The NBA began its 1995-96 season late last month with two new teams, the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies. And while the league's powerful marketing engine won't reach full speed stateside until later in the season-with another integrated marketing push for its consumer products and a plethora of sponsor activities-the NBA is already working overtime to cultivate a fervent following up north.
The NBA's move into Canada will put Commissioner David Stern's global vision to the test. The NBA already exports its broadcasts to some 170 countries, including a new two-year deal with TV Azteca in Mexico, where the NBA is expected to field a team by the end of the decade. The league also has offices in Hong Kong and Geneva, from which the NBA steers its efforts to develop Asia and Europe into marketplaces for its consumer products and sponsors.
But Mr. Stern has said the NBA's greatest potential is in countries where it can field teams. Canada could provide a stiffer challenge than many countries where basketball is the second most popular sport behind soccer. North of the border, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, and to a lesser extent the Canadian Football League, are entrenched and popular.
Both teams have been successful at scoring sponsors, including Kellogg Canada, Molson Breweries, Labatt Breweries and Shopper's Drug Mart, which has been a very active promotional partner in Toronto.
The NBA has tapped each team's sponsor roster to sign ad deals for national TV carrier CTV. While the league isn't selling national sponsorships yet, Canadian Tire Co. and General Motors Corp. are negotiating to add promotional rights to their media buys. And NBA global partners IBM Corp. and McDonald's Corp. are talking about Canada-specific NBA promotions next season.
The Raptors have proved especially marketing-savvy, teaming with Sears, Roebuck & Co. stores and Cineplex Odeon Corp. theaters last year to conduct a "name the team" contest. The franchise also held a "Raptorfest"-five days of events and activities surrounding the NBA draft, which the team hosted in June.
Kellogg Canada, which sponsors both the Grizzlies and Raptors, has provided a big boost for the NBA. Kellogg splashed the logos of both teams on Rice Krispies packaging in Vancouver and Toronto when the emblems were unveiled last year. Kellogg did it again with Corn Pops in September, also offering NBA trivia and instructions on how to buy tickets.
"The success of the NBA in Canada will depend on its acceptance as a part of everyday life in Canada," said Joanne Parsonage, manager of product publicity at Kellogg Canada, which views the league as a marketing vehicle to reach kids. "To that end, the NBA has used our boxes to put a billboard on breakfast tables in Toronto and Vancouver."
The Raptors and Grizzlies are expected to wallow in mediocrity for several seasons, so both teams are marketing affordability and ancillary in-arena entertainment to woo ticket buyers. The Raptors are selling $5 "Hoops Club" tickets, the cheapest in the league.
The NBA is willing to bide its time and grow Canada slowly but surely. The league is putting together a youth marketing strategy that would include TV programming on Canadian kids TV network YTV, with Kellogg sponsoring.