It’s High Time We Reconsider Who Sponsors Sports

NOTE:  This piece also appears today on our sister site,  

Happy 4/20 Day to those who celebrate.  From the looks of things from my perspective, that’s a more significant sector of my world than, say, those that celebrated last month on 3/17, and those who will celebrate next month on 5/5, (Though plenty, of course, choose to celebrate all three of those de facto holidays).

And if you glimpse at the headlines that I’m seeing, particularly if you’re an employee, client or fan of sports television, you’re probably wanting a bit more than usual to find a way to light up.  Witness the news that Broadcasting and Cable’s Daniel Frankel broke yesterday:

When Sinclair’s Diamond Sports Group subsidiary entered bankruptcy restructuring in March, it was widely believed that the Cincinnati Reds would be among four Major League Baseball teams in Diamond’s Bally Sports regional sports network portfolio that wouldn’t be paid their TV rights fee for the just-started MLB season.  And according to Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand, Diamond has indeed followed through on that expectation. Diamond still has a 15-day grace period to pay the Reds, but it appears the subsidiary wants the bankruptcy court to restructure its money-losing Reds contract before it pays anything.   Earlier, Diamond skipped payments for two of the four teams listed as being money-losers for Bally Sports — the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cleveland Guardians. The subsidiary did make its payment on time to the fourth team on the “money-losers” list, the World Series-contending San Diego Padres, but it skipped out on paying the Minnesota Twins, which weren’t on the original list. 

And over at ESPN, well, the news isn’t much better, per the troika of Lynette RiceDade Hayes and Nellie Andreeva:

It was originally described as the “big one,” or even more pointedly, a straight-up “bloodbath.”

Either way, the lion’s share of layoffs at Disney are expected to begin Monday. From April 24-27, there will be Mouse House employees in film and TV losing their jobs every single day (except Friday), we hear. A rep for Disney declined comment.

ESPN, now one of three business units at the company — a new structure implemented under Iger after he re-took the controls from Bob Chapek — will also be under the microscope in terms of cutbacks. A major wrinkle: Disney and ESPN face a looming renewal of multibillion-dollar NBA rights.

Yes, the NBA.  The very same league that earlier this month announced a new agreement with its players that, as Nina Zdinjak of reported this week, opens up a whole new realm of possibilties, with one particularly prominent expert and fan already sold:

Rapper, cannabis entrepreneur and advocate Snoop Dogg recently praised the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) recent deal with National Basketball Players Association to stop testing players for marijuana use.

The first thing Snoop thought about when he heard the news was the “medical side of it”.

“How it can actually help ease the opioids and all the pills they’ve been given and the injections. I thought about that side,” he said during a recent episode of ESPN’s Stephen A’s World. “And, how certain players, have been able to have a beautiful life after sports because of the fact they’ve been able to treat themselves with that.”

And as progressive as this may sound, it appears MLB–yes, the same older-appeal league now fretting over the fiscal failure of networks backed by an ill-fated partnership with a casino and gaming company, had already embraced the culture, as this announcement from their website’s David Adler last fall proclaimed:

Major League Baseball became the first major professional sports league to have a sponsorship agreement with a CBD company on Wednesday, announcing a partnership with Charlotte’s Web.

Charlotte’s Web is now the “Official CBD of Major League Baseball.”

It’s an exclusive multi-year partnership formed with the goal of increasing the visibility of CBD for baseball players and fans. Under the new partnership, the Colorado-based Charlotte’s Web has launched a new CBD tincture, Charlotte’s Web SPORT — Daily Edge, featuring the MLB logo on the bottle.

“It’s always great to be first, but it’s more important to get it right,” said MLB executive vice president of sponsorship sales Bill Morningstar. “That was really what drove this, is making sure that we did the education, and we understood exactly what the product stood for and what the company stands for. Being first is really a nice byproduct of it, but getting it right was critical, and we feel really confident that we took the steps, the time, to get everything in line.”

