Thursday, June 04, 2009

And Now...Your Phoenix Mercury, Presented by Lifelock

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we're always ready for Game 1 no matter how much time we've had off since our last series. And media discussion of teams' time off between series? Non-existent.

The WNBA's Phoenix Mercury are now presented by Lifelock. No joke (photo at right shows star player Diana Taurasi with Lifelock CEO Todd Davis).

In a first-of-its-kind corporate/sports partnership deal including a major U.S. "big four sport" team, Lifelock obtained the rights to launch the first-ever branded jersey, among other terms. So, effective immediately, you won't see "Mercury" on the front of the team's jerseys. You'll see "Lifelock" instead. There will still be a small Mercury logo on the front, but the average Joe on the street who doesn't follow the WNBA will probably think they're the Lifelocks.

These days, teams are doing just about anything to make some more money and make themselves more attractive to corporate marketers. But no team had gone to these lengths and sold the name on its jersey before this week. Will this start a domino effect - will we see other teams in the WNBA and beyond put a company name on the front of their jersey? (Editor's Note: as of June 9, the Los Angeles Sparks also inked a deal with Farmers Insurance) Or is the jersey sacred enough that this is a one-hit wonder? Time will tell. But, to me, the question now is: should teams do this or not? What decision is best for the franchise?

This issue, to me, is all about branding. Of course, brands are the sets of experiences, reputations and associations that customers have with companies, people or other entities. Any professional marketer knows that a company's brand is an incredibly important asset. It takes great amount of time and sustained effort to build a successful brand, yet brands can implode from a single event. If cash is the lifeblood of a business, the brand is definitely its face.

So how does branding enter into the world of sports? I think a team's name doubles as their brand. Sure, attributes of that brand can be a player, a style of play, a stadium/venue, etc. But ultimately, "The Yankees," "the Cowboys," "the Lakers" and "the Mercury" are brands, just like Coca-Cola, Microsoft or Disney.

Applied to this situation, the Mercury as a franchise have built an identity among a community of people according to that name/brand, as they've operated under that name for their entire existence. The team isn't changing its name in this deal, but it does now have a new name on its jersey. As a result, the team is essentially re-branding itself - or, at the very least, it risks confusing everyone about the true identity of the team and what it stands for.

Sure, maybe the team hadn't been making a lot of money before, and sure, teams have moved to new markets and changed names quite often in all leagues. But this is different - the Mercury didn't move, and its new "name" is a corporate one. Needless to say, this is a huge risk. It may work out well, and it will surely generate revenue in the short term, but my hunch is that people may backlash against a more corporate influence in professional sports. I also believe that the team's brand will suffer, and that it may go through a sort of identity crisis. Put another way, if someone looks at the Mercury on the court and thinks they're the Lifelocks, who really are they? What they're not, by name, is a professional basketball team - instead, they're a bunch of identity theft protectors playing a basketball game. As a result, my initial read on this is that it's a negative for the team and the league in the long-term.

This is why other parts of the announcement release should be concerning to fans of the WNBA. Commissioner David Stern is quoted in the Mercury/Lifelock news release as saying the partnership is " important next step in the growth of the WNBA. We are confident that [Lifelock's] alliance with the Mercury and the WNBA will accelerate LifeLock’s growth, and this deal serves as a blueprint for other associations of its kind with all our WNBA teams." This could imply that Stern wants or hopes that other franchises will adopt corporate naming deals like this. Sure, it might pump more money now into the game/league/individual franchises, but I think it would usher in a series of branding issues which would cause identity and broader marketing issues within those teams and leagues. It's the kind of stuff we've never seen before in professional sports.

It seems to me like sports teams - and the leagues and commissioners - should work to preserve their names and identities. After all, their names are their brands...sure, devoted fans will still follow them, but the rest of society will only be confused. Plus, teams and leagues have invested years and huge sums of money in marketing and establishing themselves and building their brands over time. I'd hate to see all of that get tossed out with the trash.

That's all for now. I'm out like LeBron James' sportsmanship.