What Beats' new NBA sponsorship means for its marketing

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Headphone marketer Beats by Dr. Dre counts some of the biggest names in the National Basketball Association as endorsers, including LeBron James, James Harden, Draymond Green and Ben Simmons. But if you look closely at their ads, none of the stars are shown wearing their actual NBA uniforms—because Beats competitor Harman has owned those rights since inking an NBA sponsorship in 2014.

That will change this season as Beats takes over for Harman. The NBA announced the multiyear deal today. It makes Beats the official headphone, wireless speaker and audio partner of the NBA, WNBA, NBA G League and USA Basketball beginning in October 2018. So in the next Beats ad starring James, he could very well be suited in his Los Angeles Lakers gear.

The deal means that Beats can do marketing surrounding major events like the NBA All-Star Game and the NBA Draft. Beats also plans to launch NBA team-branded headphones. Harman—which had marketed itself as the "official sound of the NBA"—had offered its own "NBA Collection" lineup of team-branded headphones that it now will no longer be able to sell nationally.

The NBA did not release financial terms of its Beats deal. The league and brand touted the sponsorship today with a video mashup showing James, Harden and other stars, shown above.

What you won't see this season is players wearing Beats headphones in the lay-up line before games. That's because league rules prohibit players from wearing headphones immediately before games. They can wear them at shoot-arounds well in advance of the game, or in the locker room before and after games. But players are free to wear whatever brand they want at those times. So Harman, whose brands include JBL, might still be able to steal some exposure via its individual player deals.

Beats plans to use its deal to leverage the pop-culture cachet of NBA stars. Players exert influence not just via their clothing and shoe choice, but the music they listen to and how they listen to it.

"The NBA and its players have long been significant drivers of global culture," Luke Wood, president of Beats by Dr. Dre, said in a statement. "Basketball, music and style speak as one voice: Julius Erving became a style icon, Allen Iverson cemented hip hop's place on and off the court and LeBron James is breaking new music every day...the list goes on and on."

Harman declined to comment specifically on the Beats deal but said: "We have always had a strong relationship with the league and will continue to work closely with the NBA, NBA teams and NBA players to bring fans one of a kind experiences around the sport we all love. In the next coming weeks, we'll be sharing news about how our relationship is evolving."

A Harman spokeswoman confirmed the marketer will continue its endorsement deal with Steph Curry.

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