The NBA deal now also allows active players the same opportunities that many of its alums have already availed themselves of, as Zdinjak’s article elaborated:

Quickly after NBA announced this major change, it also confirmed it will give players the ability to invest in NBA and WNBA teams, as well as promote and/or invest in sports betting and cannabis companies.

“Specific details will be made available once a term sheet is finalized,” the group said in a statement, a couple of weeks ago.

For example, Al Harrington co-founded LA-based marijuana brand Viola BrandsKevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets All-Star partnered with Weedmaps (NASDAQ: MAPS) to help “destigmatize marijuana use among athletes.”

There’s also Chris Webber, NBA All-Star and founder of Webber Wellness who along with Jason Wild, founder and CIO of JW Asset Management, teamed up to create a $100 million cannabis impact fund

As Harrington told Basketball News’s Alex Kennedy in 2021, it’s essentially an acknowledgement of what a majority of players were already actively participating in:

Harrington stated that “85% of the players in the [NBA] smoke… or use some type of cannabis,” but many have been afraid to publicize their marijuana use because of the stigma associated with the drug.

However, he says that is about the change.

“Even my best friends in the league, they didn’t want [their] parents knowing they smoke or support a cannabis brand,” Harrington told GQ. “But, this year will be the year we will be surprised. I know personally of a few athletes that’ll push that line, and say they use and why they use.”

Harrington specified that there are three “top-20-in-the-league-type guys” who are expected to speak out. He believes this will have a huge impact on how marijuana is perceived.

“It’ll open up the conversation,” Harrington told GQ. “These guys do use cannabis on a daily basis and that stigma of, you smoke and you’re unproductive or lazy — that shit goes out the window.”

So in light of the failure of the likes of Bally’s to make good on their potential for sports media, and with the NBA and MLB’s endorsements of cannabis and CBD product, let’s be blunt (so to speak) and call for the embracing and pursuit of these companies to openly partner with leagues, teams and networks and infuse (there we go again) some much-needed capital into their struggles.

The demographics of the cannabis consumer, per Lee Johnson of Oracle, are a marketer’s dream:

  • Millennials account for over half of cannabis bought in dispensaries, and Gen Z is rising quickly.
  • Most sales breakdowns work out to around 60% men using cannabis, but the gender gap is closing.
  • While American Indians or Alaska natives and black or African American people are most likely to use cannabis, the difference between them and white Americans is small and closing.

Data from Headset gives a detailed look at cannabis consumers by age, broken down into generational brackets. Overall, they found that the vast majority of sales – for the first half of 2019 in Washington – were to Millennials (classed as ages 23 to 38), who made up 51.5 % of all sales. The remaining generations bought less:



Headset does point out that while Gen Z currently only makes up a small proportion of the market, their share doubled from 2018 to 2019, and as more of them reach legal purchasing age, it’s likely to increase substantially. In fact, if the trend continues, they estimate that Millennials and Gen Z will dominate the market within a few years.

Flowhub also has statistics for 2020, and while Millennials still make up the bulk of purchases, based on their statistics, Gen Z accounts for 17%, only slightly under Gen X (at 21%) and higher than Boomers (13%).

Anyone who doesn’t consider a product where three-quarters of your audience is 25-54 as ideal for media is probably consuming more than their fair share of it.

And those that are are more geographically diverse than ever before.  As Morgan Paxhia of Kiplinger reported earlier this month:

Let’s welcome Kentucky as the 38th state to join the medical cannabis industry. The state’s General Assembly approved the bill to legalize medical cannabis on March 30, and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (D) signed the bill into law the next day.

“Today the General Assembly finally took action and passed a bill to legalize medical cannabis – something a majority of Kentuckians support,” Beshear tweeted after news of the vote broke last Thursday. “I am thankful this progress has been made, and I will proudly sign this bill into law tomorrow.”

