Building 'Brand NBA'

David Stern Looks to China as Growth Market

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NEW YORK ( -- Commissioner David Stern, who has been called his league's de facto CMO, is all about "Brand NBA." And like any good marketer, he is trying to grow the brand. One market is China, where the league is already expanding at a quick pace and is devoting its resources to expand even faster through marketing partnerships, television, digital media and retail.
David Stern
David Stern Credit: Darryl Estrine

Ad Age: You're coming off one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Is there such a thing as "Brand NBA," and how do you marry that with the fact that so many great players are individual brands unto themselves?

Mr. Stern: Yes. "Brand NBA" is about the players and the teams and the best basketball in the world. ... If you take a step back, it's an always-renewable source of branding as players come and players go. New talent is coming in at a young age, or through a minor-league call-up, or even another continent. It's a continually evolving brand because of the ups and downs of teams and the flow of players.

Ad Age: Do you find that the sports world is different from other marketers because of this?

Mr. Stern: Well, look at this can [holds up a soda can]. You can define it, you can give its brand essence, you can give it a brand value. But we have something that at the same time is branded but has extraordinary content. It is content that is delivered as an extraordinary entertainment experience. It's a very complex brand. Every brand is probably complex, but the many faces of sports make it much more interesting.

Ad Age: But it is complex because it does evolve from year to year, generation to generation?

Mr. Stern: It's complex because I liken our 29 arenas to theme parks, and what goes on there is a brand of some kind. ... It's the ultimate reality show on and off the court. In addition to that, it's extraordinary content on a global scale that implicates everything from over the air, cable satellite, internet, wireless and video-on-demand. It's a complex series of expressions delivered in the most extraordinary series of ways.

Ad Age: The NBA for years has led the way in tapping into the global market. Any future plans?

Mr. Stern: We will replicate NBA Europe [training camp] again by 2009. The visit by two teams to China, which we did in 2004, will likely be replicated in 2007 and possibly in 2008. I would say that our business in China, which is expanding at an enormous pace, will lead us to devote immense resources to grow it even faster with respect to marketing partnerships, television, digital media, retail. ... It's a very fertile market.

Ad Age: It's been said that you're the de facto CMO of this league. Are you? You had a VP-marketing who was hired last April and left in August and hasn't been replaced. Are you the chief marketing officer?

Mr. Stern: We have such an extraordinary number of people who come to work every day that do, and oversee marketing, that it's easy for me to say that I am the de facto marketing person. But I'm not. ... We will be replacing [the VP-marketing position], but because of the quality of people we have we're not pressured on a daily basis. We recognize the value of the job.

Ad Age: How did you navigate your way with Spalding, one of your major sponsors, in going to them and saying you wanted to go back to the old ball? [The NBA went to a synthetic basketball to start the season, but the players complained and on Jan. 1 went back to the old leather ball.]

Mr. Stern: We have a high degree of trust. Spalding has been a spectacular partner. We realized there was a problem and we worked together. ... I am very much still personally involved with our partners and our business relationships, whether its Coca-Cola or McDonald's or Lenovo, I am involved. But in many of those, symbolically. ... One area where I am spending a lot of my time on is the march of technology combined with globalization. One drives the other.

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