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WNBA Teams Find Success Through Creative Partnerships

In a league where TV deals, ticket sales, and merchandising may not bring in the same revenue that other professional leagues enjoy, sponsors open new revenue streams for the WNBA.

Bailey Knecht

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When it comes to nailing down sponsorships, the WNBA has long been ahead of the curve.

Nearly 10 years before the NBA started allowing teams to sell sponsorships for their jerseys, the Phoenix Mercury were already sporting LifeLock patches on their uniforms and now feature logos for Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Resort, as well as league sponsors Verizon and Nike. Since then, the rest of the league has jumped aboard, and the franchises have continued to involve their partners by displaying more logos on their jerseys and throughout arenas.

Now, 10 of the 12 WNBA teams’ uniforms include the logo of their marquee sponsor.

“You almost see that we’re the guinea pigs at times,” said Cay Young, director of corporate partnerships for the Los Angeles Sparks, who started with the Farmers Insurance logo on their jerseys in 2009 and have since transitioned to the life insurance company EquiTrust. “We’ve had the prominent logo placement on jerseys for around a decade, and it’s been a great asset for us in getting exposure for companies.”

Much of the WNBA’s innovative sponsorship approach is driven by pure necessity. In a league where TV deals, ticket sales, and merchandising may not bring in the same revenue that other professional leagues enjoy, sponsors open new revenue streams for the WNBA. According to Lyn Agnello, vice president of corporate partnerships for the Connecticut Sun, the team depends on sponsorships for about 40 percent of its revenue.

The key to success in the sponsorship realm is to have something that sets the team apart, according to Young and Agnello.

Like anything to do with sales, companies are bombarded daily with sales inquiries from many sources of sales folks wanting to sell advertising and partnership opportunities,” Agnello said. “So, [from] sending something from the team to get their attention, to having a player call the CEO, we try to separate our approach.”

“The Lakers are a high-investment value, and not everyone can afford that,” Young added. “We pride ourselves on being affordable for fans and small business owners. A lot of companies need to get their foot in the door, and then they stick with us.”

READ MORE: What Goes Into Executing Sponsorships at the Olympic Games

Carlissa Henry, senior vice president of marketing partnerships for the Mercury, emphasized the importance of teaching potential sponsors about what the WNBA can offer them.

“We educate our partners that we’re a thriving league with a different demographic,” said Henry, who is also in charge of sponsorships for the Suns and their G League affiliate. “We’re family friendly, and there is strong loyalty among our fans who support the brands that sponsor the team.”

When searching for sponsors, the teams take into consideration how a company may fit with their core values. Young discussed the Sparks’ partnership with their marquee partner, EquiTrust.

“[EquiTrust is] a company with a lot of women executives,” she said. “They really believe in what we’re doing, they believe in the product… It is culturally relevant right now to get behind a variety of cases that stem from women and LGBTQ.”

“We want the company to have some association within Arizona so there’s that commitment in terms of employees and consumers,” Henry added. “We’d like them to share the same values forward-thinking, integrity, respect, accountable for the goals of the organization.”

Once the teams lock down sponsors, they turn their focus toward planning various programs and events. Together, the Sparks and EquiTrust offer a financial literacy program called Driven2Hoop, which educates underprivileged youth in Los Angeles on weekly budgeting, debt management, credit responsibility and other financial tools.

“We see a lot of companies that use us for exposure but also for the impact and meaning,” Young said. “We are the communities we serve, so we offer community-enriched sponsorship packages.”

The Sparks also come together with their sponsors to offer game day initiatives with themes like Pride, mental health, military service and breast health awareness. They even partner with Nike to present Sneakerhead Night, which taps into Los Angeles’s vibrant sneaker community.

“We work with the presenting sponsor so they’re braided into every part of the evening, so when you walk in, you see them right away,” Young said. “I think the great thing is, as partnerships grow, it allows us to do out-of-the-box activations.”

Executing a sponsorship activation is a comprehensive effort that requires cooperation from the entire team, according to Henry. Staff members from departments like community relations, public relations, and game operations are all involved to help it run smoothly.

“There is lots of collaboration, and we’re really fortunate to work with every single other vertical from a company standpoint,” Henry said.

Despite all that goes into the job, Young concluded that forming strong relationships with sponsors comes down to generating excitement and creating a connection between the team and the company.

“We look to tell our story through [the sponsor’s] current consumers and employees,” she said. “And my job is to take our fans’ passion for the Sparks and WNBA and direct that passion to the brand.”

Bailey Knecht is a Northeastern University graduate and has worked for New Balance, the Boston Bruins and the Northeastern and UMass Lowell athletic departments. She covers media and marketing for Front Office Sports, with an emphasis on women's sports and basketball. She can be contacted at bailey@frntofficesport.com.

