Initial Reactions to WNBA Jersey Deal: League Wins, Sponsor…

Before even raising the question, this deal was a no-brainer for the WNBA and Phoenix Mercury. A seven-figure deal for a fledgling league that’s run on a low budget in the midst of a macro-economic recession. Unless it threatens the image of the league, take the money and run – do not pass go, do not collect $200. Without the history and tradition deeply rooted in the major sports leagues, the WNBA does not face any fan lash back from putting logos on uniforms, and it already paved the way last season with the McDonald’s logo on jerseys for opening weekend.

Last year’s deal McDonald’s deal paved the way for the LifeLock-Mercury sponsorship, and the other team uniform sponsorship that will presumably follow this season and beyond. My only caution for the league is how they integrate the logo onto the uniform. If it takes top billing, right above the number (http://tinyurl.com/oktbm2), I think it will damage jersey sells and team merchandise revenue. Fans that grow an affinity for the team and root for the logo (rather than the names on the back) may lose some of the association in the long term. Otherwise, an up front revenue windfall is good for the league and its team, especially after an off-season that saw its initial cornerstone franchise, the Houston Comets, fold.

On the sponsor side, the verdict remains out on LifeLock. Sports sponsorships are difficult to measure, and the days of just using signage and placing ads has started to give way to the need for product and brand integration. Obviously, outside of the apparel makers that’s difficult to achieve with a jersey. However, I’m curious what LifeLock’s objectives are with the sponsorship. How do they intend to sell their identity theft protection service, or exhibit the benefits of their service, by slapping a logo on the uniform? Unlike other sports advertisements, this brand impression is unlikely to solicit a direct response or much of anything toward a purchase. A lot comes down to LifeLock’s activation and how the firm plans to leverage the entire sponsorship package to gain awareness, encourage sampling, and convert sales.

I feel the prototypical jersey sponsor is a national brand, either in a competitive market or in a growth mode, where awareness can drive value. The sponsor should have a reason to associate with the league – shared values, targeting the same demographics, or have a product that is endemic to the sport or the lives of the athletes. It’s very much a national sponsorship because of the television exposure, road games in other markets, and media coverage, so it should be a nationally relevant firm. Further, that exposure will show up in the premium, so the sponsor needs to attain that value to make it worthwhile. Again, not being an expert on LifeLock, I don’t know that it’s a good investment. The WNBA is a niche product, so it won’t gain wide exposure, the league focuses on the youth demographic, who probably are not interested in identity theft services, and it does not deliver a message with the uniform logo, so as an unknown company its not communicating with the fans. Activation remains to be seen.

It’s only a matter of time for the rest of the teams to sign sponsors, and I’m sure it’s a discussion point in the D-League – but what about “The League”. I think eventually sponsors will appear on jerseys in major sports, with the NHL or NBA leading the way, however I think its still a few years out. I’d be curious what the impact on jersey sales would be – logos excluded, sponsors pay more to appear on merchandise, sponsors get a share (unlikely). The biggest roadblock is fan reaction – and associating one of the last pure parts of the game to sponsors, leaving teams susceptible to the same risk they face with stadium naming rights. Will the Cavs jersey have a new sponsor on it each year due to bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions, and expiring contracts – thus devaluing the whole concept?

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