At a March 31 press conference, prior to signing the bill, he added, “Far too many people face the obstacle of having chronic or terminal diseases like cancer, or those like our veterans suffering from PTSD, or Kentuckians living with epilepsy, seizures, Parkinson’s and more. These folks want and deserve safe and effective methods of treatment.”

And nearby, a similarly unlikely hotbed of opportunity was emerging:

Missouri is an excellent example of what a good legal cannabis program can look like. The state is rightfully gloating about the jobs and taxes generated. Since Missouri’s cannabis program began, initially as medical, the state notes that more than 6,800 jobs have been created. We have also seen how the cannabis industry contributes to strong ancillary growth as jobs emerge for capital projects like construction and service contracts to support this growth. Billion-dollar markets like Michigan, Illinois and Massachusetts employ anywhere between 30,000 to 50,000 workers in the cannabis industry,” said Sloane Barbour, CEO of engin, a technology platform helping cannabis companies hire hourly workers. “It’s enormous job growth, and it really happens quite quickly. So we are seeing customers and partners in Missouri aggressively and actively hiring.

Yes, in states far more known for the consumption and production of alcohol, cannabis is now becoming both legal and positively impacting their economies.  And even that industry is now urging for further adoption and reform:

The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) continues to build on its recently announced initiative to support the federal legalization of cannabis. This week was the association’s annual event, Access LIVE, and Chairman Tom Cole reiterated its ability to apply experience and understanding of alcohol distribution to the emerging cannabis sector. 

“The beverage alcohol industry’s commitment to public health and safety is something that sets us apart from other consumer products,” said Cole. “We believe that the successful state-based regulatory model which has served America’s consumers and our industry so well, should be a part of the discussion… I call upon my industry colleagues to support our efforts and to lend your voice and experience to the conversations happening on Capitol Hill.”

For networks and leagues who have been chasing the almighty dollar of beer and alcohol sponsorships for decades, despite the direct correlation of health-related and traffic deaths connected with it, the continually disappointing results associated with wagering and betting despite its connection to gambling debt, and the train wreck of crypto sponsorships going bad (ask any Heat or Lakers fan the name of their arenas that will host playoff games this weekend, and you’ll likely get embarassed mumbles) with the financial ruin and professional tarnishing their investors have suffered, it’s about damn time all of these facts finally sunk in.

There’s a damn good business representing some damn fine products that ideally aligns with your desired audience.  They’ve got a LOT of money.  And a LOT less baggage than say, politics.   Open acceptance of advertising and sponsorships can’t be any worse than the options at your disposal now, and, arguably, more beneficial and lucrative.

This morning, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that a team that currently represents a one-time capital of cannabis is likely on the way to perhaps the new crown jewel city:

The Oakland Athletics are planning to buy land near the Las Vegas Strip with the plan of building a new ballpark there and moving into it in 2027, A’s president Dave Kaval told the Las Vegas Review-Journal Wednesday night.

“We support the A’s turning their focus on Las Vegas and look forward to them bringing finality to this process by the end of the year,” Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred told the Review-Journal.

The proposed 35,000-seat ballpark would be located across Interstate 15 from T-Mobile Arena, the home of the NHL’s Golden Knights, and about a mile north of Allegiant Stadium, where the Raiders play.

I’m willing to guess the possums taking poops within the walls of the Oakland Coliseum won’t make the move.

And I’d like to propose the naming rights to this stadium, and indeed the sponsorship patch on the team’s uniforms, be sold to a cannabis or CBD business.  Charlotte’s Web should have first dibs, but an open market never hurt anybody.

Besides, the colors already match.

And, sure, let’s make sure ESPN has some sort of piece of this.  Perhaps their Las Vegas affiliate could carry their games.  There’s already a potential branding opportunity out there to consider.

Trust me, these ideas aren’t half-baked.  And hey, Vegas, there’s plenty of folks just like me ready to help you make a next best thing out of the A’s, and the media outlets that will embrace them.

I’m lighting some things today in the hopes you’re listening.  A prayer candle will be only one of them.

Until next time…

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