been an NBA sponsor since 1986. When the beverage marketer switched its NBA marketing from Coke to Sprite in the early 1990s, the NBA marketers were unhappy, assuming the league would gain more exposure if aligned with the world’s most renowned consumer brand. However, the link became a case study. Sprite grew to be a billion-dollar brand, aided by the NBA’s appeal among a multicultural audience and the glamour of the NBA slam-dunk contest (see related story). What started with enter-at-retail tear-pad contests is now filled with social and digital efforts that help decide who enters, who wins, and what dunks should be attempted.

“To keep any of these relationships fresh, you have to come up with new assets and new ways to interact with consumers and fans,” said Mark Tatum, the NBA’s executive vice president of global marketing partnerships. “Our goal is still the same as it was in 1986: to deliver a passionate fan base. Both of our businesses got more global and the way both of us interact with consumers has changed significantly, so probably the most important things are creativity and understanding of how businesses change.”

The NBA is one of 700 sports and entertainment sponsorships Coke has in North America, including the Olympics, which date to the late 1920s.

“Our business is changing quickly enough now that we need our [property] partners not so focused on contract specifics and being willing to change,” said Sharon Byers, Coke’s senior vice president of sports and entertainment marketing partnerships.

As an example of a relationship that evolved, Byers cited Coke’s 11-year-old NCAA rights deal, which over the years became more focused on the intersection of entertainment and sports. Now the Coke Zero Countdown concert is a major part of the Final Four weekend.

“It’s about understanding where and how consumers are consuming the particular property, and moving as they do,” Byers said.

Kraft has been with the NHL since 1989. Its Hockeyville promotion takes NHL games to small community rinks across Canada.
Photo by: Getty Images
If Sprite and the slam-dunk contest is the NBA’s gold standard for sponsor activation, at the NHL it’s Kraft’s Hockeyville promotion, through which preseason NHL games have been played at small community rinks across Canada since 2006. In later years, the game has been telecast nationally, as has the announcement of which small town would play host.

“This used to be about just putting logos on packaging; clearly that’s changed,” said Keith Wachtel, NHL executive vice president of global partnerships. “When we saw it was getting more votes than ‘Canadian Idol,’ there was obviously room for growth, so we got the communities and clubs more involved.”

“For any of these [sponsor] relationships to grow and continue, you have to innovate,” he said. “Media rights are still an important part of the model, but the business has shifted to controlled media, events, mobile, social and integration with players, broadcasters and clubs. We can deliver all of that now.”

Nike’s collection of more than 6,000 sponsored athletes, teams and leagues dwarfs anyone else’s. John Slusher, Nike executive vice president of global sports marketing, said that since leagues move deliberately when it comes to adding new marketing inventory, constant review is vital.

“The underlayer [neck] branding we have with MLB has been great for our business,” Slusher said, “but it’s something we talked about for years [with MLB] about taking things to the next level before it became part of the next contract.”

With an insatiable demand for quantifiable sponsor assets, additional camera-visible signage is the new catnip that will keep sponsors in the fold, or attract new ones. Sponsors want to push their brands onto the field of play, and properties are hoping to accommodate them, with things like uniform branding or more signage in or around the action — and the TV cameras.

Some recent examples are the new ad space on the apron of NBA courts or T-Mobile’s still-developing move into MLB dugouts, in which branded wireless phones connect managers with their bullpens. On sports with sidelines, how long will it be before all of the coaches’ clipboards are replaced by branded tablet computers?

“Sponsors’ needs have moved from branding to enhancing the fan experience,” said Octagon’s Aframe. “The push for the future is for real integration into the fabric of the game.”

Sprite is one of the NBA’s long-standing sponsors, so it should come as no surprise that as the NBA has evolved globally, so too has the Coke-owned brand.

The evolution of the deal between Sprite and the NBA, a partnership that began in 1986, is proof positive that familiarity breeds success. Through the NBA’s international reach, Sprite has increased its business by using the league’s global appeal to activate all over the world.

One recent successful activation was Sprite’s “Uncontainable Game” promotion, which offered fans from around

Sprite enhanced its sponsorship of the NBA’s annual slam dunk competition by adding amateur contests.
Photo by: NBAE / Getty Images
the globe the chance to play on teams coached by the Miami Heat’s LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant during last season’s All-Star Weekend. Players had the opportunity to either upload their best moves online at or display their moves at local tournaments and events in various countries. The 18-month-long activation served as an effective way for Sprite to reach NBA fans worldwide.

“It was an amazing opportunity to leverage the strength of the NBA,” said Bob Cramer, vice president of sports and entertainment marketing and partnerships for Coca-Cola.

While the “Uncontainable Game” promotion was the latest between Sprite and the NBA, the Sprite-sponsored slam-dunk contest during All-Star Weekend has proved effective throughout the history of the partnership.

