This story has been updated from an earlier version.

With a slowly rebounding economy and a shift in how consumers view their issuing financial situations, the major card brands say sports sponsorships can help them weave intricate marketing tactics with brand-name visibility to help keep consumers aligned with their products.

Visa Inc., MasterCard Worldwide, Discover Financial Services and, most recently, American Express Co. also view such marketing as essential to keeping customers satisfied, especially those attracted to competitive events.

Indeed, providing access to and amenities for sporting events help keep cardholders loyal, says Megan Bramlette, director at Auriemma Consulting Group of Westbury, N.Y. “Loyalty is super important today,” she says. “The priorities today are not really about acquisition; the focus is on maintaining your best customers by keeping them happy.”

Sporting events historically have enabled card brands do things special for cardholders “because they’ve got the space to do something unique,” Bramlette says. “These experiences encourage customers to stay with a card brand.”

Examples of major sports sponsorships include Visa’s worldwide partnership with the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament and its deal with the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. MasterCard highlights Major League Baseball, the Rugby World Cup and UEFA Champions League soccer in Europe. AmEx in late December signed a broad new three-year sponsorship deal with the National Basketball Association and holds partnership deals with the U.S. Open tennis tournament and the U.S. Open Golf and PGA Championship tournament. Discover recently launched several sports-sponsorships deals, including with college football’s Orange Bowl and the National Hockey League.

In the global arena, perhaps the biggest and most-watched sporting event is the FIFA World Cup, which this year was held in June and July in South Africa. Visa has the sponsorship deal locked in until 2014, and it is using the agreement to try to imbed its brand and products into the hearts and minds of soccer (football) fans on every continent.

“Sports partnerships are a good platform to deliver messages about our products and to provide engaging consumer content and promotional offers,” says Jennifer Bazante, Visa head of global brand marketing.

But sponsorships are not just about driving brand awareness, says Bazante. “It’s about tapping into consumer interest in the property and associating your brand with another brand and tapping that shared value,” she says. “Football (soccer) is in people’s lives every day, and Visa is as well. So we strive to utilize this also to drive our core business objective, which is to convert cash to electronic payment.”

 The marketing is part of an education effort to change consumers’ payments behavior, Bazante says.

The FIFA World Cup deal provides Visa with exclusive access not just to the men’s event but also to related events building up to and in between the men’s and women’s competitions.

“[The partnership gives us] the opportunity to utilize the events to be more local in nature,” Bazante tells PaymentsSource. “Wherever those events occur, those markets can tap into [the marketing] for World Cup.”

More than 90 markets worldwide used Visa FIFA-themed marketing, and more than 500 financial institutions and merchants participated in advertising, customized promotions, point-of-sale signage and direct mail supporting the sponsorship effort.

Visa in 2009 launched its “Go Fans” campaign, an extension of its global “Go With Visa” marketing program. Besides the ability to participate in contests held in markets throughout the world, Visa cardholders also received deals from local merchants in the host market of South Africa.

Visa was the only card accepted at the venues for the World Cup in South Africa, a stipulation Visa also had at the Vancouver Winter Olympics earlier this year. Visa declined to provide any supportive data showing how the World Cup campaign affected issuers and acquirers, and the brand would not say what its specific goals were for increased card use.

However, the company reported that spending on Visa cards by visitors to the Vancouver Games totaled more than $115 million.

Visa tapped into social media to ensure its marketing adequately addressed the World Cup experience. In the spring, it launched the Visa Match Planner, an application that enabled users to create customizable World Cup viewing schedules to share with friends on social networking channels such as Facebook. Visa made the Match Planner available in four languages–English, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese–and customized it for each of the 32 World Cup-qualifying countries.

The Match Planner enabled users to organize match-viewing parties at home or in bars, chat with friends online, track scores and standings, and receive exclusive Visa offers from merchants such as the FIFA Official Store on FIFA.com.

Social media are the latest venue to help change consumer habits, notes Bazante. “It’s no longer about traditional media, and it’s important to take a more multimedia approach to deliver a message,” she says. “Fans love to talk about teams.”

In early June, Visa also launched a “Go Fans” YouTube.com channel dedicated to the World Cup, enabling soccer fans to share videos of entertaining goal calls.

MasterCard rivals Visa’s sports sponsorships with soccer deals in Europe, Major League Baseball, the Rugby World Cup and team sponsorships for the National Hockey League, the National Football League and with basketball leagues in the Baltic States in Eastern Europe.

