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Game on!

While the field of competitors vying for the attention of the boys demo on-air and at retail continues to grow State-side, two key contingents are teaming up, so to speak. In the past few months, major players like Cartoon Network and Disney have been partnering up for promos and licensing deals with professional sports orgs to further draw in the six to 14 boys audience at an unprecedented pace.
October 1, 2009

While the field of competitors vying for the attention of the boys demo on-air and at retail continues to grow State-side, two key contingents are teaming up, so to speak. In the past few months, major players like Cartoon Network and Disney have been partnering up for promos and licensing deals with professional sports orgs to further draw in the six to 14 boys audience at an unprecedented pace.

‘Sports are close to the top in terms of engagement for our core demo,’ says Richard Loomis, SVP of marketing and creative at Disney Channels Worldwide, who oversees efforts for new net Disney XD. With a mandate to capture the core boys eight to 12 demo, Loomis endeavored to use Disney’s corporate connection with sports channel ESPN (Disney owns 80% of the network) to give the fledging network instant credibility with its audience. On the content side, XD developed original programming with ESPN, including new live-action comedy Zeke and Luther that follows the mishaps of two best friends aspiring to be professional skateboarders. Online, DisneyXD.com features ESPN-provided sports tickers with scores and information from all major sporting associations. In addition, there is also SportsCenter High 5, a short-form series that showcases sporting accomplishments and airs throughout the week on the network.

‘It’s a good fit for ESPN, giving it the opportunity to reach kids and families in a broader way than it has before,’ says Loomis. ‘For us, so many boys are actively participating in sports…it’s a sweet spot in terms of the audience that we focus on.’ And the sports focus runs deep at XD. The net launched in February during the Winter X Games, an ESPN-organized and operated Olympics of extreme sport. This year’s edition featured an XD Lounge and a branded BMX skateboard area.

‘Whenever we put Disney XD in a sports-related context the crowds follow,’ says Loomis. ‘The connection between our audience and sports is one of the core foundations of the brand.’ And he expects the connection between XD and ESPN to continue to evolve and grow, adding that closer ties in terms of co-branded merchandise and licensing should not be ruled out.

Beyond XD, Disney, in fact, forged a preliminary relationship with the National Basketball Association (NBA) during last year’s playoffs in June. The partnership spawned a short-run apparel line that spotlighted the two championship cities (L.A. and Orlando), which also happen to be home to Disney theme parks. The shirts featured Disney characters in NBA uniforms and were sold online as well as at NBA and Disney retail outlets.

Lisa Piken, the NBA’s senior director of apparel, footwear and accessory licensing, says that the partnership was a fruitful one. ‘We will look to expand that relationship during the 2009/10 season,’ she adds.

The NBA has also inked a deal with Cartoon Network Enterprises for co-branded apparel and character-specific tie-ins that were quickly embraced by the core demo and opened the door for other sports licensing opportunities. For last February’s NBA All-Star Game, CNE and the sports org developed apparel that married NBA branding with CN property Ben 10. The initial launch of

t-shirts at the game and various promotional events around Phoenix, Arizona did so well that a second promotion followed. For the 2009 NBA Finals, apparel featuring 10 different Ben 10 characters dressed up in L.A. Lakers and Orlando Magic uniforms went on sale at the NBA Store, the Cartoon Network store and online.

‘The co-branded apparel did really well,’ says Christina Miller, SVP of Sports/Strategy/Programming and consumer products at CNE. ‘There was a great initial outburst and we will continue the relationship.’ Miller explains Ben 10 was a natural fit with the NBA because of its boys appeal and action-oriented content. ‘There is a lot we can do with it,’ says Miller. ‘The aliens could become mascots and/or players. I think it was a good collaboration.’

Piken agrees and looks forward to broadening CN-NBA offering for the 2009/10 season. ‘We are expanding beyond apparel,’ she says. ‘We are adding Spalding (sporting goods) to the mix to offer Ben 10 and NBA co-branded basketballs.’

For Miller, the deal was a no-brainer. ‘We think there is a natural strategic intersection between what we do in the youth space and sports spaces,’ she says. ‘When you look at boys, there is the entertainment road and the sports road, and you have to look at where they meet.’

And it’s precisely this connection that hastened CN to take on a long-term partnership with the Professional Golf Association. As part of an overarching deal with CN sister company Turner Sports that extends PGA broadcasting and interactive rights to Turner until 2019, CNE has picked up rights to serve as the PGA’s licensing agent in the yet-to-be tapped youth marketplace.

‘We are just getting into that deep dive of our strategy right now,’ says Miller about the deal, which was signed at the end of June. She’s envisioning a two-pronged program strategy. The first of which is to get parents who play golf interested in purchasing apparel and items for their infants, and the second is to build an affinity for the game with kids themselves.

‘I think we can start pretty young,’ says Miller. ‘Lifestyle pieces and apparel will come earlier and then the actual sports equipment later.’ The initial idea is to build a pure-PGA program first and then perhaps explore appropriate co-branding opportunities.

Since the deal is still in the early stages, Miller doesn’t expect to see any of the new products on the shelves until early 2011. And she disagrees with the oft-heard assertion that golf is a sport for old geezers. ‘The reality is that we can build that youth/golf connection,’ she says. ‘They might not be shooting 18 holes on the weekends, but they are playing it on the Wii or other consoles. We are going to build upon that desire. That is what we bring to the partnership.’

Tim Jones, COO of the Van Nuys, California-based production company Animax, knows a little about the cross- pollination of sports and entertainment. His company produced a number of shorts for the QSR chain Carl’s Jr. and Hardees. The shorts, called Slotcar, used a NASCAR context to tell the whimsical story of rival racing teams. The series drove (pun intended) more than two million views to the chain’s website and proved to be a major success for both the production company and its clients. For Jones, the reason and appeal was simple.

‘Sports is just one of those areas,’ he says. ‘NASCAR fans spend nine hours a week consuming media about the sport – watching the race, going online, contributing to sports blogs. It’s the same in the NBA, NFL, baseball, soccer. Sports just have an intense audience and that’s why it’s fertile ground.’ Animax is currently working on two yet-to-be-announced projects in the sporting realm, looking to further tap into that fervent attachment.

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at garyrusak@gmail.com

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