NBA, sponsors score by sticking to one theme

By Published on .

The National Basketball Association Finals are triggering a flurry of marketing from the league and its corporate sponsors under the unified ad theme "Destination Finals."

"The marketing is so different from past years in that we went out and got everybody on a common theme," said Jonathan Press, the NBA's VP-marketing partnerships. "Normally, marketers shy away from this type of thing, but when the league decided to do it, and put its resources behind it, our partners really embraced it."

Though Reebok signed a $250 million deal three years ago to be the exclusive uniform and apparel provider to the league, its ability to capitalize on that agreement is hindered by the rule that only the NBA logo appear on team jerseys, shorts and warm-ups. Reebok has a similar deal with the National Football League, but the sneaker and apparel maker's logo does appear on NFL team uniforms.

Still, Reebok is primed with championship apparel available at retail, including caps and shirts, all bearing its logo. Reebok is also the lone presenting sponsor for the world TV premiere of the award-winning documentary "Hook," June 14 on cable's NBA TV channel.

documentary tie-in

"Hook" is the story of Demetrius "Hook" Mitchell, a playground legend from Oakland, Calif. Mr. Mitchell grew up playing basketball with current NBA stars such as Jason Kidd and Gary Payton, both of whom appear in the film and call Mr. Mitchell the greatest player to never reach the NBA. The documentary chronicles Mr. Mitchell's drug addiction and poor life choices that prevented him from reaching the NBA-including holding up a Blockbuster with a water gun, an event that landed him a four-year prison sentence-and how he now mentors at his old high school.

Reebok also launched a commercial June 6 featuring its newest spokesman, NBA star Yao Ming, but the commercial can only be seen in Mr. Yao's native China and other Asian cities.

trophy effort

American Express, which last year nearly dumped its association with the league until NBA Commissioner David Stern convinced the marketer to better leverage its corporate sponsorships (AA, April 21, 2003), also broke a TV spot via WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York. The spot features Mr. Kidd and fellow NBA star Tim Duncan, with the tagline calling American Express "The Official Card of The Finals."

The league itself, through NBA Entertainment and Mother, New York, has been running a humorous TV campaign that for the first time branded the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy. "We're trying to get the casual fan to recognize the trophy," Mr. Press said.

Other efforts include Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite brand with an ad featuring corporate spokesperson/animated doll Miles Thirst, talking about the trophy; Nokia, which will show highlights from The Finals on its wireless phones; and Verizon Wireless, which is offering text messaging voting for the Most Valuable Player of The Finals.

In addition, Southwest Airlines, Yahoo!, Bud Light, Foot Locker, Spalding, McDonald's and Lego have all been running promotional campaigns since the playoffs began in late April.

It's been good timing-after several years of declining or flat numbers, NBA TV ratings are through the roof.

The Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves on TNT, and the Eastern Conference finals between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers on ESPN were up 32% and 38%, respectively, in ratings compared to last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The May 31 Lakers-Timberwolves game was the most watched basketball game in cable TV history; the June 1 Pistons-Pacers game was the most-watched basketball game on ESPN.

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