MasterCard has had a longstanding relationship with international soccer. It has sponsorships with UEFA Champions League in Europe and the UEFA Super Cup, both of which are similar to a European World Cup, Michael Robichaud, MasterCard head of sponsorships, tells PaymentsSource.

“Soccer is such a local-global sport because it’s the same game everywhere,” he says of the diverse fan base that its sponsorships can reach.

In 2007, Visa became the official sponsor of the FIFA World Cup after a legal squabble with MasterCard, which was the previous sponsor. Based on a settlement agreement between the parties, the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, dismissed MasterCard’s suit against FIFA on June 21 of that year.

Sports sponsorships are about trying to understand cardholders and their passions, Robichaud says. “People have so many things to look at. We’re either bombarded with messages, or we’re doing it ourselves on the BlackBerry,” he says. “Sponsorships are a way of getting at the customer when they are most excited,” such as supporting or following a sporting event.

One effort card brands make when providing sponsorship perks is to give their cardholders a special experience. And those perks can lead to customer loyalty, industry insiders contend.

One perk for MasterCard cardholders from the brand’s UEFA deal is the ability to vie for the chance to be an escort for the players when they enter the stadium, says Robichaud. “These are experiences that money can’t buy because it makes the cardholder part of the event,” he says.

On the global stage, MasterCard has secured sponsorship as an official partner of the Rugby World Cup 2011, which takes place in September 2011 in New Zealand. The Rugby World Cup is what many consider to be the largest spectator event after soccer’s FIFA World Cup.

MasterCard supports rugby in various ways, including making contests a part of its “Priceless” marketing efforts and providing exclusive deals. MasterCard cardholders who apply for Rugby World Cup 2011 tickets with their cards will double their chances to secure tickets to the semifinals and the final. Tournament organizer Rugby New Zealand 2011 is making the tickets available through a ballot process open to fans that have applied for tickets for the earlier matches, according to MasterCard.

In the United Kingdom, MasterCard awarded a “Priceless” experience to rugby fans through its sponsorship of the 2010 matches for the Barbarians British rugby all-star team by offering cardholders the chance to become the 23rd Barbarians squad member (teams have 22 players) for the MasterCard Trophy match against England on May 30. The winner of the “Be Number 23” promotion joined the Barbarians squad for the entire week before the game, staying in the team hotel and eating, training and traveling with the players. The winner also sat on the sidelines with the Barbarians during the match.

In the past several years in New Zealand, MasterCard has done a promotion called the MasterCard All Blacks Roadshow. The All Blacks is New Zealand’s national rugby team and a major worldwide contender. The roadshow enables consumers to test their skills in a series of challenges and to meet All Blacks players, including MasterCard Rugby ambassadors Richie McCaw and Buck Shelford.

Fans have had the chance to get autographs and pictures with the All Blacks players, and MasterCard has given out thousands of MasterCard rugby balls to supporters that showed their MasterCards.

The Rugby World Cup sponsorship is strong for MasterCard because the rugby fan base tends to be more affluent than that of other sports, such as soccer, and many consumers with money will be making the trek to New Zealand in 2011, says Auriemma’s Bramlette. “There is the added benefit to grow the brand in a market that is receptive,” she says.

American Express, which long has prided its brand on loyalty from customers, excels at providing perk experiences for cardholders through its sports sponsorships. The brand's latest sponsorship, reuniting AmEx with the NBA after a five-year hiatus, is larger in scope than a previous NBA sponsorship that ran from 1995 to 2005, a spokesman says. The new deal encompasses the NBA, USA Basketball, the WNBA and the NBA Development League and will provide customers with behind-the-scenes access to events. It also enables AmEx to market its brand at the NBA Games-London 2011, the league's first-ever regular-season games in Europe.

Two other high-profile efforts involve tennis and golf, as AmEx knows through its own transaction data that its cardholders often are players who spend money not only by watching the sports but by participating in them as well, AmEx executives tells PaymentsSource.

For the past 17 years, AmEx has been a partner of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, for which it offers such on-site features as a concierge service for cardholders to get restaurant reservations and car services. It also supports offsite events such as a large screen in Madison Square Park to enable non-ticketholders to watch the matches. Its NextContenders.com site features behind-the-scenes looks at such players as John Isner and Caroline Wozniacki.

 “The majority of our strategy is around the loyalty play and rewarding our cardmembers who are part of our brand,” Jessica Igoe, AmEx vice president of global sponsorship and event marketing, tells PaymentsSource. But the sponsorships also are about attracting new customers, she notes.

