This weekend as the NBA All-Star festivities hit Los Angeles, more than 30 brands, ranging from Lamborghini to Postmates, will be setting up shop at the London Hotel, organizing social events and presenting potential business and content opportunities to the NBA players strolling through. It’s not the usual All-Star party, but rather the National Basketball Player’s Association’s way of launching a new marketing business decades in the making.
For the past 20 years, the NBPA has essentially rented players licensing rights to the league, who in turn would sell them to corporate sponsors, then share the revenue with the union. That share hit about $41 million last year, but during the last collective bargaining agreement, the union decided it wanted control over the players’ likenesses and images. The new deal kicked in last summer.
What that means is that while players still control their individual sponsorship deals and brand partnerships, and the teams still control any use of team names and logos, the union now controls the rights to the players as a group, as long as they’re not in uniform.
Last summer, to handle the new marketing and licensing responsibility, the union created the National Basketball Players Inc. (NBPI), modeled closely after the NFL Player’s Inc., and began staffing up, hiring former Def Jam Records and Nike exec Que Gaskins as its chief brand and growth officer. Now at All-Star Weekend, after months of business strategy development, the union is unveiling to its membership and potential brand partners the next iteration of this marketing and licensing arm, now called Think450.
The name represents the union’s mind-set that it is working to benefit all 450 active NBA players. “We talked about what was important to our players and how we think about this business, and how we communicate it to the business community when we go out to the marketplace,” says THINK450 president Jordan Schlachter. “We were bouncing around words and we just said, we need to think about all 450 of our players. That’s when it clicked.”
Houston Rockets star and NBA players’ union president Chris Paul says it’s a significant move that he hopes will benefit all members. “It’s a big deal,” he says. “As the union has become stronger, players have become more educated and better understand their value. There are a fortunate few players who have a business team or agency working on their behalf on a daily basis, but with the union it’s about everybody. This gives the union a chance to see what business opportunities are there for the collective group.”
While the NBA does a fantastic job marketing the game on the court, Schlachter says the players saw more off-court opportunity in controlling their image and marketing rights. It also allows the union to develop its own sponsorship opportunities.
“Of course potential partners come to you and they want LeBron and Steph and James Harden, but our job is to understand what brands are hoping to accomplish, and use the collective to accomplish those goals,” says Schlachter.
Lamborghini chief marketing officer Katia Bassi says the brand teamed with the Players’ Association at All-Star Weekend to tap into the cultural influence of NBA pros. “Our main purpose here was to be in a place where there’s a good vibe, and definitely the All-Star game and working with the players was something we wanted to experience ourselves,” says Bassi. “Because millennials are our target, we like being associated with the players, who are close in age to those consumers and great role models.”
Since obtaining the marketing and licensing rights, Schlachter says the union has attracted a lot of interest among content creators and product licensees, and other partners looking to get involved. One such group was advertising and branding agencies. Earlier this week the union announced it has partnered with Japan-based advertising agency network Dentsu Inc. to develop content and create and stage global events that feature the union and its members.
“Dentsu is obviously a global company with global reach, and we chose this relationship because it really adds to the team we’ve built with complementary resources and a global scale,” says Schlachter.
The union is bullish on the opportunity for Think450 to market players beyond the uniform. NBA players are among the most active on social media, the most recognizable in culture, so brand partnerships are as easy to imagine off the court as on. It’s not hard to imagine an off-season reality show on Amazon or Old Spice as the official scent of the Players’ Association.
“There are so many personalities in our league that I think the sky’s the limit in terms of how guys want to make an impact,” says Paul. “It’s about making sure every player has a chance to take advantage of the opportunities in and out of the game.”