Star owners, like Usher in Cleveland, help NBA market to urban crowd
By JOE MILICIA, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - The NBA's desire to attract urban fans has reached front offices, where superstar owners are becoming as common as actor Jack Nicholson at a Lakers game.
Usher is the latest star to buy a piece of an NBA team. The Grammy-winning R&B artist's stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers follows Jay-Z's investment in the New Jersey Nets and Nelly's in the Charlotte Bobcats last year.
Usher's share of the LeBron James-led Cavaliers has been described as "very, very significant" by the team, but until now ownership by artists has been more about courtside face time on television than anything resembling control of a franchise.
Sports marketing analysts say, however, that such artists provide the potential for tremendous crossover marketing, giving a team and singer the opportunity to promote themselves together and possibly with greater effect than they could alone. Artists also have the expertise to broaden their team's -- and the league's -- appeal to a hip audience.
"The NBA really wants to understand how they can stay relevant to the young consumer and all three of these artists have figured out how to do that," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
The Cavaliers have wasted no time using Usher in their promotions, showing off "Yeah!" banners and making his hit single of the same name their unofficial theme song.
"In his videos, is he going to be wearing a Cavaliers jersey?" said Dave Synowka, a professor of sports management at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania.
Usher wore a Cavaliers' jersey at a concert in Cleveland long before he was part-owner of the club and hip-hop stars are often seen wearing NBA apparel in videos and on stage.
NBA arenas seemingly return the favor by blaring the music of Usher and others during nearly every stoppage in play.
The Cavaliers already rank No. 1 in the league in merchandise sales, but still have room to grow, said Neil Schwartz, director of marketing for SportScanINFO, which tracks sales of sports apparel and footwear.
"The nice thing about Usher is he has a little more crossover into the mainstream popular music," said Schwartz, comparing him with rappers Jay-Z and Nelly. "From a marketing standpoint, that's a good thing."
Usher stands to benefit too, as his association with the Cavaliers will expose him to sports fans who may not be familiar with him or his music. Synowka said it's also a nice boost in status for the 26-year-old, who was introduced in Cavaliers press materials as Usher Raymond IV.
"If you look in terms of what's the motivation of being a professional sports owner, part of it is ego driven," he said.
It's too early to measure what effect Usher, Jay-Z and Nelly will have on their respective teams, Swangard said, but he said just showing up at games won't be enough to have an impact. They need to have a creative role and generate ideas that create more excitement, he said.
The Cavaliers did not disclose how much of the team Usher owns, but minority ownership in a franchise typically is 15 percent or less, Swangard said. While Usher won't be a part of day-to-day management, he'll have a say in anything major the team undertakes.
Usher promised at a news conference this week that his role with the Cavaliers would be to improve amenities at the arena -- he mentioned an updated bar -- and to heighten the overall entertainment value. He also will play a role in utilizing the team's arena for concerts and other events.
"I just hope to make the experience of the Cleveland Cavaliers games one to remember for a lifetime. You will remember it. You will talk about it," said Usher, whose diamond stud earrings were rivaled only by the ones worn by James.
It's rare when James isn't the biggest name in a room. But he sat quietly as Usher and majority owner Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans, were introduced after spending $375 million for the Cavaliers.
James believes Usher will only improve the team's image. As someone who's already made million of dollars on endorsements by age 20, he should know.
"To have an icon in the music world come here and be a part of the organization will help us a lot," James said. "It will broaden the way people look at our team. We're a more global team. It's not just the focus on LeBron James all the time."(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)