NBA franchises are working hard to monetize their brands worldwide, especially after the league quietly altered its international marketing rules six months ago.
The NBA has expanded its International Team Marketing Plan to allow as many as 10 international sponsors or partners outside of the U.S. and Canada, the league confirmed. Three had been the prior limit.
The approval allows teams to tap into a wider pool of sponsorship opportunities while accelerating the league’s push to grow global revenue and fan engagement. While internationally based companies can do business with the NBA for the first time with help from this expansion, the changes could also aid domestic partners who are seeking to expand their own global presence.
Stacy McWilliams, the NBA’s senior vice president of team marketing and business operation, said that there’s been a significant increase in time spent on international strategies since the changes were approved at the Board of Governors meetings in April.
“The expansion has allowed [teams] to put forward a thoughtful approach in how they’re investing and what deals they’re looking at,” McWilliams said in a phone interview.
In making deals, teams are able leverage the global reach of their international corporate partners, with a bevy of opportunities including marketing via non-game, behind-the-scenes content, and on partners’ digital and social media platforms. Teams can ink international deals as long as they don’t conflict with NBA International commercial agreements or the protected categories that belong to NBA China partners, which are under a separate arrangement.
The NBA didn’t announce the program changes, which are a result of the program’s initial success and an attempt to recoup corporate marketing momentum in the wake of the pandemic. While some teams have begun seeking new deals, most are holding out because activating and optimizing such partnerships requires time and money for everything from community outreach to marketing campaigns in international markets.
The new rules might have the greatest impact on jersey-patch sponsorships, which have delivered a windfall since the league launched the program in 2017. The three-year pilot program has since been extended, and teams can now sell real estate on both their practice jerseys and shooting shirts. The success of the original pilot jersey-patch program inspired the international program, which started in 2019 when teams were allowed up to two ITMP slots. The program was modified last year to allow teams up to three ITMP slots and the ability to do team-branded court installations or refurbishments.
Among teams, the Golden State Warriors have been particularly good at leveraging their domestic success to mine a wider sponsor base. The team signed a jersey-patch sponsor deal with Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten in 2017 and recently supported that partnership by playing on a Rakuten-branded court in the Japan Games. An earlier ITMP deal with cryptocurrency exchange FTX, based in Nassau, Bahamas, showed how the program can open opportunities in emerging categories.
Other teams have eyed South Korea, Brazil, Australia, and Germany as countries to activate and market with commercial partners. More than half of the league’s teams already have ITMP deals, and several have multiple ITMP partners, according to McWilliams.
Companies based in China are also allowed to ink deals with teams and may be on the horizon to fill the extra partner slots, despite backlash the league and its owners have received for its business dealings with the communist country. New deals can’t infringe on the league’s centralized program with NBA China, which is now valued at $5 billion, according to ESPN.
The NBA announced on Tuesday that 120 international players from 40 countries are on opening-night rosters this season. Just a few years ago, the league controlled international sponsorship inventory, but it has changed direction since by continuing to loosen up restrictions. It comes at a pivotal time as the league begins playing games abroad again. The teams that are ultimately looking to take advantage of the ITMP program expansion understand that their push to grow their brand worldwide is a long-term play, which will require diligence, strategy and maybe most importantly, investment.
(This post has been updated in the 10th paragraph to clarify the number of teams with ITMP deals.)