Little patches give big exposure
By Darren Rovell
NEW YORK -- Less than an hour before U.S. Open qualifier Jack Brasington took the court for his second-round match against America's golden boy, Brasington's parents had needle and thread in hand, sewing patches onto their son's shirt sleeves.
As his match against 18th seeded Andy Roddick neared, so did offers from companies looking to get their logo on Brasington's shirt. Welcome to the world of opponent marketing, where it comes down to who, where and when you play. Luckily for Brasington, ranked No. 223 in the world before the U.S. Open, it was Friday night primetime television and against the most highly touted prospect in men's tennis.
Over the past decade, corporate patchwork in tennis has become more complicated. While agencies frequently used to hawk space on top players, lucrative "clean" apparel contracts, which prohibit players from wearing logos besides those of the clothing manufacturer, have become more common in recent years. That also has slowed agencies from shopping top 20 ranked players for $20,000 and up on a per Grand Slam rate.
Enter Patrick McGee, an agent at Octagon who coordinates a pay-per-match patch program for Lycos and Geico.
"When they sign on with us, the companies don't know the players they are getting and 95 percent of the time the players are going to lose, but they know they'll get exposure," said McGee, who guarantees clients 15 to 20 patched players per tournament.
After each day's schedule comes out, McGee and the companies decide which players would be best to wear their logos. Because they are usually lower-ranked players and do not have agents, Octagon officials can negotiate directly with the players hours or even minutes before the match. Industry sources say one-match patch deals can net a player between $1,000 to $5,000 during the first week of a tournament. In the second week, players are offered $5,000 and up. But in essence, the better the chance for maximum exposure, the better the deal.
Through the fourth round, Lycos and Geico patches have been placed on nearly 20 players, including Sampras' first- and third-round opponents, Julien Boutter and Mikhail Youzhny. On the women's side, patches could be seen on Venus Williams' second- and third-round opponents, Meilen Tu and 30th-seeded Lisa Raymond.
"It's not important whether they win or lose, it's important how many people are watching," said Ben Sturner, who has been in charge of Lycos' patch program for the past two years.
It worked out in the case of Tommy Robredo, the only patch-wearing player to advance. Robredo, who like Brasington, will benefit from having Roddick on the other side of the net Wednesday night. Robredo was wearing a patch with Geico as well as "Terra," the Latin American partner of Lycos when he beat fifth-seeded Juan Carlos Ferrero in the third round on Sunday. Because Robredo and Ferrero are both Spaniards, Sunday's match was shown in prime time in Spain, though snippets were shown live in the United States on CBS.
Wearing the same patches, Robredo previously defeated No. 32 Todd Martin in the second round and will be wearing patches for Geico and Lycos when he plays Roddick.
"For Lycos, it tells people they're still in business because these days you don't know who is and who isn't," said Mark Davis, general manager of SiS, whose company determined Lycos received 1 minute, 14 seconds of clear exposure on cable television. "The patch front and center (on a player's shirt) is normally reserved for apparel companies and for them to get that positioning is an automatic traffic driver."
Inking Brasington was one of the program's best successes. After Roddick closed out Brasington 6-1, 6-2 in the first two sets, Brasington won the third set 7-5 and extended Roddick to a fourth-set tiebreaker before losing. Geico received 44 seconds of television exposure in the final set of the match, according to SiS.
Geico, which frequently buys signage on on-ice dasherboards at hockey arenas as well as rotating signage at baseball stadiums and college arenas, already is getting results in its foray into player patches. The company has received hundreds of phone calls from customers who said they thought of the company after watching the U.S. Open, according to Ted Ward, Geico's vice president of marketing.
For the lower-ranked players, who have space to sell, the patch deal appears to be a good one.
"They came to me a couple hours before the match and said, 'We have some patches for Jack,' " said Brasington's father, Jack Jr. "So why not, if it's going to mean a little more in Jack's pocket."
Barna, who earned $51,566 on tour last year, agreed to do the deal from her trailer in the U.S. Open parking lot. She won $10,000 in her loss to Serena Williams, and about $1,000 for sporting the patches during the match.
But taking the immediate cash from a company for a one-match deal might make competitors think it is a full-time endorsement, said agent Carlos Fleming of IMG, which boasts the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles and Pete Sampras as clients.
"If you do a one-time patch deal with one of your lower ranked players and they win in a big match, it's all over the international media," Fleming said. "That means that you potentially block out sponsorship categories if every picture in the art archives has that company's patch on your player."
IMG client Laura Granville, the two-time NCAA singles champion ranked No. 336 in the world, declined offers from companies for her first-round U.S. Open match for just that reason.
"Opponent marketing is a great way to reach millions of people on a global basis," said Sturner, whose company spends about $100,000 per year for patches on players in the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, according to a source familiar with the program.
Compare that to the 5-year, $20 million deal Lincoln Mercury signed last year to be the official vehicle sponsor of the U.S. Open. Or J.P. Morgan Chase, which reportedly spent $40 million on its multi-year, official sponsorship deal that includes center signage on court walls.
"We want to touch people in as many different ways as possible. If we just did patches that wouldn't be enough," said Jennifer Beindorf, integrated marketing manager for Lincoln Mercury. "Patches are really the first step to getting some brand recognition. They're a great way to get eyeballs at a lower rate."
Lincoln's competitors, Mercedes and Jaguar, have patches on Tim Henman and Jan Michael Gambill, respectively.
Lincoln's sponsorship package includes an 8,000-square-foot on-site exhibition center, net signage during all televised men's matches and the rights to present the men's championship check to the winner. Thanks to its dominating presence at the Open, Lincoln collects more than 2,000 e-mails from potential customers per day at the event, Beindorf said.
"The one-match patch sponsors go for the immediate blip, while companies like Lincoln are clearly there for the long term," Davis said.
"For the money we spend, we think that our logo on an athlete brings more life to our brand than a logo in the background or on a back wall could bring," Sturner said.
Darren Rovell covers sports business for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories