NY wises up to dosh’n’Becks effect on its new jersey backs

US sporting bodies are belatedly exploiting their commercial potential but the Super Bowl shows that broadcasters are quicker off the mark.

New York is also a city that loves winners. You’d expect it to love winners. It’s an extremely competitive place with an abundance of natural talent, determination and endeavour. But, of course, it follows that New Yorkers probably couldn’t care less about losers.

This is a problem if you’re a New York sports fan right now, because none of the local teams – or franchises, as they are sometimes called – in the major sports (American football, basketball and baseball) is doing very well.

Even in baseball, where the New York Yankees is owned by the high-spending George Steinbrenner (parodied in the TV sitcom Seinfeld for his madcap behaviour), the team wins divisional championships but hasn’t snagged the World Series it really wants for several years.

So, with the Knicks (basketball), Giants and Jets (American football), Mets (baseball), Islanders and Rangers (ice hockey) all underachieving, maybe New Yorkers should look to soccer and the New York Red Bulls, who play in the Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Eastern Conference. The Red Bulls are so named because the Austrian maker of the Red Bull drink bought the New York/New Jersey Metro Stars in a $100m (£51.7m) deal in 2006 and changed the team’s name.

The US sports industry invented or perfected many everyday features of modern sports marketing. Household names like Nike, Converse and leagues such as the NBA and the NFL have shown how to create major brand equity with stars such as Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.

This is why I was surprised when an American friend pointed out to me the other day while watching an “EPL” match (that’ll be the English Premier League) that he found it odd that the teams had sponsors’ names on their shirts. “So who are these Emirates guys?” he asked of Arsenal, which is sponsored by the airline of that name.

Behind the Times
Indeed, it seems the idea of jersey (as a shirt is known here) sponsorship hasn’t been thought possible in any major US league until now. As from this spring, the MLS will be the first major team league in the country to display corporate logos or ads on the front of jerseys, for a minimum of $500,000 (£258,000). The MLS is already ahead of other US leagues by allowing advertising on the back of jerseys by brands such as Sierra Mist, Budweiser and Honda.

It’s worth noting that major leagues like the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have a more centralised control of what clubs can do with jerseys and other marketing opportunities because – unlike football clubs in Europe – they operate under a franchise system.

The MLS, for example, operates as a single entity, with investors owning all the teams jointly, and players signing contracts with the league.

The Red Bulls’ ownership of its New York team already allows it to be one step ahead of other brands by enabling it to have its logo on the front of the shirt as part of its design, for which it reportedly had to lobby hard with the MLS.

The baseball and football leagues have been reported to be considering jersey sponsorship, but from a cultural point of view it will take Americans some time to get used to the idea. The New York Times recently described team jerseys in professional sport as “sacrosanct”. It highlighted the prospect of the Mexican company Grupo Bimbo sponsoring the MLS team Chivas USA with the legend “bimbo” emblazoned across its jerseys.

Of course, MLS has become even bigger news in the past week after the news that former England captain David Beckham will move to the Los Angeles Galaxy team in a move many have estimated to be worth up to $250m (£129m).

A Modest Investment
The Beckham move highlights the growing influence of sponsorship, advertising and marketing in modern sports. In Beckham’s case, if you include things like image rights, jersey sales and a share in ticket revenues, $250m doesn’t seem such an outrageous figure – as the New York Times said a couple of weeks before the Beckham move was confirmed, “Consider what the Los Angeles Galaxy team can expect a sponsor to offer if the club signs the English star David Beckham.”

In the past few years, Beckham has easily been one of the most recognisable sports personalities in the world alongside the likes of Tiger Woods, but has probably never come close to the earning potential of US athletes such as Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, or Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees.

But with the extravaganza that is the NFL Super Bowl XLI just a fortnight away in Miami, Beckham is not the biggest story in US sports marketing right now. The Super Bowl is the nation’s highest-rated TV programme each year, with more than 141 million viewers watching the 2006 game across the country. This year’s event will be broadcast to a potential worldwide audience of 1 billion in more than 230 countries.

The Super Bowl is also a big showcase for US sports TV advertising, and US advertising in general. The campaigns planned to run during the flagship event get just as much press as the 48 minutes of football.

It’s a major event here, with people attending Super Bowl parties discussing the ads with nearly as much fervour as the action.

For all the talk about the death of TV advertising, the Super Bowl continues to defy commercial gravity with ad rates rising at a healthy rate each year.

Network broadcaster CBS is carrying the event this year, and airtime is being sold for up to $2.6m (£1.34m) for a 30-second slot, which CBS says is comparable with, if not higher than, last year when the ABC network carried it.

Despite the rising cost of ad spots during the event, as far back as mid-December CBS claimed it had already sold 80% of its advertising inventory, with only the less attractive slots around the fourth quarter of the game remaining.

The fourth quarter is traditionally less attractive to advertisers because the Super Bowl is rarely a nail-biting affair, and the winner is usually evident by the end of the third quarter, when viewers typically turn their attention to their party snacks and conversation.

The advertisers so far include Anheuser-Busch, Manchester United sponsor AIG, General Motors’ Chevrolet, Diamond Foods’ Emerald Nuts, Federal Express, PepsiCo, Honda, CareerBuilder.com and GoDaddy.com.

If there is a trend to advertising at this year’s Super Bowl, it would have to be “user-generated”.

The NFL ran a competition for fans to “Pitch Your Idea for the Best Super Bowl Commercial Ever. Seriously.” The fans picked an ad supporting the Super Bowl from around 1,700 entries submitted by competition entrants to its website.

Meanwhile, General Motors launched a Chevy Super Bowl College Ad Challenge, inviting college students to submit ideas for a Super Bowl ad featuring Chevrolet’s new models. The winning ad, created by a student team, and produced by Chevrolet, will air during the event.

Home-made Advertising
Snackmaker Doritos is also getting in on the user-generated act by letting the public produce home-made ads to be shown during its super-expensive airtime. It is wading through more than a thousand entries to its crashthesuperbowl.com site to try to decide a winner.

Even those taking a more traditional approach such as Pepsi are encouraging some sort of audience participation by offering football fans the chance to win a unique diamond-, rubyand sapphire-encrusted Super Bowl Edition Pepsi can, and tickets for life. Pepsi, which has been a sponsor for the past five seasons, says the jewelled can is worth around $100,000 (£51,687). Pepsi is also sponsoring the Super Bowl Halftime Show, which will feature Prince.

The New York Jets and the Giants will not be there as they dropped out relatively early on in the play-off, but that won’t stop the US and its advertising community having another great Super Bowl night, a couple of Sundays from now.

• Yinka Adegoke is a New York-based business journalist. us.column@gmail.com

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