By Barry Janoff
August 3, 2012: It is a sign of the times — both good and bad — that the USA Men's Basketball Team is in London seeking gold with the support of what has been called the "broadest portfolio of partners" ever.
The good news is that a plethora of major companies have put their resources behind sending the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony to the 2012 Summer Olympics to compete on a world stage.
The negative, for some, is that the situation exemplifies how much corporate involvement is actually necessary to bring to fruition the goal of defeating every other hoops nation in the world. And beyond the realm of supporting America and its athletes, it allows sponsors and marketing partners to have a platform to activate marketing strategies that, ultimately, drive traffic to their companies and create ROI.
Returning USA Basketball partners for 2012 include American Express Cisco, Gatorade, Las Vegas Events, MetroPCS, Got Milk, Nike, State Farm, Right Guard and Tiffany & Co.
New USA Basketball partners this year include Jeep, Burger King, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Jeep, MetroPCS, 24 Hour Fitness and Right Guard.
According to USA Basketball, all the partners had significant presence through such activations as retail presence, player promotions, consumer events, grassroots tours, social media and traditional venues such as TV, radio, print and outdoor.
A good portion of activation also helped to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1992 basketball squad that won a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The "Dream Team" — which included Michael Jordan, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Chris Mullen, Clyde Drexler and Christian Laettner — was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
The 2012 roster going for the gold medal (in alphabetical order): Carmelo Anthony (New York Knicks), Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers), Tyson Chandler (New York Knicks), Anthony Davis (New Orleans Hornets), Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder), James Harden (Oklahoma City Thunder), Andre Iguodala Philadelphia 76ers), LeBron James (Miami Heat), Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves), Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers), Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder) and Deron Williams (Brooklyn Nets). The head coach is Mike Krzyzewski (Duke).
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Aaron Ryan, vp-global marketing and partnerships for the NBA, about how support for USA Basketball is mixing traditional and new media, driving interest worldwide and helping to pave a yellow brick road from Madison Avenue to London and back to the U.S.
NYSportsJournalism.com: How challenging was it leading up to the Olympics to work with returning partners, sign new partners and help coordinate all of the activation that would support the team?
Aaron Ryan: It has been an incredible couple of months on the partnership side. A lot of time was spent getting content up and running and in motion, and then a shift in focus to gear up for the Olympics themselves. What has been so great is that all of our partners have been a vital part of the ride the entire time.
NYSJ: Was having the 2012 Olympic Games coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team a sort of perfect storm for marketing partners?
AR: We have hung our hat on a couple of things. Obviously, the heritage of USA Basketball is incredibly high right now with the 20th anniversary of the 1992 gold medal 'Dream Team.' But we have also hit a great stride here in terms of content and activation with the very creative brands with which we have been working. They are really exercising the full value of their partnerships. Not just attaching their brands to USA Basketball, but going all out to look for creative ways to bring their messages to light while showing their support for the team and the players.
NYSJ: Has part of the challenge been to not only get the messages out to people but also to make certain that those messages resonate, especially with so much marketing happening around the Olympics?
AR: Certainly. But that is a challenge that we have embraced along with all of the partners. There were some messages getting out earlier in the year, but you saw more and more of them activate as the Games got closer. During previous Olympics, what people may have seen the most was a company align with a team and then look for a way to promote their own intellectual property. And in many cases that was the extent of their activation. Now what you are seeing is a lot of energy from our partners, looking not only to support their own messages but work in unison with other partners and players to support the team and support the efforts to win a gold medal.
"We have hit a great stride here in terms of content and activation with the very creative brands with which we have been working."
NYSJ: What are the biggest changes you've seen in activation this year versus previous Olympic years?
AR: Social media is a significant driver where it hasn't been before. But in the overall picture that is only part of the energy we are seeing in marketing. Jeep had test drives at USA Basketball events. We hosted underprivileged kids at practices and exhibition games in Las Vegas and other [pre-Olympic] locations. MetroPCS supported the USA Basketball Dream Team Tour, which went to 15 cities. And a lot of activation where partners brought people closer to the team and the players and made it much more of a personal experience.
NYSJ: How strategic has the Dream Team anniversary been?
AR: We are still in awe of the way our partners activated behind that. Dr Pepper has collectible cans with Dream Team members. Burger King has commemorative cups. Right Guard was the presenting partner of the Dream Team documentary. And just to have the ability to have not only players from the 2012 USA Basketball roster but NBA legends involved has really helped to energize our messages and drive interest.
NYSJ: How important has the social media aspect been?
AR: What has impressed me is not that our partners are using it but to the extent in which they are making it work to connect with fans and consumers. Burger King's 'Your Team, Your Voice' has created a great conversation, offered a first-hand look at what goes on to get the team to the Olympics. Right Guard had a 'Defend the Dream' promotion. AMEX hosted online chats when the team was in Las Vegas that allowed fans to get closer to the court. Cisco used its TelePresence System to connect players with fans on numerous occasions. In fact, I would say that all of our partners used social media to some extent to support and drive marketing. And it helps that our players themselves are some of the most active social media icons and users, which drove the conversation.
NYSJ: How have the players reacted to the activations and promotions?
AR: It certainly is to their advantage [to work with marketing partners] but the amount of access has been incredible. For example, during the course of the week in Las Vegas [when the team was in training], our partners and our partners' clients had an amazing amount of access to events and to the players. We hosted different groups each day, which included our clients and the sweepstakes winners for this partners that activated [those promotions]. Coach Krzyzewski held 'chalk talk' sessions. And we had a reception for all of our partners at which all of the team members were in attendance.
NYSJ: Some of the USA Basketball partners are also NBA partners, so how has this affected those relationships moving forward?
AR: It has improved what I already consider to be dynamic relationships. Working with Cisco, for example, has helped them to authenticate what their promise to their customers is, which is being integral to small businesses. I can't think of a better example of a small business where there are such geographical constraints. USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo lives out west. Coach Krzyzewski is based in North Carolina. And USA Basketball headquarters are in Colorado Springs. So we utilized Cisco TelePresence to bring everyone together. And we have been learning things about what they bring to the relationship and what the NBA wants to see as this alliance progresses, which we will review and potentially implement.
NYSJ: Will these partnerships still be in play after the Olympics?
AR: I can't address each partnership, but there are relationships that extend past the Olympic Games and we are in on-going conversations with each of our partners regarding how we can strengthen and extend them looking forward to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and the FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2014.
NYSJ: How does all of this play into commissioner David Stern and the NBA strongly considering putting sponsor logos on game jerseys beginning with the 2012-14 season [which will be voted on in September]?
AR: It certainly is early in the process. I am not the main person involved in the process [from a partnership side] but I am an anxious observer waiting to see how this evolves over the next couple of months. The NBA and the Developmental League have taken steps with regards to [ads] on practice jerseys. And obviously the WNBA has several teams with jersey-front sponsors. For the NBA, there is still a lot of discussion that will take place. And the reality of it is that there is still a lot to be learned.