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SIZING UP THE FINAL FOUR

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Sue Bird and Swin Cash might be UConn’s prize players, but advertisers and athletic companies are still deciding whether to award their marketing dollars to collegiate basketball players after graduation.
UConn squares off against the University of Tennessee, and Oklahoma takes on Duke University Friday, with the respective winners competing in the women’s NCAA basketball finals Sunday in San Antonio.
Nike is keeping close tabs on the female players, but declined to specify which ones. Nike already outfits three of the final four teams with apparel and footwear. With the exception of Tennessee, an Adidas-clad team, the brand has endorsement deals with the other three, a Nike spokesman said.
Reached by phone Wednesday morning in his office at Reebok International’s corporate headquarters in Canton, Mass., John Lynch, vice president of marketing, said he had a videotape of Bird on his desk that he planned to watch to “familiarize” himself with her, just as he would do with some of the other star hoopsters.
But at this stage of the game, Reebok has no plans to sign them post-graduation day. The company’s focus is on the WNBA. For the first time, the brand is outfitting all of the league’s 16 teams with on-court apparel, as an extension of its 10-year deal with the NBA. WNBA players who do not have endorsement deals with other athletic companies wear Reebok footwear.
“Our situation is such that we only sign players when we know we have a place to use them,” Lynch said.
Peter Arnell, chairman and creative director of AG Worldwide, the agency that handles Reebok’s advertising, said women’s college basketball is “too non-descript,” and has “low appeal that would drive business or revenue.
“It’s not even on the radar screen,” he said. “Somehow the value equation has not been issued yet. The aspirational keys we look for are not there. It does not allow a great return on our investment. It’s not prudent.”
Karen Baker, group director and vice president of sports marketing for DDB Worldwide, was more optimistic. She described the college players as “beautiful examples of powerful, strong, yet feminine women” and as role models, “they’re right up there at the top.” The trick, she said, is for them to maintain their femininity in their general overall demeanor.
“They can differentiate themselves by being women who happen to be incredibly great athletes,” Baker said.
Having worked on State Farm Insurance’s advertising for years, a campaign that centers on women’s and girls’ sports, DDB is familiar with the marketing movement behind female athletes.
“Women’s sports are coming into their own,” Baker said. “I think these players are very marketable.”
Gary Koepke, cofounder and creative director of Modernista, the Boston firm behind Converse’s ads, said he personally finds seeing female athletes commentating on sports and plugging products as “refreshing and quite interesting.” He said women college players are marketable especially for sneaker and athletic companies.
“Everyone is marketable if they achieve something great in sports,” Koepke said. “News stories, even if they’re negative, make people more marketable. Look what happened with the women’s bobsled team [before the Olympics.]”
But Bruce Tate, managing partner at Fallon Brand Consulting in Minneapolis, who’s parent company Fallon Advertising handles basketball brand And One’s account, said: “The WNBA has struggled to some degree to create real superstar names.”
On the other hand, should one college team exemplify teamwork, that might be a hook for a particular brand, he said. “Is it going to be widespread?” he asked. “I don’t know.”
“It’s also something that would have to be acted on quickly before the fervor fades away,” Tate said. “It will leave the collective consciousness pretty fast.”
George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Everlast Worldwide, isn’t sold on the prospect.
“I think it’s a better match for a footwear company. There isn’t a real connect with the boxing community,” he said. ‘There certainly is with fitness and footwear.”

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