Inside Basketball’s Branding Play: 3 Tips for Successful NBA Partnerships

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If you’re like us and get lulled to sleep by endless double play highlights on SportsCenter this time of year, you may have missed that logos are coming to NBA uniforms—and soon.

Here’s the rundown: Last summer, the league signed new national television and apparel deals, and advertisements were a large part of the negotiations. (Nike will take over from adidas as the league’s uniform supplier in 2017 when ads are expected to make their debut.)

In the weeks and months ahead:

  • Individual teams will work with brands on deals.
  • Brands will receive a 2.5-inch square-shaped patch on the players’ left shoulders.
  • Teams will keep half the cash, with the other 50% going to the league’s revenue-sharing pool.

And while the league has been moving in this direction for at least five years, the announcement was met with some skepticism among members of the news media.

“I see ads all along the court, I get commercials interrupting play,” said ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, who grilled league commissioner Adam Silver in an interview earlier this spring. “Why at the very moment that someone is stuffing the ball into the basket do I need to be advertised to?”

“It’s manifest destiny of sports,” responded Silver with a dramatic but near-accurate turn of phrase. (It’s actually reverse manifest destiny if you think about it.)

Uruguay’s storied Peñarol club, which like many South American and European outfits competes in basketball but is best known for its soccer team, pioneered jersey sponsorship in the 1950s as a means of bringing a little extra money into the clubhouse. Shortly thereafter, a handful of clubs across France, Denmark and Austria caught on, and by the mid-’70s, the practice became standard in soccer.

“It doesn’t affect the competition or the fan experience,” added Silver, who rightly relayed that sponsoring brands will eventually use their own media to promote the NBA extensively. “That’s probably the greatest reason for us to do it.”

That, and the tens of thousands of fans who will buy their favorite players’ new kits come 2017.

So on the eve of owners and brand managers beginning courtships across the country, here are three thoughts on how to build a partnership that will last—and if done right, can really have an impact.

Think like a football club

Més que un club (more than a club) is the motto of FC Barcelona. This thinking beyond sport, largely attributed to the team’s longstanding association with the Catalan nationalist movement, is also about creating a second home that its supporters can be proud of. (Like the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, Barça’s fans own and operate the team).

For 107 years, Barcelona shunned sponsors, bucking the trend that Peñarol began some 60 years earlier. Then came the 2006 announcement that Barça and Unicef were signing a new kind of agreement—one that reversed the model and saw the club donating 1.5 million euros annually for the right to wear the UN’s children’s agency logo on their uniforms. Far beyond the pitch, that money helped in the fight against AIDS in Swaziland, Malawi and Angola; more recently, an expanded partnership that began in 2011 has helped to improve school infrastructure and teacher development in Spain, Ghana, South Africa, China and Brazil. Barça, however, can literally afford the luxury: at $3.56 billion, they’re the second-most-valuable sports team in the world and the world’s second-richest football club in terms of revenue.

Twenty-two years earlier, English side West Bromwich Albion found a new revenue stream that still allowed them to champion a good cause: The club aligned itself with the regional health authority, which paid to have the universal “no smoking” sign stitched on their shirts. A corresponding campaign featured the slogan: “Be like Albion—kick the smoking habit.”

Deals of this kind may not be an immediate option for smaller-market teams like the Sacramento Kings (we’ll get back to them later). But for owners of the New York Knicks (valued at $3 billion), Los Angeles Lakers ($2.7 billion) and Chicago Bulls ($2.3 billion), it’s a selfless way to pass philanthropic passions down to fans who may not be able to cut a check. Bundled into the price of a new jersey, however, and that’s a cause the everyman can really get behind.

Think local

Of all American cities that have at least three major sports franchises, Cleveland was, until June 19, the only one that had failed to win a championship in the past 50 years. Along with the Cavaliers’ long-awaited title came Believeland’s first ticker tape parade in a generation—something you cannot put a price on, especially in a city that’s largely seen the manufacturing jobs that once defined opportunity in northeastern Ohio disappear.

Like the league’s 29 other franchises, Cleveland has the opportunity to double down on its city by finding a sponsoring brand from within its city limits, which seven members of the Fortune 500 currently call home. Goodyear, Smucker’s and Sherman-Williams are among that set, with the latter holding particularly interesting opportunities, especially if the Cavs’ signature wine color is added to Williams’ arsenal.

Take a calculated risk

According to the commissioner, brand insignias could bring $100 million into the league—a significant sum for teams like the Hornets, Bucks and Pelicans, who according to Forbes’ calculations are among the bottom five franchises when considering value and revenue. (The Hornets and Bucks also measure among the bottom third in the league when it comes to fan engagement.) Partnerships like those between Barcelona and Unicef are likely out of question for this lot, as are other good-willed endeavors like our proposed Cleveland and Sherman-Williams connection. For these clubs, and this should sound familiar to organizations with dedicated scouting operations, successful partnerships could be about being the first to spot hidden value in the form of breakthrough brands on the rise.

Consider the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer and their alliance with Alaska Airlines, a carrier that had little name recognition outside of the Pacific Northwest before the team adopted them as their sponsor in 2011. (In the ensuing years, Alaska Air acquired beloved brand Virgin America and saw its stock jump just last week when it was selected by the Department of Transportation as one of only a handful of carriers granted nonstop flights to Havana.) To increase fan engagement with the Timbers, they have:

  • Revealed their uniforms as a splashy fashion show at Portland International Airport.
  • Donated 25 tickets to local underprivileged children for every home match.
  • Offered year-round early boarding privileges on flights originating from Portland for anyone wearing a Timbers jersey.
  • Donated a plane to the club that sports a fan-designed exterior.

Oh, and the Timbers have sold out almost 100 consecutive home games on their way to winning the MLS Cup last season.

Which brings us back to Sacramento, which already identified a local company, Golden 1 Credit Union, to acquire its new arena’s naming rights. It’s a smart ploy that mirrors the Oklahoma City Thunder’s alliance with local Chesapeake Energy. In the ensuing five years, OKC became America’s 12th-fastest-growing city and went from a net loss of millennials to a net gain. That’s must be music to the Kings’ owners’ ears, who not only resisted moving the team but also doubled down around a “next great American city” vision with a new arena as its keystone. All that remains is a sponsoring uniform brand. (And maybe another 26-point scorer to complement DeMarcus Cousins.) But seriously: Wouldn’t an Uber crest look great on those purple and black uniforms? And what fan wouldn’t welcome gamified or even incentivized rides to and from the stadium?

Barça and Unicef set an admirable but tough bar. And the Timbers and Alaska Airlines showed that a sponsorship doesn’t have to end at the negotiating table. Where will your team net out? Leave some thoughts in the comments section below.


—Blaine McEvoy is an Associate Director at Interbrand.

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