When Overseas Elite won the The Basketball Tournament’s winner-take-all final in 2018, the $2 million prize was awarded to the team right there on the court following the game, via an oversized ceremonial check handed off by TBT Founder and CEO Jon Mugar.
The presentation added another layer of drama to the upstart property. However, Mugar said, it was also wildly impractical.
“The huge giant oversized check, it just seemed very antiquated and very overdone,” he said. Mugar noted that for many of the players there was also the added stress of holding onto a check for a large sum of money until they could head to their bank to deposit them – a process that often required a few days lag time before they could actually access the funds.
Set to begin its sixth edition on July 19, TBT has seen steady growth since its 2014 founding, which not only has not only raised its profile with basketball fans, but also with commercial partners – provided Mugar with an opportunity to remedy that issue.
Enter Zelle, the digital payment network that allows users to instantly transfer money from their bank account via a mobile device or their bank’s website, and which has signed on as the official payment partner of the TBT. Now, instead of the big check, an enlarged phone will be brought out on the court – transferring each player on the winning team their cut of the $2 million prize instantly. Prize money that is also delivered to regional winners, as well as fans, will also be transferred via Zelle.
“When we think about partnerships, we want something that adds value to what we do,” Mugar said. “To make the payment as easy as possible with Zelle adds massive value.”
The partnership is also a reflection of TBT’s growth, Mugar said, who added that “we couldn’t have had a discussion like this with a company like Zelle even as recent as two years ago – now we have five years of credibility to lean on.”
That credibility has come via the continued growth of the property, which has been further boosted by its broadcast deal with ESPN.
TBT saw growth across nearly every metric in 2018. Cumulative viewership on ESPN networks last year was 4.3 million, up 19% year-over-year. Live attendance was up 51%, totaling 19,646. TBT’s website saw 876,682 unique users, up 51% year-over-year, while there were more than 1,046 media mentions for the tournament in 2018, up 10% from 2017.
More growth is expected in 2019. Twenty four games will be featured on TV this year, up two from the previous year. That includes 17 on ESPN, six on ESPN2 and one on ESPNU, ten of which will be in primetime.
TBT is also switching its regional format this year, designating a home team for each of the eight brackets. That has led to a more than 200% increase in ticket sales, which Mugar said is thanks to TBT being able to tap into the local appeal of the teams and their players.
Rose Corvo, chief marketing officer of Zelle operator Early Warning, said the way Zelle “was woven into the whole experience” was a huge reason why it jumped into the partnership with TBT.
“We look for opportunities that embody what we’re trying to do – this partnership allows us to go beyond just the typical brand awareness where we’re just in the background,” Corvo said.
In addition to being heavily featured at the conclusion of the final – which will be broadcast on ESPN – Zelle will also have marketing integration during all of the televised games, which will include features like players talking about how they’d spend the money, as well as how much money each player stands to win.
Mugar said that providing partners that sort of integration is key for TBT, who is looking for those types of value-added sponsors. He noted TBT’s deal with Puma, now entering its second year, which has a unique clause – any player who plays in TBT and subsequently signs an NBA contract will receive a bonus from Puma that will include both cash and products, potentially earning them a contract with the brand. “This is something that any NBA player covets,” said Mugar, noting that in the last five years more than 25 TBT players have made the jump to the NBA.
While the partnership with Zelle just covers the 2019 edition of TBT, both sides said they would be keen on discussing an extension in the future. Neither Mugar nor Corvo would comment on the financial terms of the deal.
Mugar said compared to 2018, revenue from partnerships will be up more than 80% this year.
“For us, it’s about finding partners who are willing to have a conversation about doing something outside of the box with us,” he said.