Is NBA's Brand Integration Becoming Too Much for Fans?

Geico Horse Game Sparked Controversy, but Experts Say Audience Is Accepting of Such Ads

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Three of the NBA's top players spelling G-E-I-C-O in a game of Horse. Charles Barkley developing Wolverine claws, just in time for the movie release of the "X-Men" prequel. Reggie Miller showcasing his new BlackBerry courtside.

It seems an NBA fan -- or any sports fan these days -- can't watch a game without a brand being thrust in his or her face. But is all this brand saturation wearing down on viewers who might just want to tune in for a couple hours of relief?

Consider TNT's brand integrations throughout the 2009 season and this week's playoffs, which have prompted more than a few raised eyebrows from the blogosphere, and at least one outright boycott.

Not in position to refuse money
Fanhouse blogger Tom Ziller suggests the NBA, or any league that isn't the NFL, is in less of a position to turn down sponsorship money, regardless of its effect on game play. In a post on TNT's integrated deal with the video game "World of Warcraft" Mr. Ziller wrote, "This isn't to say the NBA or its broadcasters lower standards -- not by any means. There's just some fairly frequent dissonance in the advertising message when juxtaposed to NBA basketball."

Geico's renaming the classic shoot-out game Horse as part of TNT's NBA All-Star coverage in February caught the most flak from fans and bloggers upon announcement, but David Campanelli, VP-director of national TV for Geico's media agency, Horizon Media, said the stunt ultimately garnered positive feedback for the brand.

"We are sensitive to using integrations properly, whether that's live sports or an integration into scripted dramas or anything or anything else," he said. "We have to pay attention to upsetting the viewer as opposed to upsetting the viewer's experience. The Horse game was a bit of a playful event, and it worked in a really beneficial manner to the telecast."

Hard to betray fans
It also takes a lot to betray NBA fans with blatant marketing. Jon Diament, Turner Sports' exec VP-ad sales and marketing, equated the NBA fan to the Nascar devotee in terms of their dedication to the sport. "The fan is getting conditioned to seeing more sponsorship elements. They're incredibly loyal," he said. "If you see a product being advertised in that sport, you reach that person who's very engaged with a team or league they're watching."

And because the sports fan is among the hardest for marketers to reach, particularly the young-skewing males who watch the NBA playoffs, increasing the number of touch points and involvement in the game has become even more crucial. Lisa Delpy Neirotti, co-author of "The Ultimate Guide to Sports Marketing" and a professor of sports management at George Washington University, said research has proven that it takes seven to ten brand impressions to equal one real impression for sports fans.

"Consumers are not necessarily immune to commercialization in sports, but they're accepting of it. Some people say they don't even notice it," she said. "Even though there may be a time clock with a logo on it, people may not be able to recall that. But in the back of their minds, they may have somehow recognized it and will recall seeing it at the store, and the logo will flash back in their mind."

Despite the blogger backlash, the ad influx has had no discernible impact on TNT's ratings, which are up this season to an average 1.5 million viewers, nearly a third of which were men 18 to 34, attracting more integrated sponsors along the way.

Sponsor lineup
Suiting up this week are BlackBerry, which will sponsor a series of vignettes featuring NBA analyst Reggie Miller encouraging fans to answer questions by using one of the devices; AutoTrader.com, which is sponsoring Turner's online fantasy game, where fans can redeem their points on the car-dealer website; Charles Schwab, which will use its "Time to talk" tagline for courtside analysis and interviews with coaches; and Goodyear, which will air a customized commercial that makes use of the tire company's signature blimp.

Oh, and don't forget 20th Century Fox's aforementioned "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which is making appearances in an ad for "Inside the NBA," during which co-host Charles Barkley develops claws like those of the mutant superhero. "The NBA Playoffs are a major part of pop culture, and a great place to promote a high-profile movie," said Michelle Marks, Fox's senior VP-media promotions and theatrical marketing. "The marketing team has done some amazing work with us in the past, and their sales team has been really consistent in pushing the envelope."

Mr. Diament said deals continue to be structured with a keen focus on engagement without too much disruption. "We want to team up with our clients to make sure the integration is very natural for the fan. ... When you see all these sponsorship elements, some of them are actually funny, so it makes for a fun experience of watching an NBA game. Advertisers know they're buying a live in-game event, and we want them to have the same feelings toward the content."

Other returning sponsors this year are McDonald's, Gatorade, DirecTV, T-Mobile, the U.S. Army and the Marines. New sponsors include Sony Pictures, Miller, Dos Equis, KFC, Heineken and Anheuser-Busch.



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