“We have seen an ideal alignment with our business,” said Emilio Collins, senior vice president of global marketing partnerships for the NBA. “We are both very global organizations, both engaged in youth and multicultural audiences. That is a sweet spot for us.”

The Sprite Slam Dunk is one of the glamour events of All-Star Weekend, and Sprite and the NBA’s activation around the event has continued to evolve. What was simply a title sponsorship of the dunk contest now includes more fan participation from around the world. Add-on activation efforts range from fan text voting, added in 2008, to amateur dunk contests with the winners competing in front of celebrity judges.

“Sprite went from the early stages of the relationship, where they were trying to build that brand, to where it became a billion-dollar brand,” said Mark Tatum, executive vice president of global marketing partnerships for the NBA. “The platform evolved from brand building to now where consumers have a hand in deciding various elements of the contest itself through digital and social media.”

The company’s goal was to embed fans into the Sprite brand through the text voting and amateur slam-dunk contest.
“The heartbeat of what we love about the NBA is its self-expression,” said Sharon Byers, senior vice president of sports and entertainment marketing partnerships for Coca-Cola North America. “Our focus has been to increase the consumer engagement. It has been a great evolution. The ‘Uncontainable Game’ was the first-ever global game platform we have ever done.”

Sprite also is increasingly using the NBA’s digital assets to amplify not only its league sponsorship but also its 14 team deals as it works on this year’s activation plans.

“We are still in discussions as to what it looks like,” Collins said. “You will see global engagement and more digital components and a little different identity. We want to make sure we are understanding their objectives.”

Sponsor     Partner since
Aquafina (PepsiCo)     1997
Bank of America     2004
Bayer Advanced Aspirin, One A Day and Alka-Seltzer (Bayer)     2008
Budweiser (Anheuser-Busch)     1980
Chevrolet (General Motors)     2005
Firestone     2010
Frito-Lay (PepsiCo)     2006
Gatorade (PepsiCo)     1990
Gillette (Procter & Gamble)     1939
Head & Shoulders (Procter & Gamble)     2011
Kellogg’s     2013
Lipton (PepsiCo)     2013
MasterCard     1997
Nike     1998
Pepsi-Cola     1997
Scotts     2010
Sirius XM     2005
T-Mobile     2013
Taco Bell     2004

Sponsor     Partner since
Adidas     1996
Allstate     2011
AT&T     2009
Bimbo Bakeries     2011
Budweiser     1996
Castrol     2010
Continental Tire     2010
EA Sports     2012
El Jimador Tequila     2011
Gatorade (PepsiCo)     2003
Home Depot     2008
Jeld-Wen     2011
Makita Tools     2008
Microsoft (Xbox)     2008
Microsoft (Windows)     2013
Panasonic     2003
PepsiCo (Pepsi, Aquafina)     1996
Quaker (PepsiCo)     2012
Red Bull     2008
USA Today Sports Images     2013
Visa     2007
Volkswagen     2008
Wells Fargo     2013

Sponsor     Partner since
3M     1999
Axalta     1998
Bank of America     2007
Camping World     2008
Canadian Tire     2007
Chevrolet     2000
Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola, Dasani, Nos, Powerade)     1998
Coors Light (MillerCoors)     2008
Drive4COPD     2010
Duralast     2013
Exide     1997
FDP     2013
Featherlite     2001
Ford     2001
Freescale     2011
Freightliner     2006
Goodyear     2000
Growth Energy     2010
Head & Shoulders, Old Spice (Procter & Gamble)     2002
Hewlett-Packard     2013
K&N     2011
Mars (M&M’s, Combos, Pedigree, Snickers)     1999
McLaren Electronics Systems     2011
Mobil 1 (ExxonMobil Lubricants)     2003
Nabisco (Kraft)     2000
National Corn Growers Association     2011
Nationwide Insurance     2008
New Holland     2012
Prevost     2013
Safety-Kleen     2004
Sherwin-Williams     2013
Sirius XM     2007
Sprint     2004
Sunoco     2004
Toyota     2003
Unilever (Breyers, Hellmann’s, Klondike, Ragu)     2008
UPS     2000
Visa     1999
Whelen     2004

Sponsor     Partner since
2K Sports     2012
Adidas     2002
American Express     2010
Budweiser (Anheuser-Busch)     1998     2007
BBVA     2010
Cisco     2007
Coca-Cola (Sprite)     1986
Kia Motors     2007
Nike     1992
Gatorade (PepsiCo)     1984
SAP     2012
Spalding     2005
Sprint     2011
State Farm     2010
Taco Bell     2009
Note: Full marketing partners through the end of the 2012-13 season.

