Tim Hortons Inks Title Sponsorship Deal for NHL All-Star Game

Canadian Chain's Landmark Deal Raises Question -- Will Other Sports Be Next?

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The National Hockey League today announced a deal with Tim Hortons that gives the quick-service chain title sponsorship of the 2012 NHL All-Star Game in January -- a move that will likely ease the path for other leagues who are exploring presenting or title sponsorship deals for their marquee events.

"To me, this falls in the same category of jersey sponsorship -- it's not 'if' but 'when,'" says Bill Glenn, senior VP-managing director for The Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based sports marketing firm.

The NHL has become the first of the four major American stick-and-ball leagues to crack the ice on sponsorship of one of its premier properties. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

All four leagues -- the NHL, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball -- have sold sponsorships around their events. State Farm, for instance, is the title sponsor of the Home Run Derby held the night before baseball's All-Star Game. Sprite sponsors the NBA's Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend. But never has a league given over title sponsorship to the event itself before today.

"I think we've been making strides over the last couple of years in our sponsorship business, and this is the one we've been looking at to blow out," Kyle McMann, VP-partnership marketing for the NHL, told AdAge.com.

While Mr. McMann said he didn't foresee a day when hockey's premier event, the Stanley Cup Finals, would be sponsored, NHL Senior VP-Corporate Sales and Marketing Keith Wachtel said: "Ultimately, we as a league are taking more risks, if you will, than the other leagues. We also have partners that are asking for bigger and better activation windows."

Moreover, the economic climate has made this outcome more likely. "Short of putting a sponsor name front and center on the uniform, anything goes these days. Any opportunity really to sell space and time is probably going to happen," said sports marketing expert Bob Dorfmann, exec creative director at San Francisco's Baker Street Advertising. "I can definitely see title sponsors for major events coming. The Super Bowl Presented by Ford. The World Series Presented by Budweiser. Don't think it's necessarily that far away. The purists will be up in arms a little bit, but the outrage will die down quickly."

"A presenting sponsor of a major championship in the major American sports is not only possible, but likely," said Mr. Glenn. "The economic pressures and reality of what we're seeing across these leagues means they will continue to push the envelope on sponsorships and move toward this uncharted territory."

For now, the Tim Hortons 2012 NHL All-Star Game will serve as the guinea pig. The fit on this one is natural -- there was an actual Tim Horton, and he played in the NHL for 24 years. He opened his first doughnut shop in Ontario, Canada, in 1964. He died in an automobile crash in 1974, and today there are more than 3,000 Tim Hortons restaurants in the U.S. and Canada.

"We believe, as Tim Hortons does, that this opens the opportunity for a sponsor to take an ownership position on an event for the week," Mr. Wachtel said. "What else it leads to remains to be seen."

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