As it Battles Beats, JBL Inks First NBA Player Endorsement

Deal With Damian Lillard Follows League-Wide Sponsorship

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Credit: JBL

JBL has found its point guard as it takes on Beats in the sports-endorsement game. Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard will become a "brand ambassador" for the Harman International-owned audio brand as part of a new deal.

Mr. Lillard is the first player signed by Harman since the company inked a multiyear sponsorship with the NBA last year that made it the league's official headphone, speaker and audio partner. The first-of-its-kind pact marked a significant move by the company to gain some sports credibility in a category dominated by Beats by Dre.

Harman did not disclose the terms of its deal with Mr. Lillard, other than to say it was a multi-year agreement. The pact was negotiated separately from the NBA sponsorship and will likely to be followed by more player deals. Harman wants a "portfolio of players" so "we can really be integrated and authentic to the sport," said Harman Chief Marketing Officer Ralph Santana.

JBL will consider using Mr. Lillard in TV ads and for marketing events, including in-store appearances and business-to-business gatherings. He might also assist with product development, Mr. Santana said.

Sports marketing has emerged as a valuable tool for image-conscious electronics brands. Headphones are "the new sneaker," said Ben Arnold, who covers consumer electronics for market research group NPD. "You see players walking to the arena from the bus -- they all have headphones," he said. And "a lot of those headphones are Beats." So "I think it makes sense for companies like JBL get a larger presence on these players," he added.

The potential power of player endorsements was on display Friday when Mr. Lillard touted his new JBL deal to his more than 1 million Instagram followers. He posted a photo that showed him giving away free JBL headphones to his teammates as they get ready for the NBA Playoffs.

Apple-owned Beats dominates the U.S. headphone market with 33% dollar share, followed by Bose with 10% share, according to NPD. Mr. Arnold said JBL has only has about 1% share. Beats also has the backing of the NBA's biggest star, LeBron James, who has appeared in Beats TV ads.

But with its NBA deal, JBL gains certain marketing advantages over Beats. For instance, because of the NBA sponsorship Mr. Lillard could theoretically wear his Trail Blazers jersey in ads. But Mr. James cannot wear his Cleveland Cavaliers jersey in spots for Beats under NBA rules.

When it comes to on-court headphone wearing, the playing field is fairly even: According to longstanding NBA rules, players are not permitted to wear headphones of any kind starting 18 minutes before tip-off, or during post-game press conferences.

As part of Harman's broader NBA deal, JBL -- which touts itself as the "official sound of the NBA" -- has begun selling headphones and speakers that include team logos. But Mr. Santana said the rationale for the deal extends beyond "product and players." It is "really about tapping into the lifestyle and culture of [the NBA]," he said. "Music really is endemic to sports."

Indeed, some of Harman's early NBA moves have merged hoops and music. For instance, JBL served as the presenting sponsor of the NBA's "entertainment series" during this year's All-Star Game, which included appearances by Christina Aguilera and Ariana Grande.

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