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Creating a winning sports licensing strategy

Key executives from the NBA, RFU and FIFA share their experiences of building their brands.

Embracing gaming and e-sports, growth outside of apparel and staying true to your brand values were some of the key messages from an expert panel at BLE 2016 on sports licensing.

Tony Lisanti, global editorial director of License Global, chaired the keynote presentation on sports licensing on the first day of the show.

The panel of experts included: Vandana Balachandar, vice president global merchandising for the NBA; Andy Ward, head of merchandising for the RFU; and Andreas Pletl, retail and licensing manager Asia Pacific for FIFA.

Snapshot of your licensing programme at the moment:

Vandana (NBA): “We have a very strong licensing programme with 300 licensees globally. The US is our home market and our biggest, but we believe we’ve got a product that will appeal to fans around the world. We want to capture the excitement of a US-based product and export that to the world.”

Andreas (FIFA): “The main challenge of our licensing programme is that we don’t own any teams or players. Our programme is focused almost entirely on the World Cup event every four years. We work with around 350 licensees around the world to bring the World Cup to life.”

Andy (RFU): “Our licensing programme is still quite new and we are looking at ways to grow our audience outside of England. Part of what we want to do with our licensing is promote the game of rugby and expand the interest of the game.”

What are the most significant opportunities for licensing?

Andy: “We’re very strong in apparel with our replica kit. Apparel is a good foundation on which to broaden the business. We’re now looking at more lifestyle and leisure apparel – something a fan would wear away from the game. We also know we have a growing female market and we need to understand what it is that they want.”

Andreas: “For us it is about filling the gap between the World Cup events. We are working on our FIFA Classics brand, which is a lifestyle brand celebrating World Cup events of the past. This is quite exciting as it allows us to bring in some heritage design into apparel, gifts and toys.”

Vandana: “We’ve been working on some amazing brand extensions away from our traditional licensing programme. We opened an NBA-branded café in Manila in 2014 and just opened another one in Barcelona. We are in talks with Disney about an NBA experience at Orlando and we opened our first ever playzone in Shanghai earlier this year.”

How about plans for international growth?

Vandana: “The NBA is looking at all markets. We already have pre-season games in Europe, China and Africa – we are taking the game all over the world. This exposure certainly helps with licensing.”

Andreas: “The host market is always the primary market for us. So in 2018 that will be Russia. Then we look at all participating teams and then there are the football-crazy markets. Indonesia is one such market. It’s unlikely they’ll have a team at the World Cup, but there is an incredible demand for product in this country, and others in Asia.”

Andy: “We’re really focusing on Japan with the World Cup in 2019. This is going to be really interesting. Japan is now really engaged with rugby as the national side is doing so well.”

Looking ahead, what does the future hold for your brand?

Vandana: “There’s a huge scope for visitor attractions, like our cafés and play zones, but the one big area is in gaming and e-sports. Console gaming has always been important for the NBA, but there’s a lot more we can do with the mobile platform. Were also watching very carefully e-sports and virtual reality. Both could create additional opportunities in the future.”

Andreas: “Yes, for FIFA as well, e-sports and gaming are big opportunities. We can do much more with the game than we are doing right now. I think there’s also an opportunity for us to work closer with retailers, particularly around lifestyle products.”

Andy: “Gaming and digital is interesting for us as well. We’re also looking at direct to retail partnerships and getting a wider range of products into stores and in front of consumers.”

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