For years, title sponsorships for sports events have been the sole domain of major blue-chip companies or local mom-and-pop outfits trying to reach out to their customer base. It's not uncommon to see an oil company's logo on a race car or a major retailer's insignia on Little League uniforms.
Rarely has a cable network competed for such prime slots, even when it televised the event.
But in an effort to better identify itself with the local community and provide more promotional opportunities for its core advertiser base, cable networks are stamping their brands on the sports events that run on their networks.
Executives say the added exposure from sponsoring a local event, team or car benefits both the network and the local cable operator by building name recognition among sports-crazed fans.
Title sponsorships take networks above and beyond the traditional in-stadium or on-the-field advertising that have helped to extend brand names, industry executives said.
While the network may gain added awareness by placing its brand on an arena clock or running ads on a stadium scoreboard, stamping an event with a cable brand often creates a more lasting impression among subscribers.
Such efforts also allow the network to extend its reach beyond hard-core sports fans and into the communities where many of these events take place, network executives added.
In Florida, Sunshine Network sponsors The Sunshine Network Westminster Baseball Classic, a high-profile local high school all-star baseball tournament. This gives the regional sports network greater awareness within the market and among cable subscribers.
To further extend its reach into the community, the network has talked with local leaders about putting its name on the Miami football field that hosts the area's high school tournament.
"What we try to do is target those things that, through association, get our message across," Sunshine Network general manager Jim Liberatore said. "We're really trying to increase our local profile."
Attempting to increase its profile in new markets, Empire Sports Network several years ago became the title sponsor of Empire Sports New York State Pavement Series auto racing. The sponsorship enabled the then-startup regional service to target potential subscribers in upstate markets where the races were held, but where Empire had yet to reach affiliation agreements, marketing director Dean Giopulos said.
While the sponsorship wasn't necessarily a catalyst for eventual MSO carriage deals, Giopulos said once the service was launched, many subscribers were already familiar with the brand through its affiliation with the races.
"It's a good way to get involved in the community, and it gives us some familiarity with the subscribers in the areas that we serve," Giopulos said. "It's a way to get people to know us."
Along with the series sponsorship, Giopulos said that the network also has its logo on some of the cars, as well as on drivers' uniforms.
TELECAST PROVIDER BECOMES SPONSOR
Many of these sponsorships can be developed without an expensive cash outlay from the network.
Fox Sports Northwest is the sponsor of an annual horse-racing event at the famed Emerald Downs racing track in Auburn, Wash. In return for putting its name on The Fox Sports Net Handicap, the network televises several of the track's feature races and provides a highlight show featuring the winners and news from the day's events, network programming manger Amy Affeld said.
"[The sponsorship] provides us with awareness and it helps build the brand throughout the local thoroughbred community," Affeld said. "They came to us to televise the race, but we ended up sponsoring the event through our agreement."
Sunshine also looks to develop media tradeouts with organizations, rather than pay cash for the sponsorship role. Liberatore said the only downside to such a deal is that other organizations want the same type of arrangement. But the only title sponsorships the network will take on are those that benefit its subscribers, cable operators or the teams, he said.
"We're trying to interact with our fans beyond the remote control, and [the sponsorships] are a way to do that," Liberatore said. "They'll remember the Sunshine brand."
Having a brand name that's associated with a high-profile event or arena can provide greater publicity and marketing for a network above and beyond traditional marketing tactics. Through its sponsorship of the Westminster Baseball Classic, Liberatore said the network's name appeared in more local newspaper stories than at any other time during the year.
"When we renew our Orlando Magic [NBA basketball] contract, it gets about three or four lines" in the local paper, Liberatore said. "But with our involvement in the tournament, we'll get at least six or seven articles out of it."
Added FSN Northwest's Affeld: "It gets the brand in the local newspapers when they're covering the race."
Fox Sports Net's sponsorship was also a springboard for the network to seek other title sponsorship opportunities within the state. The network is currently talking to the University of Washington about ways to place its brand on sports-related events from the college.
Affeld also said branding opportunities don't have to be on such a grandiose scale to make an impression. Fox Sports Northwest, for example, is sponsoring a summer baseball team for kids ages 18 and under.
"Tie-ins such as the baseball team are almost just as important as the college or professional tie-ins, because you can really reach your audience on a local level," Affeld said. "Chances are, a lot of subscribers have kids who play in the league or go out and watch the games."
"We'd like to do all different kinds of opportunities because it really helps us develop a relationship within the community and endorses what we do in the local market," she added.
Title sponsorship opportunities through sporting events are not limited to sports networks or televised sports programming.
Encore Media Group LLC earlier this year signed on as a multimillion dollar sponsor for legendary driver Al Unser Jr.'s Indy League race car, and has already received a sizable return for its dollar.
The company, which doesn't offer any sports programming on its multiplexed pay-TV movie services, decided to get involved with Unser in an effort to generate more awareness for the Starz/Encore brand, affiliate marketing vice president Michel Champagne said.
Thus far, the sponsorship has paid off. After only six months, Champagne said the company has already generated more than $3 million worth of promotion through signage on Unser's uniform, his car, and "hero cards" collected by racing fans.
TBS Superstation also tags a National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup Series car with its brand. But instead of representing just the network, the sponsorship often carries the title of a TBS program or subsidiary.
TBS vice president of sports marketing Steven Raab said the car has featured the logo of such TBS programs as Dinner and a Movie or World Championship Wrestling. The car has also featured the brand of TBS sister service Cartoon Network.
"On different weeks we have different sponsorship deals," Raab said. "With the car sponsorship, we can get leverage out of our shows and our networks."
Just as important, TBS offers advertisers a valuable package that includes a co-sponsorship on the car as well as the presenting title on TBS' coverage of the event. For example, America Online Inc. will be the presenting sponsor for TBS' July 23 Winston Cup Series Pennsylvania 500 telecast from Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa.
Along with having its name in the program title, the online company will appear on a tractor-trailer on site at the event, which will have 10 AOL demo stations for attendees to use, Raab said.
AOL will also have its logo on TBS's Ford racing car for three upcoming races, including the Pennsylvania 500. Through the race car sponsorship, Raab said the company can provide advertisers with a much broader promotional package that goes beyond traditional TV spots.
"Instead of just buying spots in the program, advertisers get a more comprehensive promotion for their dollar," Raab said. "It certainly gives us some leverage against other TV networks. If we can develop extensions that make the package more valuable to them, then the sponsorship becomes that much more valuable to us."
Beyond reaching advertisers, title sponsorship opportunities also help networks foster better relationships with affiliates.
Champagne said Encore's affiliation with Unser, who races in the Indy Racing League series, has allowed the network to entertain many of its affiliates at different racing events. Encore often stretches a trip to the event into a two- or three-day excursion, providing affiliates with a host of activities leading up to the race.
"We can take affiliates to the racetrack and entertain them," Champagne said. "It allows us to do different things to develop relationships with our affiliates."
Affiliates have responded positively. Champagne said that the company was able to attract more than 250 affiliates to the Indianapolis 500 in May and 200 people to a local race in Colorado Springs, Colo., last month. "We get to have meetings with people that ordinarily we don't get to meet that often," he said.
Encore also provides tickets for affiliates in markets where races are held to reward customer-service representatives and other system workers for good efforts. The company also runs several 30- and 60-second spots on its pay TV service to promote the race-car affiliation, and to drive visitiors to Encore's web site to find out more about the Indy series and the networks.