With the first annual Leagues Cup tournament featuring every club in MLS and LIGA MX underway (with a major promotional assist from the Inter Miami debut of Lionel Messi), not to mention the official announcement earlier this month of the inaugural NBA Cup in-season tournament, it’s a good time to examine these new events from a brand partnership perspective.
Although interrupting the flow of a league’s regular-season play might take some getting used to for U.S. sports fan traditionalists (if there are any of those left), tournaments are well established in international soccer and a few other sports outside our borders.
And with good reason. They create excitement for current teams, players and fans, have the potential to reach new audiences, and provide additional revenue streams through media, commercial, ticket and merchandise sales.
Looking through the sponsorship lens, these special events represent new marketable assets that rights holders can offer to first-time and existing partners. Beyond newsworthiness and the opportunity to focus fan attention during the long stretch between opening day and the playoffs, sponsorship rights and benefits attached to a tournament provide the opportunity for proprietary activation platforms in the way that similar tentpole events—NBA All-Star Weekend, NHL Winter Classic, NFL Draft, etc.—do.
In the case of Leagues Cup, the alignment with Mexico’s fabled pro league also offers the chance to expand interest in MLS and in tournament sponsors’ products among LIGA MX fans on both sides of the border.
As is always the case with new inventory, the big decision for rights holders regarding sponsorship is what to offer existing league partners. While no one should expect to receive desirable tournament benefits as complimentary added value, current partners should have a first-look opportunity to buy in ahead of their category competitors.
It is safe to assume that the NBA will treat any sponsorship opportunities connected to its November-December tourney that way, given it has complete control of the NBA Cup.
Leagues Cup is a different animal given the involvement of LIGA MX. At the time Molson Coors became the first sponsor of the event last November, Sports Business Journal reported that Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s marketing arm, “is not treating MLS partners as incumbents for Leagues Cup sponsorships and is selling it as a separate property.”
Eight months later the tournament kicked off with nine official partners/products, four of which—Adidas, AT&T, BODYARMOR, and Gillette are also MLS sponsors. Three of the other five are competitors of league partners: Molson Coors, which assigned Leagues Cup rights to its Coors Light beer brand (as well as to its Topo Chico hard seltzer), competes with Heineken; GEICO competes with Allstate in the property/casualty insurance sector; and Netspend and its X World Wallet product compete with Avant in the payment card sector.
The final two partners, the Air Force Reserve and Proximo Spirits’ Gran Centanario Tequila represent possible upsell candidates to fill open categories on the MLS sponsor roster.