Watch this Space: Jersey Sponsorship in the US

In this year’s NBA All Stars game in Toronto, there was one towering difference on the court. It had nothing to do with what the players were doing with the ball, but everything to do with what they were wearing. On their jerseys, for the first time, there was a brand logo – Kia.
Let’s put this in proportion: at 3.25 inches by 1.6 inches it’s barely noticeable in comparison with the logos on MLS or European sports jerseys, but it’s the barrier it crosses that’s significant. There can be no doubt that this is the NBA putting feelers out for what Commissioner Adam Silver talked about back in 2014 when he said: “We know what the value is to advertisers…to be able to show fans in-game branding.”

The math is simple – the average MLS jersey goes for around $3–3.5m dollars a year, but for commercial departments from the leading “big four league” teams in the US, I would imagine that there have been some envious glances across the pond to Manchester United’s deal with American car company Chevrolet at $75m a year.

Whilst the NBA have been joined by the NHL (whose Commissioner described jersey sponsorship as “coming and happening”), the MLB and NFL have been certainly more lukewarm. There are obvious logistical issues around it.

First, with a league’s collective bargaining agreements there needs to be consensus and balance as to whether it’s sold centrally or as per the European sports model, team by team. And secondly, the objection of broadcasters concerned about potential conflict and lost revenue.

The real question here is not whether this will indeed happen in the USA (I believe it’s inevitable over the next few years in NBA and NHL, at the very least), but rather whether it will impact negatively for consumers. And moreover, will brands here in America learn the lessons from the decades of good, bad and ugly jersey sponsorships in the past to influence the future?

So do consumers care…and, in particular, the Millennial consumer?

At Synergy, we’ve long been frustrated by the lack of real understanding and insight on the way Millennials engage with and view sports – both now and in the future. There are countless myths that have been built across the demographic, some of which are wrong and many of which can skew the way brands and rightsholders build campaigns. At the end of 2015, we undertook a bespoke and comprehensive piece of research with our sister agency, The Intelligence Group, around both Millennial and Generation X attitudes towards sports, sponsors and the future of sports engagement, with findings featured throughout Now, New & Next 2016.

The survey (3,145 consumers in America with 66% 18–34-year-olds and 34% 35–54-year-olds) specifically examined the potential impact of jersey sponsorship among the audience.

In short – they don’t see it as an issue. The rise of European soccer, MLS and WNBA has made jersey logos a more acceptable part of the viewing experience for the Millennial sports fan. The research highlights that 27% of Millennials think jersey sponsorship is “very appropriate” (higher than Gen Xers), whilst, tellingly, more Gen Xers than Millennials think it’s better for brands to be in the ad break or break bumpers.

History also shows that team success soon overcomes fans’ commercial objections. FC Barcelona – whose motto is famously “More than a Club” – held out for decades against commercial shirt sponsorship by featuring Unicef on the front of their jersey (at no charge), before replacing the global charity with sponsorship from the Qatar Foundation for a then record $40m a year.

Whilst there was a clear media backlash, it didn’t last long when a team with significantly increased resources went on to lift the UEFA Champions League. So if it helps your team produce a great spectacle, most fans soon overlook the logo.

Critically, fans soon discover that a brand appearing on their shirt will not affect their “fanship.” Indeed, more than being just a benign presence, fans may even come to see a jersey sponsor as a positive force for good, with the brand actively enhancing this very fanship. Another reason why this front-and-center asset can be so powerful.

As a jersey sponsor you have a responsibility, since your logo becomes part of the history of the team. Famous jerseys down the ages of European sports are identifiable due to the brand logo on the front of them – the brand locked forever, in the very midst of that trophy-lifting moment. The same applied off the pitch, where through the replica shirt market, fans of all ages wear your brand on a daily basis.

You cannot be edited out – be that in the live moment, or the subsequent media coverage: your brand is indelibly stencilled into that moment of history (for good or bad).

This responsibility means that you must understand and tap into the players, the fans, the culture and the tone of the team.

Lessons Learned for the Future

So what lessons can brands considering jersey sponsorship here in the US learn to ensure this doesn’t become just a glorified media buy?

Jersey sponsorship has always been the closest you can get to being in the action as a brand. New tech can only help this to literally get up close and personal with your team and your favourite players. At the 2016 CES Sports Forum, virtual reality was talked about by one team owner as “what TV was to radio” – imagine the creative capacity for VR technology being able to take fans into the action courtesy of the jersey sponsor.

Being at the heart of the action means being at the heart of the live moment, and research shows that Millennials notice brands in-game more than anywhere else. As a jersey sponsor you need to ensure you contractually own the live moment by having access to your team’s official social media feeds in order to feed the consumers’ desire for in-play, shareable content that can enhance their fanship.

