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Draft Sponsorships - Sure Thing, Sleeper Pick or First Round Bust?

Draft Sponsorships - Sure Thing, Sleeper Pick or First Round Bust?

Next week the NBA and NHL will hold their annual Entry Drafts. It is a time when fans can regain optimism, look forward to the potential of next season and meet the next crop of stars to join the league. Sports Leagues across North America have taken notice of the growing demand for draft-related content and have transformed the way they have delivered the event to the fans.

In the 1960’s the NFL Draft was held in a hotel conference room which was closed to the public. All of that changed in 1980 when the President of ESPN approached the NFL commissioner with the proposition of televising the draft. That same year, the NBA and NHL televised their drafts as well, which began the process of transitioning the event from a backroom private function to a relevant broadcast property. 

Today, the NFL Draft is crown jewel moment in the sports calendar. Drafts occur in primetime, attract millions of viewers, and galvanize the social media community before, during, and after the event. The development of the draft into a sponsorable asset has created both revenue-generation opportunity for properties and a strong engagement opportunity for corporate sponsors.

Benefits of Draft-Day Sponsorship:

The draft is a unique property with both unique benefits and unique challenges for corporate sponsors seeking to leverage the event for brand-building purposes. Draft-Day sponsorship provides sponsors with the opportunity to:

• Appeal to the Avid Fan: The draft is an event designed for the avid fan. From mock drafts, to prediction shows, to prospect profiles, avids have a high-demand for draft-day experiences and content. Sponsoring a draft is an opportunity for existing league partners to build their equity in the league and engage with those fans most likely to have the highest recall. Local team sponsors can also target avids through sponsored draft night parties.

• Bridge Minor League and Pro Sponsorship: Sponsors of minor leagues or college sports that will see many of its players transition into the professional leagues may look to associate with a draft. For example it may make sense for a sponsor of the CHL to have a presence at the NHL Draft. Many CHL fans will be watching the draft to see where their favourite players are selected.

• Maintain a Year-Round Presence: A draft provides an off-season property which sponsors can use to complement their in-season presence. Depending on the league, the off-season can last anywhere from three to seven months. Drafts provides sponsors with the chance to counteract these long periods of inactivity and create an off-season brand holiday.

• Launch Endorsement Relationships: During the lead up to the draft, much of the focus is on player stories, as leagues and media organizations introduce prospects to fans. To capitalize on this peak awareness for athletes, many brands leverage the draft as launching pad for their endorsement deals with incoming pros. This also allows brands to gain a first mover advantage in the endorsement of a new athlete. During the weeks before this past NFL Draft, brands like Subway, Beats by Dre, Nike, and First Hawaiian Bank all announced their partnership with prospect and 2nd overall pick Marcus Mariota.

League-by-League Rundown:

MKTG takes stock of what sponsors are doing to activate during each league’s draft.

NFL- The NFL’s Draft is the most viewed of the four major sports. This year 7.7 million viewers tuned in, making it the third most watched first round of all time. During the 2015 NFL Draft, a record-high of 24 league sponsors activated. The draft also allows for brands to debut new draft-themed products. Capitalizing on the iconic draft moment of a new player wearing his team’s hat for the first time and posing for pictures, New Era debuted the “Draft Reflective” hat. The hat has a reflective material on the brim which illuminates the team logos and wordmarks when exposed to a camera flash.

NBA- The NBA received the highest demand ever from its partners with eleven brands activating during the last year’s draft. State Farm returned as the presenting sponsor of the NBA draft for the third year. State Farm also released a series of spots around draft time with rookie point guards entitled “Future of the Assist”. In previous spots, State Farm has drawn the parallel between State Farm insurance agents’ commitment to assisting customers and NBA point guards assisting teammates. In these draft specific spots they highlight three point guard prospects to discuss their role in delivering the ball in the right spot to make sure their teammates succeed.

NHL- This year’s NHL Draft is one of the most anticipated in recent years with projected 1st Overall Pick Connor McDavid being hailed as a generational player. Sport Chek (MKTG Client) is providing draft coverage on the Edmonton Oilers website (who own the first pick in the draft). Sports card manufacturer, Upper Deck, will be holding a number of events at the draft next week including a photo booth that allows fans to create their own custom hockey card. With rookie cards being the most sought after cards, Upper Deck is a natural partner.

MLB- Of all the drafts in the four major North American sports leagues, the MLB Draft poses the most challenges for potential corporate sponsors. The draft is held during the season and receives minimal mainstream TV coverage (it wasn’t until 2007 when the MLB Network began televising the Draft). The draft airs during a busy time in the sports calendar, coinciding simultaneously to the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals. The MLB Draft lasts 40 rounds and its format is difficult for the casual fan to understand. Further, new draft picks often do not debut in the major leagues until years after they are drafted, making it difficult for the property and brands to tell athlete stories. Outside of league sponsors like State Farm and New Era having signage on the broadcast, there is little sponsorship activation. 

Risks & Considerations for Corporate Sponsors:

While Draft Day provides a unique storytelling opportunity for sponsors, prospective brands must consider key elements in their attempts to drive value from Draft Day:

1. Fluctuation in Interest Year-over-Year: Not every draft has a LeBron James or a Connor McDavid. Sponsors seeking to build a long-term platform around Draft night must expect viewership to ebb and flow.

2. Niche Appeal: While drafts give brands a chance to engage with avid fans, in certain categories that are less endemic and more targeted to the casual fan, Draft Night may not be on strategy.

3. Be Integrated, Not Interruptive: Draft Night follows a tight schedule and is highly formatted. Sponsors must find the sweet spot where they do not disrupt the flow of the event but can find points of authenticity. NBA partner SAP, who specialize in big data solutions, used the draft as an opportunity to showcase their product. SAP put together a data sheet on incoming players of the 2014 NBA Draft to show how each prospect’s statistics matched up with each other.

A gathering of team personnel deciding on what player to select to join their team may not appeal to all sports fans. However, top sports leagues have worked to make their Draft Day fan friendly and to ensure that Draft Day is anything but a bust for sponsors. 

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