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Sports Branding In The Age Of Sponsorship

July 24, 2017

DODGER STADIUM 01.jpgWord is out that my beloved Los Angeles Dodgers are seriously thinking of selling off their naming rights. For those of you who aren’t fans, the Dodgers pro baseball team, after decades as perennial front-runners, have weathered some recent years (also decades!) of painful underperformance. When new management took over four years ago, fans were promised the team would rise again to its former glory. But who knew it would happen so fast? This year’s team is dominating its division and its league. If you love baseball, it’s a great year to be a Dodger fan. But keeping any team at championship level year after year takes money. Dodger management would be remiss if they failed to sleuth out every possible revenue stream. And that means they’ll have to finally do what every other sport has been doing for years – let somebody else pay to slap their name on stuff around eponymous Dodger Stadium.

Sponsored advertising and promotion in baseball is nothing new. Billboards in the outfield? Hey, that’s part of baseball’s tradition. But any Angeleno can tell you the city would riot if they tried to rename Dodger Stadium itself. And they must have tested that idea because Dodger management bent over backwards to assure fans that such a move would never happen. No, it’s the field that will be sponsored – the field – not the stadium – just the field! Got it? The field!

But, to long-time fans, even this feels a little awkward. Imagine hearing, “Your Los Angeles Dodgers, playing today on Chock Full O’ Nuts Field at Dodger Stadium!” Or Etsy Field. Or Viagra Field. There are sponsors and then there are sponsors that make sense. Naming rights can’t just go to the highest bidder.

BTW: I highly recommend, in case they have somehow failed to consider it, that the Dodgers make a deal with Farmer John, a local meatpacking enterprise since 1931. Farmer John has been a long-time Dodger sponsor, promotional partner and supplier of the world famous hot dogs sold in the stadium named, of course, Dodger Dogs.

“Farmer John Field at Dodger Stadium.”

That’s something the fans would accept – and even welcome. (Here’s hoping Farmer John has stuffed enough cash under his mattress that he can afford to do this.)

But this is the real world and naming rights usually do go to the deepest pockets. Farmer John can easily be out-bid by any number of nouveau riche tech behemoths. But stadiums and teams should not let the money blind them to their own brands, to their own purposes. Remember, it’s all about delivering enjoyable customer experiences. Without that, it’s game over.

In sports, of course, superior customer experience means win, win, win. Fans will accept anything if their team is kicking ass. But in any given year, most teams are not winning. Those are the years you need to focus on the little things, to make even a disappointing season fun. For instance, much as I love them, I find it hard to watch the LA Galaxy because their players have to wear that embarrassing Herbalife logo on their chests. It hurts even more when they’re losing.

STAPLES_Center.jpgA similar fate almost befell STAPLES Center. Boardwalk was retained to name the arena and develop its visual identity system. Our deliberations led us to believe the word Center should be a part of the name and the client agreed. Case study here. So all we had to do was wait for the naming rights partner to be identified. Then we could get on to designing the logo. We were excited. Here was this brand new, beautiful structure waiting to be built with it’s dynamic, sweeping contours, all green glass and steel, ready to usher Los Angeles into the 21st Century. Who would fill in the blank of _________ Center? Nike would make sense. Sony would make sense.

Instead, we got an office supply store. This – is who’s going to bring nightlife back to downtown Los Angeles? You couldn’t make a more boring choice. Worse yet, their logo was a red rectangle, a shape and color completely alien to the arena’s beautiful architecture. And, according to the unsmiling lawyers, the logo could not be altered in any way.

Luckily, we were able to make it work to the satisfaction of our client, the naming rights partner and the fans. STAPLES Center, as a brand, has done pretty well over the years. When people think of STAPLES Center they think of the basketball and hockey, not of file folders and paper clips. I’m not saying Staples was a bad choice as a naming rights partner. No. I’m just saying, given the developer’s stated goals, there were plenty of better options at hand. Options that would have sped them to their goals faster and with longer-lasting benefits. But those options might have required leaving some money on the table.

Since the O’Malley family sold the team, the Dodgers have tended to lose touch with the values that made them darlings of the city. Values like tradition, teamwork, selflessness, family, loyalty, citizenship and just plain, old all-American fun. To their credit, the new owners seem to be trying to reconnect with those touchstones. And making the suggested sponsorship arrangement with Farmer John would help them. If such a deal can’t be worked out, I strongly urge them to find a sponsor who also embodies those ideals. That’s the only way to ensure the Dodger brand maintains its soul, and its value, once it has to sport somebody else’s logo.

The same could be said for the new sports and entertainment complex being built by the LA Rams in Inglewood, or any other sports brand, for that matter. You’re better off, in the long run, granting naming rights to a partner that is aligned with your ideals, your passion and your vision for the future. That’s how you build a bond with the city – even if it means taking a dollar or two less.


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