Get the players onside and fast, as they’re the living embodiment and running billboard for your brand. This is what can make the activation of a shirt sponsorship both easy (as you don’t need to shoehorn your brand into the situation) but also dangerous (you may not want your brand involved in certain off-court exchanges).

Again, with players controlling their own IP and the restrictive contracts they can have with teams in the US on its usage, brands need to be savvy enough to work in harmony with the players. Additional agreements with them are a must, especially in relation to their social feeds. Take, for example, the starting line-up for the Cleveland Cavaliers, which has a combined Twitter and Facebook following of 58m, versus the team’s official feeds of just over 5m.

LeBron’s Twitter following alone is nearly as big as that of all the other teams in the league combined.

Don’t be afraid to innovate or have fun with it – when Intel signed a jersey deal with FC Barcelona they literally turned the traditional model inside out by putting their Intel branding on the inside of the jersey. Some brands have handed over the space to a charity that they back for key matches – something that usually attracts positive sentiment.

The geographic activation restrictions of most US league deals ensure that the jersey sponsor would need to keep home fences mended, but the real potential for the leading teams would be the global potential. It’s no accident that leading UK soccer clubs Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea are sponsored by Chevrolet, Standard Chartered and Yokohama respectively – all brands targeting a global audience. Chevrolet don’t even sell vehicles in the UK.

Jersey sponsorship will happen here in the US, and fans will accept it. Leagues and brands, however, must look past the jersey as simply prime estate, instead seeing it as a chance to help share the very beating heart of the team.

Respect this, enhance it and tap into the fan culture, and it’s among the most powerful assets in a sponsorship arsenal. Get it wrong and it’s an expensive – and very public – mistake.

This blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship and entertainment outlook for 2016, which can be viewed in full here.

A Synergy Blog presented by Microassets Ltd*

*Microassets Ltd. is the world-leading provider of small ‘features’ within a bigger sponsorship asset, including content, giveaways, challenges, stats and in-game moments than can be sold to a Presenting Partner.

On a recent trip to New York, Tim Crow and I had the pleasure of going to Madison Square Garden to watch the New York Knicks take on the Indiana Pacers. Anyone who has followed the NBA this year knew that we were unlikely to witness a basketball masterclass or a win for the home team. Rather, we were going for a first-hand experience of US sports marketing and sponsorship activation. And where better than in one of the world’s most iconic sporting venues?

We certainly got more than we bargained for. Here’s what we found (and I promise I’m not making any of this up):

  1. We were told to collect our tickets at the North Concierge presented by Lenox Hill Hospital. I have no idea if the South, East or West Concierge had different presenting partners
  2. The game was part of an NBA-wide Latin Night presented by Sprite which “celebrates the growing support of NBA fans and players across Latin American and U.S. Hispanic communities”
  3. In an early time-out break, we were treated to the Cub Reporter presented by Hi-Chew, a neat little segment where the big screen showed a kid interviewing Roger Federer. The best bit: all the Pacers’ players were looking up and watching it rather than listening to their coach
  4. There was a controversial “out-of bounds” call. Luckily, we had the Official Review presented by Chase to make sure the refs made the correct decision
  5. The entertainment kept coming at the end of the first quarter with Dance Like a Champion presented by Norwegian Cruise Line. Two members of the audience had a (admittedly hilarious) dance-off for the right to win a big cardboard cut-out of a ship and a cruise with the sponsor
  6. As always, there were plenty of celebrities at courtside including Jesse’s dead girlfriend from Breaking Bad, the big dude from Blind Side, one of the inmates from Orange is the New Black, and Mahoney from Police Academy. We saw them all courtesy of Celebrity Row presented by Douglas Elliman
  7. The T-Shirt Toss presented by Kia showed us exactly what lengths people will go to catch a promotional t-shirt that is probably worth about $1
  8. Clearly, they just couldn’t blast enough t-shirts into the crowd with their measly “one-at-a-time” t-shirt cannons. Thankfully, there was the Mega T-Shirt Machine presented by Foxwoods, which, as the name suggests, raised both the quantity and distance of the t-shirts blasted quite considerably. It was a bit strange, though, that it was presented by a different sponsor to the standard t-shirt toss
  9. The Madison Square Garden has hosted some remarkable events in its history. Garden 366 presented by SAP gave us a taste of some of them on the big screen. I still haven’t worked out why it’s called “Garden 366” though – maybe the number of days in a leap year?
  10. The Knicks City Kids presented by Hi-Chew were an awesome troupe of young dancers/cheerleaders throwing some shapes to Carlos Santana (it was Latin Night remember), MC Hammer and others
  11. It is always brilliant to see your MSG-related tweet on the big screen. Luckily, Tweet Your Message presented by Duracell Powermat could make that happen, presumably while your phone was being charged
  12. The Half Time Highlights presented by Chase reminded people how and why the Knicks were losing again
  13. The Half Time Scores (from around the league) presented by Douglas Elliman reminded people that the Knicks weren’t going to make the play-offs
  14. There was another controversial moment and this time the referees could turn to the Official Review Replay presented by Delta. Wait, I though Official Reviews were presented by Chase?
  15. There is no doubt that US rightsholders do a huge amount of positive work in their local communities. In one of the breaks during the third quarter, the big screen told us all about one of these initiatives: Community Assist presented by Garden Veggie Snacks
  16. While we were all lucky just to be there, there was one fan that was even more lucky than the rest of us: the Lucky Fan presented by Sprite. I’m not sure what he or she won…maybe a year’s supply of Sprite
  17. The 3rd Quarter Stats presented by Delta reminded us that the Knicks were still losing in pretty much every statistical category
  18. We found out what was happening in the night’s other games with Scores from Around the League presented by Terra Vegetable Chips. Wait, I thought Scores from Around the League was presented by Douglas Elliman?
  19. As the tension ramped up and the game neared its conclusion, we had the Final 5 (minutes) presented by Foxwoods. It probably would have helped had the game been a bit closer
  20. At the end of the game, the best play of the night was awarded the Drive of the Game presented by Kia
  21. It was also important to remind people not to drink and drive which is why we had the Good Sport Designated Driver presented by Bud Light
  22. Trees for Threes presented by PWC made sure that we could all go home with the knowledge that there would be a tree planted for every three-pointer made during the game
  23. Finally, on our way out we walked past the Lexus show cars. They looked great but they looked lost. Why were they there? How could fans experience them? How were Lexus capturing leads?

