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The National Basketball Association and the National Football League are charging into direct marketing via their new credit card sponsors.

The NBA's three-year, $30 million deal with AmEx, finalized this month, gives the league entry into direct marketing, one of the few disciplines the marketing-savvy NBA has yet to develop.

The same can be said for the NFL, which last month signed a five-year, $50 million deal with Visa USA, replacing AmEx as its charge/credit card sponsor.

While the NBA did team with Visa this spring for a retail promotion, the league has been without an official charge/credit card sponsor since its deal with MasterCard International expired in 1989.

"We've always been very willing to wait for the right deal," said David Schreff, president of the marketing and media group within NBA Properties. "AmEx and the NBA share a common global integrated marketing vision. We see great opportunities in leveraging their assets, specifically their cardholder base and the variety of highly targeted product offerings."

In the future, AmEx cardholders will receive with their monthly statements NBA schedules, ticket offers and catalogs for special licensed merchandise not offered at NBA retailers like Foot Locker and Champs.

The NBA will also create customized promotions for different types of AmEx customers. So expect separate NBA programs for AmEx's Green, Gold, Platinum and even Corporate cardholders.

Visa is currently finalizing its NFL-themed direct marketing efforts with its 20,000 member banks. Visa will add NFL merchandise and tickets in its "Visa Rewards" program; stuff billing statements with coupons for NFL merchandise as part of its "Instant Rewards" program; and include the NFL in its college direct marketing program, "Visa Student Breaks," offering students special discounts at selected retailers. Visa is also mulling a direct marketing campaign to support its new stored-value card products that will be tested at next year's Super Bowl and Pro Bowl.

Competition in the credit card category has become increasingly fierce, with companies feeling more pressure to get new and more targeted products into the marketplace quicker. An AmEx or Visa can use the large, loyal and passionate fan base of the NBA or NFL to test products while also driving sales.

Visa is also a USA Basketball/Dream Team sponsor and a $40 million worldwide Olympic sponsor. AmEx has relationships with DisneyWorld and the NBA.

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