Why Defunct Sports Leagues Still Matter

Littered across the landscape of sports are the bones and remains of leagues that tried to be successful but, for various reasons, could not survive the challenges of economics, marketing, expansion and/or ever-changing consumer climates. Among them: the American Basketball Association, North American Soccer League, World Hockey Association, World Basketball League, United States Football League, Xtreme Football League and, just recently, the Association of Volleyball Professionals.

Rather than relegating these organizations to the scrap heap of history, the major sports leagues of today have become archeologists, sifting through the dirt of the fallen to find nuggets of branding and marketing concepts. The fact that these upstarts were Davids against Goliaths oftentimes meant that they could think way out of the box in marketing, sponsorship and branding concepts, all in the name of PR and garnering fan and media awareness.

That holds true even among currently active, but relatively smaller, leagues. The WNBA has four teams with marketing deals that include sponsor names front-and-center on their respective jerseys: New York Liberty/Foxwoods, Los Angeles Sparks/Farmers Insurance, Phoenix Mercury/LifeLock and the Seattle Storm. The Storm won the WNBA title earlier this month not only sporting Microsoft search engine Bing's logo on their jersey fronts but also the logo of BBVA Group, a financial firm based in Spain that just signed a deal to become the official bank of the WNBA and the NBA. The WNBA, which activates under the auspices of NBA commissioner David Stern, said that more such jersey-front deals would be forthcoming.

The United Football League is seeking to make inroads among pro football fans, no small task considering the monumental reach of the NFL. Now in its second season, the UFL has had marketing sponsor logos front-and-center on player helmets, is experimenting with various in-stadium and on-field branding deals and last season signed a title sponsor for its inaugural championship game -- a move akin to the NFL getting a title sponsor for the Super Bowl.

With economic challenges and consumer-oriented marketing activation becoming more prevalent in pro sports, league executives and team owners are continually seeking new ways to expand ad revenues without intruding on their respective games. But some of what is being tried is, in effect, sports marketing and operational déja vu:

  • The XFL, a joint effort between NBC and Vince McMahon's WWE, lasted only one dismal season (2001) but featured ads and interviews with coaches and players while games were in progress and also allowed players to personalize their jerseys ("He Hate Me").
  • The World Basketball League, which began in 1987 as the International Basketball Association, lasted only until 1992 but had notable distinctions: Official games were played against international teams and some teams were located in Canada years before the NBA expanded to Toronto (Raptors) and Vancouver (Grizzles, now in Memphis) in 1995, enabling the league to seek international-based marketing partners and, in turn, allowing U.S. companies a venue to expand their consumer bases.
  • AVP was the ultimate in on-site fan experience, expertly integrating into the sun-and-beach volleyball atmosphere of each event such corporate sponsors as Nivea, Budweiser, Gatorade, Rockstar Energy Drink and Malibu Rum. AVP also showed that corporate logos could be strategically placed even on sports-bikinis worn by women athletes and that players from a niche sport could become marketing stars, such as Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh.
  • USFL lasted only four seasons (1983-87) but was the original stomping ground of such NFL stars as Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Reggie White. The league experimented with on-field signage and in-game advertising and had teams in then-uncharted NFL locations such as Jacksonville and Arizona.
  • The ABA (1967-76) was the original home to such current NBA teams as the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets, and had teams in markets then unclaimed but now part of the NBA, including Minneapolis, Miami, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Houston and Memphis.
  • NASL rocketed to stardom in the late 1970s when such global soccer stars as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Johan Cruyff and Giorgio Chinaglia played in the U.S., even boasting a 1978 championship game between the New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies at the now-demolished Giants Stadium with more than 74,000 people in attendance.

The league partnered with numerous U.S. companies in an attempt to bring the "world's game" to American fans and consumers, but ultimately folded in 1985 mainly due to economics, over-expansion and an inflated and conceited concept of its place among established U.S. sports leagues.

Major League Soccer, born after the U.S. hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994, is expanding and achieving fan and marketing success by, among other factors, playing in soccer-centric stadiums, working closely with marketing partners to maximize fan experience and minimize economic failure and, in general, making the sport very accessible to both U.S. and foreign-born consumers, a key to keeping marketing relationships healthy.

1 comment about "Why Defunct Sports Leagues Still Matter ".
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  1. Ric Jensen, September 28, 2010 at 2:42 p.m.

    I'd like to learn more about the ads on the helmets used by the UFL...Where can I learn more?? Also, do UFL teams have ads on the jerseys and other parts of the uniforms??

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