We couldn’t quite believe the sheer intensity of the brand bombardment that we had just experienced. But when we told one US sports marketing veteran about it, his response was simple: “Welcome to America!”

Really? Is this the direction that sports marketing in the US is heading? Is the Madison Square Garden a template for the future or a relic of the past? Will the future just be an endless collection of semi-meaningless assets like “The FedEx Air and Ground Players of the Week” (NFL), “The Dominos #DomiNoNos” (MLB) and “The Dunkin Donuts Dunks of the Week” (actually that last one doesn’t exist, but it probably should)?

The appeal of this model for rightsholders is obvious. It’s about carving up rights into smaller and smaller pieces and creating saleable “micro-assets” out of thin air – basically money for old rope. Who can’t see the appeal of that? But that’s only if you see sponsorship as a zero-sum game – a transaction rather than a true partnership.

The best way for rightsholders to create more value for themselves is by focusing on creating more value for their sponsors, and then figuring out ways to tap into that incremental value; not by coming up with more and more things to sell them. And the plain truth is that this model isn’t particularly good at creating value for the sponsors.

First and foremost, and at an incredibly basic level, with 16 different brands all vying for a bit of attention at this particular event, there are simply too many brands present without enough whitespace between them. The problem isn’t the number of brands per se, but the fact that they are all basically doing the same thing (sticking their name on a particular feature), meaning that none of them are really memorable. Without scrolling up, try to remember who the presenting partner of the mega T-shirt machine was, or what Terra Vegetable Chips sponsored.

Great sponsorship needs a Big Idea: a powerful insight that connects the brand to the audience via the asset they are sponsoring, and an activation campaign which brings that Big Idea to life through different channels, over time and in new and interesting ways. But frankly, it’s really hard to see how any of the items on the list above connect to a bigger, more meaningful insight or are part of a broader, more engaging activation programme.

Sure, there are some obvious connections like the fact that the ‘drive of the game’ was being presented by a car company or that the two assets involving children are presented by a brand of chewy sweets. In fact, I’m pretty certain that someone, somewhere has come up with a logical justification for all of them (“We dance on Norwegian Cruise Line Ships so we should sponsor Dance Like a Champion”; “Trees for Threes rhymes with PWC” etc.)…but, in truth, none of them help to tell a meaningful and compelling brand story that the audience cares about. Because, to do that, you have to go beyond the obvious.

Also, it was hard to see how any of the activity we saw in the building was part of a broader campaign. Clearly, Sprite’s Latin Night was part of a bigger NBA-wide sponsorship property, but nothing happened on the night to give it that sense. Is there a PR or social media component to Douglas Elliman’s celebrity spotting? Do Chase have a campaign around helping people make better decisions which their sponsorship of the video review brings to life? Do Delta use stats in any of their other marketing communications?

If the answer to all these questions is “no”, then what’s the point of even doing them? The fact is that none of these “micro-assets” are big enough to stand on their own, so if they aren’t part of a bigger campaign, they are just tactical media buys that reach the 18,000 people inside Madison Square Garden.

Surely that’s no template for the future.