While you may not have watched a single NBA match on television last season, the brand will likely have still cut through to you through a LeBron James replica jersey, an LA Lakers T-shirt or a Chicago Bulls cap.
The fact that the NBA’s collection of distinctive and recognisable team logos look good on clothes has been a tool not just for boosting revenue but also for expanding and building the brand in emerging markets such as Britain.
With global sports licensing sales hitting $25bn last year, according to the LIMA Annual Global Licensing Survey, the NBA has leveraged a global following to gain a significant slice of that pie by putting its merchandise for sale in 125,000 shops across six continents and in 100 countries.
“Merchandise is the best extension that we have of our brand and the way that fans can interact with our brand when you can’t get to a game or watch a game,” NBA’s vice president of global merchandising in EMEA, Vandana Balachandar, told City A.M. at the Brand Licensing Europe event in London.
Balachandar works with over 50 licensees of the NBA brand across the region, including Warner Bros Consumer Products who will use its IP on Looney Tunes toys, events and content — a deal designed to drive interest in basketball amongst children in basketball’s new markets.
“It allows us to talk to our fans in a different way, with a fun twist on it,” says Balachandar. “It allows us to teach kids in EMEA about basketball in a really fun way.”
The NBA already enjoys the kind of global recognition that would be the envy of other sports: the league regularly attracts TV audiences in the millions in China, has staged games in 18 different countries and currently boasts 100 players from overseas.
Yet an April decision to allow teams to sell their own shirt sponsorships for the first time has only found two suitors to date from the league’s 30 franchises.
“A small patch — so not covering the brand of the Lakers or Celtics — will appear in a smaller but still prominent way,” is how Balachandar describes the sponsorships.
Teams are said to be negotiating issues surrounding potential conflicts with endorsements belonging to star players, who have long negotiated their own sponsorship deals.
Yet Balachandar does not expect the NBA’s international merchandising treasure trove to be threatened by the appearance of corporate logos because the league has kept sponsors off merchandise and jerseys at retail.
For Britain in particular, the third biggest market for the NBA in EMEA, that means the league can keep spreading its sport through caps and backpacks.
“The UK is a really healthy market where basketball is very popular and growing,” says Balachandar. “There’s tremendous opportunity. Video games is a big business in the UK and then it’s just fashion. We’re a big fashion brand. People resonate with the colours, the teams, the logos and the looks and it’s been a huge business for us.”