A League of Their Own: 5 Questions with BIG3 Co-CEO Jeff Kwatinetz


BIG3 Ice Cube

The BIG3 basketball league is stoking the popularity of a form of a game that is common worldwide but hadn’t been executed with professional players and coaches before last year. Now the organization co-founded by Ice Cube is preparing for its second season and has added a crucial new brand sponsor: adidas.

This week adidas announced that it will become the official outfitter of the 3-on-3 league that was launched by the rapper-actor and by entertainment executive Jeff Kwatinetz, both co-CEOs. It’s now in 10 cities across the U.S., has a TV broadcast rights deal with FOX and features ex-NBA stars such as Drew Gooden, Carlos Boozer, Ron Artest and Gary Payton.

Jeff Kwatinetz“There aren’t a lot of new leagues that pop up,” Kwatinetz told brandchannel. “But last year we were able to prove that there is a very large appetite for [watching 3-on-3 basketball], and it’s coming from a younger generation.”

In fact, 3-on-3 basketball will be added as an Olympics sport for the 2020 Games. In the meantime, the BIG3 league is generating grassroots enthusiasm in America with summer play across the nation. And adidas’ three-year partnership can be expected to add a significant promotional boost.

Besides the number of players, the game’s interesting features include a four-point shot, a 14-second shot clock and no defensive “three-second” rule.

“Ice Cube has the same creator mindset we have at adidas,” stated Mark King, adidas North America president. “No other league blends sport and culture the way BIG3 does.”

Kwatinetz shared more insights on launching a new sports league with the BIG3:

How would you explain the popularity of three-on-three basketball?

It’s actually the most-played sport in the world. It’s easily accessible. You’ve just got to go out to any playground in America or the world. Basketball itself is the fastest-growing sport in the world and the second-biggest, and three-on-three is an easier and more accessible version of it. It’s played more than soccer, more than any sport in the world.

Why formalize it with a professional league?

BIG3 logoBy us making it professional, people were surprised by how fast the game is and how physical it was and how competitive it was. The physicality and the speed were big things. In terms of converting that into viewers, we’re not as popular yet as soccer or professional basketball. [But] the major sports in America are all getting older in terms of viewership and attendees. We attracted an audience that, on average, is 13 years younger than the NBA’s and more diverse, and the NBA is youngest of the three big leagues.

People thought it would be good to see older names play again, but what they didn’t understand is that the way we designed our rules specifically plays into the advantages of basketball IQ. [Ex-NBA star] Chauncey Billups is way smarter about basketball skills than any 23- or 24-year-old. What [BIG3 stars] can’t do is run up and down the court with the youngest [NBA] players. By taking away disadvantages and maximizing the importance of skill—the shot, passing ability and basketball IQ—we were able to put something together that is appealing.

What convinced you this was a viable new sports brand and investment?

Cube and I believed it was a winning idea virtually from the beginning. But taking something from an idea to actually making it happen is very hard. Everybody doubted us. Many of our own staff and players doubted that we could succeed. And if you look at the odds, the last big league to succeed was the UFC, going back 18 years. It’s very rare since the XFL, leagues don’t get first-year broadcast deals, which we didn’t realize until we already were shopping the deal. There’s a big bias based on statistics for new leagues succeeding. But we believed it from the beginning.

The amount of attention and work we’ve put into it physically and emotionally and the opportunity cost is huge: Cube hasn’t done a movie in two years, and I don’t remember the last day I realized if it was a Saturday or a Sunday. It’s a new league and also a startup. A benefit of having a lot of big-name great players involved is you get attention. But a disadvantage of it is you get attention. There’s not a lot of room for error. You have to execute at a certain level.

Talk about your sponsors, which adidas is now joining?

For the finals last year we had Alex and Ani, whose CEO is an investor in our league, and they’re on our trophy. They’ll be continuing. You also see Kay Jewelers and Jared run a lot of media against [other] sports, so jewelry is an interesting category. Alex and Ani also do things with the New England Patriots and really get the [BIG3] league.

Last year we had a number of potential sponsors come to us to be involved. But they didn’t want to be involved for the long term and we didn’t think they were authentic fits. Cube and I and Amy Trask, our chairman, we’ve always looked at things long-term. It was hard to turn down money short-term but we did if it didn’t make sense. People wanted to pay us mid-six figures to put their logo on the four-point circles or have signage on the court and certain MVP type things on Fox. But if it wasn’t something we thought was going to work for us and the brand long-term, we weren’t interested.

Adidas has come on board now and they’re obviously a major sponsor. What’s great about adidas is they and we both want to get involved in communities we play in. We’ll be announcing activations in all the markets we visit that involve younger kids. It’ll be our version of what the NFL does with Play60, getting kids outdoors and playing basketball, especially in the inner cities where there aren’t as many opportunities or programs. And our players want to get involved. Things like that align us.

Adidas is also focused on culture Ice Cube is a cultural icon and a big part of how we built our league, integrating with culture and music and entertainment. So when we talked with adidas it’s a long-term deal and there are substantial resources behind it. It’s money to help the league work and also for activations and for equipment for our players and our kids. So there are a lot of layers to it and it felt like it was coming from the right place. We did the deal with adidas’ head of global basketball and the North American president, Mark King, so it was done at a level where we knew there was good corporate support for it.

How about a licensing deal with Pepsi’s upcoming Uncle Drew movie?

Uncle Drew has come up before. We’d do stuff on a one-off basis with some entertainment properties. There are a couple we’re talking to. We’ve produced movies with a lot of different studios. We would consider those sorts of tie-ins but we’d want it to be authentic. We don’t want it to be cheesy. We’re building a league for our legacies. You only get that done by believing that. and acting as if it’s going to be.

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