“If you don’t have an AmEx card and you see what we’re doing and it’s cool, then that creates a reappraisal for someone who might be considering a card,” Igoe says.

And that strategy works, observers say. “There is a case to make for [sporting-event sponsorships] not only in relationship-building, but also in creating a brand and image that is favorable and appealing to the customer,” says Ron Shevlin, senior analyst at Boston-based Aite Group.

Providing the access to the events especially drives home the card brand’s message, Shevlin says. “It’s the behind the scenes stuff” that really attracts consumers, he says.

As part of its work with the U.S. Tennis Association, AmEx this past summer also helped support the “Fresh Courts” program, which sought to renovate tennis facilities in Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C. “We’re also always trying to figure out ways to give back to the industry,” says Igoe, who notes that AmEx selected the cities because they host major tennis tournaments and are home to many tennis players of all ages.

AmEx also is an official patron of the Professional Golfers Association of America, where benefits to cardholders include access to premier championship experiences. AmEx also is the first corporate partner of the United States Golfers Association.

Aside from access to events, AmEx provides some on-site perks for cardholders, such the AmEx CourseCast TV, which is a hand-held television cardholders may carry with them to watch the event telecast. AmEx also offers CourseCast Radio, in which cardholders may listen to play-by-play commentary of the event from ESPN radio. Cardholders need only show their AmEx card to acquire the devices for the day, says Kelso. The tennis partnership has similar offerings.

AmEx’s sponsorships give cardholders more than just access to events and visibility, notes Courtney Kelso, AmEx vice president of sports and entertainment access strategy. They provide unforgettable experiences, she says.

“For us, it’s truly about providing unparalleled access for our cardmembers,” she says. “We are in close contact with them, and we know that whatever we sponsor, cardmembers are really passionate about the events.”

Following in the other card brands’ footsteps after relatively minimal involvement in the sports-sponsorship arena, Discover in November announced its deals with the Orange Bowl college-football tournament and the National Hockey League. The Riverwoods, Ill.-based card issuer and network previously was involved only in smaller, local sports sponsorships, such as the Illinois High School Swimming Association, the Women’s National Basketball Association and the now-defunct Arena Football league.

Despite the apparent change in strategy, Discover simply is pursuing deals that reflect cardmember interests, Jennifer Murillo, Discover director of advertising, tells PaymentsSource. Through its own consumer research, Discover determined its cardmember base was passionate about both college football, she says.

“These opportunities came to us at the right time,” Murillo noted an e-mail statement.

Discover announced the Orange Bowl sponsorship in August (see story). http://www.paymentssource.com/news/discover-sponsor-orange-bowl-3003075-1.html As part of that sponsorship, Discover launched a series of TV commercials featuring well-known coaches. Holders of Discover cards also may use cashback-bonus rewards to purchase tickets online to the 2011 game starting Dec. 1.

Discover in November also launched TV ads related to the Orange Bowl called “Peggy.” The ads feature former college coaches Lou Holtz and Bobby Bowden experiencing the frustration of dealing with poor customer service from a fictitious credit company.

For the football game, the annual event will be called Discover Orange Bowl. In 2013, when the event hosts the Bowl Championship Series’ final matchup, it will be called the Discover BCS National Championship Game. Discover succeeds FedEx Corp. as the event’s sponsor.

In its U.S. sponsorship deal with the NHL, Discover will be the official partner card of the NHL, NHL All-Star Weekend, NHL Winter Classic, NHL Awards and the NHL Entry Draft. The card brand also will be the presenting sponsor of the NHL All-Star Game.  One Discover cardmember will have the opportunity to spend a personal day with the Stanley Cup.

In addition, Discover will give cardmembers the chance to redeem their cashback-bonus rewards for discounts when shopping at Shop.NHL.com and the NHL Powered by Reebok store in New York and when buying GameCenter Live subscriptions and autographed NHL merchandise.

Delving into larger, more-national sports sponsorships is a big move for Discover, one analyst says.

“Discover’s entry in this is not shocking based on the fact that the competition already is doing sports sponsorships,” says Auriemma’s Bramlette. “What is interesting is that they have very consciously picked a couple of mass-market events.”

 Indeed, pursuing consumers via their interest in sports offers a keen edge in marketing. Consumers continue to align themselves better with brands that are connected to their sports passions. And that brand loyalty is what is sustaining card brands in these tough economic times.

 

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