Sponsorship

Warriors Surprise Nearly 20,000 Fans with Google Home Minis

In partnership with Google Nest, the Golden State Warriors gave Google Home Minis to every fan in attendance of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

When 19,596 fans entered Oracle Arena for the NBA Western Conference Finals on Tuesday night, they were expecting an energetic atmosphere and high-level basketball. What they didn’t expect was that they would all be leaving with a new Google Home Mini smart speaker.

It seemed like a routine on-court contest as part of the Warriors’ partnership with home technology brand Google Nest: a fan was selected to shoot a halfcourt shot, and if the shot went in, every fan would take home a Google Home Mini. The fans didn’t know that even if the fan missed—which he did—they would still get to take home the prize.

“What makes the Warriors so special is their dedicated fanbase, so how can we thank the fans for making wherever the team plays feel more like home?” said Kate Whittington, a partner marketing manager with Google. “That was the objective: thank fans for being awesome, for feeling like home to the team, and to provide them with help for their own homes.”

READ MORE: St. Louis Blues Gamify Western Conference Finals with ‘Enter the Zone’

The giveaway was the largest and most expensive sporting event giveaway of a Google product in history, and it was the Warriors’ first major tech giveaway. With 20,000 Google Home Minis to transport and distribute, carrying out the activation and keeping it under wraps was no easy task.

“We have pallets and pallets and pallets of these things that are extremely expensive,” said Mike Kitts, VP of partnerships for the Warriors. “There’s a level of security and mobilization, and then we have to actually unpack and get them into position for distribution. When we talk about this being the most valuable giveaway ever done, there’s reasons for that. Finding a partner that can execute this—it’s not as easy as putting t-shirts on the back of seats.”

The Warriors were the favorites to reach the conference finals, but their first two playoff series wins didn’t come easily. Although the activation was planned in advance, the execution was not guaranteed until last Friday when the Warriors advanced past the Rockets in Game 6 of the conference semifinals.

“The difficulty of it is to try to plan for a future that is not promised,” Kitts said. “You’re playing in a series, and you can’t get ahead of yourself to assume you’re playing, but you have to appropriately plan the next round…The nature and scale of the platform of the Western Conference Finals provides enhanced amplification here.”

For Google Nest, timing was equally as important. Until recently, Google and Nest were separate brands, but the two organizations joined forces last week in a major rebrand.

“It coincided with the Western Conference Finals, so we wanted to lean into this moment to broadcast the new brand and show some love for our local sports team,” said Whittington.

READ MORE: Dodgers Continue Community Connection with Mexican Heritage Night

The Google Home Mini sells for $29, and although Whittington declined to disclose the exact dollar amount required to provide carry out the giveaway, she called the activation “an investment that indicates the level of importance the Warriors play with us.”

Beyond the giveaway itself, the Warriors and Google Nest spent the evening educating fans on ways they can put their device to use. The fan experience team showed off Google Assistant smart home capabilities in the arena, calling out commands to dim the lights and play music.

“Throughout the game, we’re demonstrating Google technology through the game experience,” Kitts said. “We’re queuing up fan experiences until the big moment so that each person gets the narrative that threads through this, and sees how authentically that Google is layered into the game-day experience.”

Even after the fans left the arena, the Warriors’ marketing efforts weren’t complete.

“With any good activation, we’re looking for the follow-through with shelf life,” Kitts said, explaining that when fans activated their Google Home Minis, they were automatically entered to win tickets to a future Warriors game.

The activation didn’t come about spontaneously. The Warriors’ relationship with Google represents the team’s prime location in the tech capital of the country, according to Kitts.

“We’re very lucky to be in this region of the world,” he said. “I would say the ownership group is reflective of this region, and it manifests itself in the overall culture and willingness and ability to partner with tech companies that we’re proud of.”

And with Tuesday’s giveaway, the Warriors and Google Nest took that cutting-edge culture and turned it into an unforgettable moment for fans.

“We’re all consumers, we’re all experience goers, so we’ve been to a ton of arenas and seen advertising—that’s not what this is,” Kitts said. “This is two brands coming together to think through, ‘How do we change the game-day experience and make it additive and cool and make fans remember and appreciate it?’”

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Sponsorship

Oakland Coliseum Scores Naming Rights Partner

Per the San Francisco Chronicle, The Coliseum will now be known as the RingCentral Coliseum thanks to a new three-year, $3 million deal.

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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else. 

The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is set to have a new name.

Thanks to a three-year, $3 million deal, the Coliseum will now be known as the RingCentral Coliseum, according to Phil Matier of the San Francisco Chronicle

What do you need to know?

