Vice Becomes Nice…What’s Next?

For people of a certain age, seeing Marlboro or Virginia Slims or Winston associated with the biggest brands in American sport was commonplace. Big tobacco fueled bug sponsorships, especially when the Federal Government began curtailing cigarettes from their first large-scale media investment…television…in the late 1960’s.  Along with smokes, spirits also fueled the athletic coffers, turning out big time promos in print and TV and radio with stars like Joe Namath hawking their favorite alcoholic libation. No gambling of course, but everyone could drink and smoke.

Then came the FDA and the FTC and the push back and eventual ban on all vice advertising. With the ban went some moral clarity, but millions of dollars in revenue for teams and leagues. Cleaner, healthier but poorer. Now of course other categories arose to fill the void, and then the lottery became more en vogue and their advertising dollars began to fill a huge hole in sport, so the balance of vices kicked in yet again. Still even though legal federated gambling dollars, and then casino monies, were OK, still spirits were off limits. That all began to change in the last few years, as teams looked at the millions being left on the table for team sports and being channeled into boxing, MMA and other alternative options by the global spirit brands, who were more than willing to spend on international sport like soccer, rugby and cricket. There was certainly no issue with the way the brands were being sold at retail or in venues; it was a matter of perception.

Slowly but surely tests were being done to see what would pass the consumer and broadcast sniff test. Teams began adding luxury seating sections branded with spirits, brands like Captain Morgan would find experiential events to push to the sports consumer, and then TV and print advertising became OK again. Teams started to be able to sell to spirits in some very high level ways…lower targeted categories like malt liquor are still pretty much off the market…but high end brands for the high end consumer, bring it on. Most were regional partnerships, but the leagues certainly were aware of the spend, and the opportunity to grow partnerships, especially as sport looked to be more global than national.

So it is into that trend that this week the NBA launched their most comprehensive spirits partnership in history, one involving all forms of media as well as celebrity tied to teams. No active players as of yet, but lots of solid linkage to all things NBA. The deal is with Diageo as exclusive spirits sponsor, with Sean “Diddy” Combs and Diageo’s Ciroc premium vodka becoming “The Toast of the NBA.” Diageo will promote its Ciroc and Crown Royal brands across the NBA and NBA Development League while bringing Baileys Crème to a WNBA audience.  Although Bacardi was the league’s first official spirits sponsor in 2010 the multi-brand partnership with Diageo really ramps up the exposure and the messaging and the dollars for the NBA in spirits.

What does this mean about categories that were one taboo for pro sports in the US? Lots. In the search for more revenue and creative partnerships, the leagues need to go to new places. Lottery, once off-limits, is now a must have, and many teams have slowly started to introduce a form of “paid” fantasy, which certainly flies in the face of but does not yet cross the line with the world of online wagering and gaming.  A world where social issues are becoming more and more in the headlines could also lead to ways to introduce the uber-lucrative world of condoms and STD prevention to sport, which has easily accepted the dollars and significance of every form of ED medication under the sun. E-Cigarettes, although still unregulated and facing a lot of pushback, may also test the waters in sports like MMA and boxing first, but those may still be in the distance.

Then there is the elephant in the room, gambling, especially in the mobile space. While states like Delaware and New Jersey press on to fight the decades old federal law that prohibits sports gambling everywhere except Nevada, clubs and leagues around the world are making huge inroads with controlled and legal gaming and gambling platforms. While no league will publicly address the issue, all must be placing a watchful eye on the States because once a foothold is established, legal gambling could go the way of the other legal “vice” categories, and as a result will help push all forms of sponsorship up. It will not happen tomorrow, but it will come at some point, and those naysayers should easily look back on the history of spirits, and lottery and casinos to mark the process.

For now, the NBA and probably the rest of the leagues, can lift a glass and toast an ever-widening spirits category, one which is lucrative, interactive, well-modulated and certainly worth every dollar invested for all.