Transformative moments in sponsorship
Any sponsorship deal with a big sports property that opens a new category is memorable. Here are some examples, as well as other deals that moved the needle.
The stock car circuit has its 70-year-old roots in moonshiners outrunning the law, but it was not until the 2005 racing season that spirits brands were allowed in as sponsors. Crown Royal was the first to pour a round and later was joined by the likes of Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. The legacy: Every big sports property eased its spirits sponsorship regulations, although the mixing of team, league and alcohol intellectual property is still largely restricted.
In 2003, MLB was the first big stick-and-ball league to allow sponsorships with an erectile dysfunction medication. The league partnered with Viagra and Rafael Palmeiro became the sport’s most prominent spokesman for the drug. The NFL signed rival ED drug Levitra to a sponsorship shortly thereafter and for three to four years ED ads for the drugs, including two during Super Bowl XXXVIII (2004), were prominent on sports telecasts. In 2017, with two of the leading ED drugs coming off patent, sports and other pricey marketing support all but vanished.
As the possibility of legal bookmaking on pro sports grows closer, it’s instructive to remember that for more than a decade all the big American sports leagues have allowed state lotteries to use team intellectual property. In 2002, the NBA was the first American pro sports league to authorize lotteries; the NFL followed in 2009. In baseball, Boston Red Sox lottery tickets have been enormously successful: Six state lotteries in New England now use Red Sox IP.
At the top shelf of sponsorships are naming-rights deals. Their price and duration are sufficient enough to set them apart, but here are two especially memorable ones.
• Scotiabank Arena: The home of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors landed a record $639 million, 20-year deal last year. “We’d built a hockey strategy for them that included everything from grassroots to the NHL,’’ said MKTG Canada President Brian Cooper, who helped engineer the deal. “We just weren’t going to lose the most important city in Canada to a competitor.’’
• Farmers Field: In the tech world, when a new product is announced before it’s ready, and expressly to gauge market reaction, it’s called “vaporware.” The equivalent in the world of sports marketing came in 2011 when Farmers Insurance announced a 30-year, $700 million sponsorship for AEG’s proposed 72,000-seat Los Angeles football stadium adjacent to Staples Center. While the proposed stadium had a logo, it didn’t have much else, including sufficient funding, governmental approval, or an NFL team for that matter. The project was ultimately scrapped, yet Front Row Analytics said Farmers still received about $6 million in PR value from the deal.
Almost as long as there have been motorsports, tire makers have been involved as sponsors. Bridgestone’s push into stick-and-ball sports, however, made it clear that the tire category was as requisite for any property as beer and soft drinks. The tire maker started with an NFL deal in 2008 and followed that with NHL rights, an MLB sponsorship for its sister Firestone brand, and an IOC deal in 2014.
When NASCAR’s title sponsor shifted from a tobacco brand to a technology brand in 2004, it showed the stock car circuit was emerging from its traditional Southern boundaries. When Sprint later acquired Nextel for $35 billion, it also demonstrated a whole new sort of ROI. The deal was an example of a company making itself look bigger and more important by borrowing equity through sponsorships, much like Reebok’s many league deals before Adidas acquired it in 2005 for $3.8 billion.
PACKAGED GOODS PRIZE
Big packaged goods marketers like Procter & Gamble bought media in sports for years, but rarely spent money on sponsorships. In 2009, P&G signed on with the NFL for a variety of brands, including Tide, Gillette, Head & Shoulders and Vicks, later adding a USOC deal. The sponsorship cleared the way for multi-brand personal care deals across sports.
TEE TIME, FINALLY
If ever there was an indication that persistence pays off it was in 2006 when American Express signed on as the first sponsor in the U.S. Golf Association’s 112-year history. “It took around six years to convince them,’’ recalled Wasserman Managing Partner Elizabeth Lindsey, who assisted on the original deal. “The best evidence I can offer you to show that it worked is that those two brands are still tied.’’ The USGA today carries multiple partnerships.
Sometimes the means by which a sponsor delivers its message is just as important as the message itself. Such was the case with Allstate’s advertising on the nets behind the goalposts at around 90 college football stadiums. The program began in 2005 and has grown to include a scholarship program, a College Football Playoff sponsorship, and an enviable position as the sponsor most closely associated with college football.
Honorable mentions are merited here for GTE’s branded coaches’ headsets in the 1990s and State Farm’s now-ubiquitous basketball stanchion signage.