The Sports Scoring Big with Licensing
Several sports that, in the past, had a lower profile in North America or with younger fans are now becoming prime players for licensing. This includes the likes of cricket, rugby, and pickleball.
The licensing programs for these sports are still smaller than those for the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, or Formula One (which has, in recent years, grown its program significantly following the success of the Netflix documentary series Drive to Survive), but they are all designed to reach a broader audience.
Part of that strategy is to reach younger fans in an era where access to these sports is greater than ever thanks to streaming services and social media. This means the licensing programs need to attract fans who may not be familiar with the intricacies of each sport.
World Rugby, for example, is represented by the agency IMG and is rebranding its recently completed Rugby World Cup to reflect the men’s and women’s properties under a single logo with equal billing for each gender.
Along those lines, The British & Irish Lions rugby team recently appointed IMG, which also represents Premiership Women’s Rugby, as its licensing agent through 2027. Plans for the brand are expected to be implemented prior to the team’s tour of Australia in 2025. These upcoming efforts will take advantage of rugby’s growing popularity. For example, the value of New Zealand’s All Blacks team brand has risen 72% since 2029, reaching $282 million.
Cricket, for its part, launched as new professional league in the US this year. Major League Cricket has six teams in the region as well as established stadiums. And in the UK, The Hundred tournament emerged with a goal of bringing 16- to 24-year-olds into the sport with, among other things, team names that represent the character of cities across the country, said Chris Beck, Licensing Manager at the England and Wales Cricket Board. Another major effort to bring in new fans is the league’s focus on the T20 game format, which is designed to complete matches in a few hours (in the past, games have stretched over the course of several days).
“It’s all designed to thrive in the digital era with the main goal to throw open cricket’s doors to all,” Beck said. “We spoke to key audiences, in particular to 16- to 24-year-olds, about why they were not currently engaging with cricket. A lot of the research pointed to the brands within cricket not aligning with those new fans and brands they love.”
Pickleball may not be as focused on young consumers as cricket, but it is working to expand its fanbase. Nettie’s paddles are branded with the Broadway play Hamilton, while Baddle’s products carry Vera Bradley and NHL designs. And then there is Pints & Paddle, a family entertainment center in Maple Grove, MN replete with pickleball courts, a bar, a restaurant, and a focus on high-tech entertainment.
“Much of what is going on with licensing in cricket and rugby is aimed at the fans, some of whom may never have played either sport, but still enjoy the aura around it,” a licensing executive said. “In the case of pickleball, the licensing is more participant-oriented since they are using the equipment to play the game, but also want something that expresses their fandom.”
All three sports are seeking to strike new deals as their popularity grows, fueled by readily available content that can reach a global audience.
“The hope is that our new brand identity will attract and engage a new generation of young people to Rugby World Cup,” World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin said. “We have created a brand that will come to life in a digital world, while reflecting the changing nature of sport and society, making it more accessible and relevant to more people worldwide.”