NBA Players Union Flexes Marketing Muscle in Deal With Dentsu

  • Players union took control of marketing, licensing last year
  • Japanese agency to stage global events with union, players

Chicago Bulls against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Photographer: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America

The NBA has spent decades cultivating fans around the world, and its biggest stars are household names from China to Caracas. Now the league’s players are making their global move en masse.

The National Basketball Players Association said it reached a broad agreement with Japan’s leading advertising agency, Dentsu Inc., to develop content and create and stage global events that feature the union and its members. 

Until recently, that kind of collaboration was functionally off-limits. For more than 20 years the NBA had paid the union -- last year, about $41 million -- for the marketing and licensing rights to its 400-plus members. The league then turned around and parceled them out to corporate partners and sponsors.

The players union decided it could do better making its own deals, and last year, took control of its own licensing and marketing deals. Players still control their individual deals, and teams control the use of their names and logos. The union, though, controls the rights to the players as a group, as long as they’re not in uniform, and to its own brand. Now corporate partners or anyone else who wants to use groups of players in an advertising campaign or any other promotion will negotiate directly with the union.

At the All-Star game this weekend in Los Angeles, for example, the union’s new marketing arm, dubbed National Basketball Players Inc., has put together what it’s calling One Court at the London Hotel: around 30 companies, including Lamborghini, Vault Aviation and Postmates, have signed on to “create exclusive experiences, business and content opportunities and other social events both for and with NBA players,” according to the union.

For Dentsu, the tie-up with some of the world’s most popular athletes will help cement its sports foothold in the U.S. It already owns Athletes First, a sports agency based in Laguna Hills, California. A separate entity, the newly created Athletes First Properties will work closely with Dentsu Aegis Network, a London-based consortium of companies that manages Dentsu’s business outside of Japan. The network includes marketing company MKTG, whose sports clients include the NFL, NHL and Nascar.

“Ultimately, we chose the Dentsu Aegis Network to supplement our team’s efforts because of their diverse assets and global reach,” said National Basketball Players Inc. President Jordan Schlachter. “They bring so many resources to the table across multiple agencies, from commercial opportunities to content creation to creative.”

Schlachter and Brian Murphy, president of Athletes First, which will spearhead Dentsu’s involvement, didn’t disclose financial terms of the agreement.

What those opportunities look like exactly is still an open question. There are several companies under Dentsu’s umbrella that specialize in content creation, and they could develop programming featuring players off the court. Longer term, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are a particularly rich opportunity to create and package events in the Asia-Pacific region leading up to the games.

Dentsu Aegis Executive Chairman Tim Andree, who was drafted by the Chicago Bulls and played professionally in Europe and Japan, is a former NBA executive.

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