1. The deal is for three years with an option for a fourth year.

2. The Coliseum has been without a naming rights partner since Overstock.com pulled out of its $1.45 million-a-year deal with the Coliseum after the Raiders announced plans in 2016 to leave.

3. The $1 million-a-year deal represents a discount from the old one based on the fact that the A’s will be the only professional team playing in the venue past this season.

Who is RingCentral?

Founded in 1999, RingCentral is a publicly traded provider of cloud-based communications and collaboration solutions for businesses. The company has 2,500 employees with offices in the U.S. in Denver, Charlotte, and Boca Raton. 

Late last year, the company became a foundational partner for Chase Center, the new home of the Warriors. Estimates have that deal pegged at $1 million per year for 10 years.

Tale of two venues…

While only 16 miles separate Oracle Park and RingCentral Coliseum, the future of both couldn’t be more different.

Earlier this year, the San Francisco Giants signed a 10-year, $200 million dollar deal with Oracle to rename their home to Oracle Park.

With the A’s expected to leave the Coliseum in the coming years pending developments with their bid to get a new stadium, RingCentral was able to get a deal for a venue with two pro sports teams (at least for this year) at 1/20th the cost of what Oracle is paying the Giants.

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Sponsorship

Kansas City Royal Whit Merrifield Highlights Boulevard Brewing Campaign

Kansas City brewery Boulevard Brewing has tabbed Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield for a rebrand that was as natural as partnerships get.

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Photo Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield is a major piece of a significant beer campaign by Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing.

Merrifield, who led MLB in hits and stolen bases last season, has partnered with the craft brewer for its Unfiltered Whit campaign that promotes one of its flagship products, Unfiltered Wheat. The campaign features advertising, merchandise, a sweepstakes and plenty of player appearances. Boulevard has made the beer for 25 years, and now the brewery’s best-seller is getting a modern makeover.

According to the brewery, it’s one of the first endorsements between a Major League Baseball player and a craft brewery despite plenty of athletes loving beer and some, like former Boston Red Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis, owning breweries.

READ MORE: Crawford Bock Brings Beer and Baseball Together for Astros

As the brewery realized the “beer that built Boulevard” needed a refresh, it turned to an athlete who knows the brewery and the Kansas City community well, Boulevard CMO Natalie Gershon said. A witbier is a type of Belgian-style wheat beer, so Whit Merrifield’s name fits well even beyond the similarity to wheat.

“We joke that the campaign wrote itself,” Gershon said. “However, Whit is an amazing baseball player and a true fan of the brewery. When we got the chance to work together, the partnership came together very quickly as we both knew we wanted to do something fun, authentically Kansas City and charitably driven.”

As part of the campaign to introduce the rebranded Unfiltered Wheat, the Boulevard team and Merrifield came up with “Whit-icisms,” ultimately recording videos of the player and his life as a baseball player in Kansas City. Likewise, Merrifield’s likeness will be used on billboards throughout the Royals’ region, most notably on Boulevard’s outfield wall sign at Kauffman Stadium.

“Boulevard is an essential part of Kansas City,” Merrifield said in a statement. “I’m so proud of these iconic Kansas City partners and the opportunity to raise money and awareness for this incredible organization.”

A sweepstakes will give fans the chance to win a VIP experience for an on-field meet-and-greet with Merrifield in September plus tickets to the Royals’ Dugout Suite with Boulevard representatives. Boulevard also created new ad spots for the Unfiltered Wheat for Hulu and the Fox Sports Royals Live Postgame Show.

Finally, as part of the deal, Boulevard has partnered with Kansas City’s Charlie Hustle Clothing Co. to make Unfiltered Whit t-shirts, with a portion of the $35 tees going to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Kansas City.

READ MORE: Less is More: How Andrew Luck Handles Off-The-Field Partnerships

“We are thrilled to team up with Boulevard Brewing and Whit Merrifield to create our spin on Unfiltered Whit and to support a great cause,” Charlie Hustle CMO Katie Martincich said. “This collaboration is near and dear to us as it embodies three things we love: synergy among KC brands, enthusiasm for local sports, and charitable contributions to a great KC foundation.”

The partnership with Merrifield deepens longstanding ties between the brewery and the baseball team. Boulevard became the “Official Craft Beer” of the Royals in 2017, which established six Boulevard-centric destinations within Kauffman Stadium and the brewery’s Smokestack in the outfield. Additionally, the brewery has rolled out the Mexican-style lager ¡Vamos! for the second year, a beer made as a salute to the Royals, complete with the branding. Royals imagery has also been used on some of Boulevard’s packaging in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Several other teams have “Official Craft Beer” sponsorships with breweries, so it might not be long before more players are jumping on board with endorsement deals. It’s hard to imagine any brewery, though, partnering with a player whose name lends itself toward easier branding.

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