In seeking out and evaluating sponsorship opportunities, marketers look to align with rights holders that reinforce or enhance brand value. For well-known and popular brands, as well as challengers seeking to up their game, that has long meant prioritizing partnerships with the largest and most recognized sports leagues.
But recently, the lines have blurred significantly between the biggest and “best” properties such as the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, IOC, FIFA, etc. and what have been known as second-tier sponsorship opportunities.
While these smaller organizations still may not deliver the audience reach of the big dogs, they are leveling the playing field when it comes to offering top-notch partnership benefits and activation opportunities of the kind once reserved for the upper echelons of sport—and at a presumably lower price.
Recent news from the WNBA in advance of its just-concluded season-opening weekend provides a relevant example.
- On Wednesday, the league announced that CarMax, an existing WNBA partner, would increase its commitment by becoming a Changemaker—the league’s top sponsorship level—joining AT&T, Google, Deloitte, Nike and U.S. Bank. The program, initiated in 2020, is a model commercial partnership platform designed to attract companies that are not merely seeking a branding exercise, but that instead want to “significantly enhance the player experience and drive the business transformation” of the WNBA.
- Last Monday, after an 18-month development period in collaboration with league sponsor Deloitte, the WNBA unveiled a transformed app and website that rival those of any other major sports organization in terms of functionality, content and UX.
- Two days earlier, the league announced an expansion of its official marketing partnership with Meta that will make 20 live regular-season games available on Meta Quest VR headsets in Meta Horizon Worlds and in the XTADIUM app.
The latter news, which follows on the heels of the NBA’s similar agreement with Meta, includes designating the company as the official VR headset of the WNBA and will see league-licensed virtual apparel become available in the Meta Avatars Store shortly, meaning fans will be able to purchase team apparel for their Meta Avatar and showcase it across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and on the Meta Quest VR platform.
While not dismissing the increased reach and impact of a partnership with one of the “Big Four” leagues, it’s easy to conclude that a cost-benefit analysis of a WNBA partnership done today would be much more positive than one done just a few years ago, and that should certainly pique the interest of budget-conscious marketers in today’s economy.
Not to mention that in some cases the benefits offered by the WNBA—and other rights holders of a similar size that also have improved their offerings to brands–may exceed what some of the larger players can offer. Take the developments with VR as an example.
The WNBA, NASCAR, UFC, EuroLeague and others are striking deals with Meta and other VR providers to directly stream games in virtual reality, giving them some control over sponsor integrations and how they might be monetized.
Compare that to the agreement Meta concluded last month with Peacock to make the streaming service, including its live NFL and MLB games, available to U.S. customers via Meta Quest headsets. As sports technology expert Andy Marston said in his Sports Pundit column last week, “The momentum behind the tech suggests those two leagues, and others that have bundled VR rights into broader agreements, may be missing out on a potentially lucrative opportunity…”
Providing brands with benefits not available from larger players on top of offering other first-rate assets and lower costs clearly shows that many second-tier properties are no longer second-class citizens in the world of sponsorship.