Coca-Cola Co. will add courtside advertisements in Chinese at Madison Square Garden to capitalize on the appeal of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.
The first Chinese- or Taiwanese-American to play in the National Basketball Association, Lin fueled television ratings on the MSG Network along with merchandise and ticket sales after joining the team’s starting lineup on Feb. 6.
His emergence on the international stage has been a boon to the Knicks’ parent, Madison Square Garden Co. Buoyed by Lin’s popularity, it settled a carriage-fee dispute with Time Warner Cable Inc., doubled advertising rates on MSG, hit a record stock price and fielded inquiries from Asia-based companies seeking an affiliation with the franchise.
“For us, those ads signify an open-for-business sign,” Scott O’Neil, president of MSG Sports, said in an interview.
Susan Stribling, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Coke, the largest soft-drink maker, said in a telephone interview that an official at MSG approached the company with the Mandarin-sign idea.
“Given that the NBA is a global association for our company and that we do a lot of cross-cultural marketing around the NBA, we agreed,” she said. “We thought it was a great way to celebrate the things Jeremy Lin is doing for the Knicks.”
The courtside signs, which Stribling said should debut in a couple of weeks, will be seen by television viewers as well as spectators in the arena. Stribling said Coke might also change advertisements in the Garden’s concourses.
O’Neil said Asian companies are taking notice of the Knicks and the Harvard University-educated Lin, who has sold more jerseys than any other player in the NBA since Feb. 4, according to the league, which doesn’t disclose sales figures. In that time span, Lin-related products have accounted for half of online sales at the team’s website and 32 percent of in-arena sales, the Knicks said, declining to give specifics.
The undrafted Lin was cut by two teams before joining the Knicks who, since the birth of “Linsanity,” the term attached to the hoopla surrounding the 23-year-old, signed sponsorship agreements with Taiwan-based Maxxis International, a tire manufacturer, and Acer Inc., the fourth-largest computer maker.
The demand for Lin in Asia prompted broadcasters in China to alter their schedules, adding Knicks games whenever possible. Lin has become the No. 1 searched term on Baidu, China’s version of Google. About 100 million people in China watched the March 6 Knicks-Dallas Mavericks game.
Former Houston Rockets Chief Executive Officer George Postolos said Lin provides a “fantastic opportunity” for companies agile enough to take advantage.
“This couldn’t have happened before the world became as connected as it is today,” said Postolos, who presided over a Rockets team that included Chinese All-Star Yao Ming. “It’s like a gold rush.”
The Rockets have an arena naming-rights agreement with Japan-based Toyota Motor Corp., which signed the contract when Yao was playing and his games were being broadcast in Asia.
MSG’s stock hit a record $33.43 on Feb. 21 with the Knicks having won eight of their past 10 games.
Laura Martin, an analyst at Needham & Co. who has a buy rating on MSG shares, which she doesn’t own, said Lin helps the company in two main ways: larger television audiences, which mean higher ad rates, and a more diversified following.
“There is a screaming need in the fan base for an Ivy League-educated player,” Martin said. “He has the same credentials as those on Wall Street.”
The Knicks through 32 games on MSG Network averaged a 2.99 rating, up 99 percent from last season. The team is charging up to $25,000 for a regular-season commercial and $40,000 for playoff spots, two to three times the previous amount. MSG this quarter will make about $25 million from carriage fees and $13 million from advertising, said David Joyce, a media analyst at Miller Tabak & Co.
The Knicks made a coaching change on March 14 amid a six-game losing streak, replacing Mike D’Antoni with assistant Mike Woodson. New York has since won all five games, improving to 23-24, and is one game ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks in the battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Lin last night had 18 points, five rebounds and three assists as the Knicks beat the Philadelphia 76ers 82-79 on the road. The Knicks are now three games behind the Atlantic Division-leading 76ers.
O’Neil said he’s sending some employees to China in the next few weeks and will make the trip himself in April or May to solicit new sponsorship and marketing agreements.
While winning is important, O’Neil and John Brody of Wasserman Media Group said it isn’t the sole consideration to those who consider themselves fans of Lin, whose Asian heritage, Harvard pedigree and underdog storyline have widespread and long-lasting appeal.
“Companies crave the opportunity to get closer to a story that connects to the human element,” said Brody, president of partnership and business development at Wasserman who brokered the stadium naming-rights agreement between football’s New York Jets and Giants and MetLife Inc. “Jeremy Lin is one of us if you’re a basketball fan. He’s one of us if you’re an Ivy Leaguer. He’s one of us if you’ve ever been left for dead in your career, whether postal worker or NBA player. He’s the 21st century success story that proves the world is flat.”
O’Neil said he’s most encouraged by his player’s presence among digital consumers and place in social media such as Twitter, where, according to the NBA, Lin since Feb. 4 has more mentions than two-time Most Valuable Player LeBron James. Users of new technology such as the iPad tend to skew younger, which means Lin is helping the franchise attract fans it otherwise wouldn’t reach.
“Building the next generation,” said O’Neil. With Lin on his team, he added, he doesn’t foresee some of the pitfalls often encountered by companies seeking business partners in China.
“I don’t think anybody in the history of sports will have as easy a time getting in the door,” he said. “Jeremy is our calling card.”