Sponsor     Partner since
Anheuser-Busch     2011
Barclays     2010
Bose      2011
Bridgestone     2007
Campbell’s Soup     1998
Castrol     2010
Dairy Management     2003
FedEx     2000
Frito-Lay (PepsiCo)     2000
Gatorade (PepsiCo)     1983
General Motors     2001
Lenovo     2012
Marriott     2011
Mars     2002
McDonald’s     2012
Microsoft (Windows, Surface)     2013
Microsoft (Xbox)     2011
NetApp     2013
Papa John’s     2010
Pepsi     2002
PepsiCo (Aquafina, Quaker, Tropicana)     2012
Procter & Gamble (Cover Girl, Duracell, Gillette, Head & Shoulders, Old Spice, Tide, Vicks)     2009
SAP     2012
USAA     2011
Verizon     2010
Visa     1995

Sponsor     Partner since
Anco Wipers     2013
PepsiCo (Aquafina, Frito-Lay, Gatorade)     2006
Bell Mobility^     2009
Bridgestone     2007
Canadian Tire^     2010
Cisco     2008
Compuware     2009
Discover*     2010
Enterprise Rent-A-Car     2010
Geico*     2010
Hershey^     2009
Honda*     2009
Kraft     1989
Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority     2009
McDonald’s*     2007
MillerCoors/Molson     2011
Mondelez     2012
Reebok     2003
Scotiabank^     2007
Sirius XM     2007
Starwood Hotels and Resorts     2009
Ticketmaster     2008
Tim Hortons^     2010
Verizon*     2006
Visa^     2008
York (Johnson Controls)     2012
^ Canada only
* U.S. only

Source: The leagues

Michael Kassan, chairman and chief executive of media and marketing advisory firm MediaLink, has been a trusted adviser to myriad major brands and publishers, including Dow Jones, Clear Channel, Unilever, Microsoft, AT&T and General Electric. The former president and CEO of Initiative Media, Kassan has been a focal point of the emerging intersection between the worlds of Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley. Kassan will be a featured speaker at this week’s CSE Sports Marketing Symposium in New York City, and he spoke with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Eric Fisher.

You’ve mentioned that marketing is now more chaotic than ever. What are the best means for brands to break through that chaos and noise?
KASSAN: The same requirements exist. The answer is to have contextually relevant, timely messages to people who are in market for your products and services. It’s still Marketing 101, and I don’t think it’s going away. What technology and the social sphere are allowing us to do is target those messages smarter, better and faster.

One of your themes at MediaLink has been fostering a merger between the worlds of advertising, technology and entertainment. Where do you see that convergence going?
KASSAN: I talk about this a lot, this mashup between somebody who’s your CIO or CTO, and your CMO. Historically, they didn’t talk very often. Now, what’s happening is that more and more, marketing decisions are being made by the technology folks. And more and more, technology decisions are being made by the marketing folks. As a result of that, you’ve had to re-educate both sides of that conversation. That’s a big trend happening in the industry. There’s a lot of opportunity here, and it leads to better decisions.

We’ve seen many brands lately get involved in producing their own content. What is the future of branded

Kassan says technology and social media allow for smarter, targeted marketing.
Photo by: Getty Images
KASSAN: Brands as publishers is a big development. They’re in the content business. You ask Coca-Cola, they’re in the liquid content business. They want to send you content. They don’t want to send you commercials. As we traverse what one of the agencies calls POEM — paid, owned, and earned media — the question is how do we make all of that work? Because as brands become publishers, their owned media becomes ever more important than their paid media. And with the virality that comes from developing good content, just look at what our good friends at Unilever did with the Dove “Journey to Comfort” campaign and the gigantic success that became. Word-of-mouth still works. We just don’t have to rely on street-marketing teams like we did seven, eight, 10 years ago. Now you just hit a button, one-to-many.

You work with many newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal and New York Post, on their digital initiatives. How do you prospect the success of the newspaper industry going forward, particularly with regard to paywalls?
I think people will understand you have to pay for things. As much as people thought the music industry would never recover, and it hasn’t in its former form, I don’t really hear about people stealing music anymore. I think they Shazam it, they buy it, they do whatever they do. I’m sure there’s still a cottage industry of content being stolen, but I think there’s a general realization you have to pay for what people do. So I think paywalls of some sort will have legs and will be meaningful. My Wall Street Journal or Post subscription, for example: I like the ease of being able to get it wherever, whenever and however, and I understand I have to pay for that.

You just made an angel investment in startup photo mashup company Snaps. What attracted you to this company?
I use Instagram because of my grandchildren. It’s important to me. But from a commercial standpoint, I think Snaps [is] utilizing the platforms well, using visual stimuli, and it works. Good pictures tell a good story, and I think Snaps has a good idea. They’ve got a unique view on how to integrate brands with kind of a mix of a Pinterest model with other stuff, and the notion of technology as a brand stimulus.