Play ball!: Sports marketing and America's pastime are no strangers to independent tire dealers

April 1, 2006

"Almost since the first dealer discovered that the sports page was the best place to reach the potential male tire buyer, the industry has been pouring millions of dollars into organized sports.

"The result has been a marketing link between these two worlds which not only has stood the test of time, but which actually has become more important as millions more Americans become participating members of the sporting community each year."

"Sports: The Surest Way to a Tire Buyer's Heart!" Modern Tire Dealer, July 1967

Conrad's Tire Service Inc. and Belle Tire Distributors have a lot in common. They are strong players in their respective Midwest markets, Cleveland, Ohio, and Detroit, Mich. Based on number of outlets, they are two of the top 100 tire dealerships in the United States. And they both use sports marketing to associate their tire dealerships with professional sports teams.

In the case of Belle Tire, it's the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League, Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball Association, and, to a lesser extent, the Detroit Tigers of Major League Baseball (MLB). Conrad's doesn't deal directly with the Cleveland Indians, preferring to work with its in-house television network, SportsTime Ohio. The result is arguably the same: Consumers associate Conrad's with the Indians, and vice versa.

Both dealerships are reluctant to share their advertising costs. So are the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, respectively. However, they gave us a glimpse at the cost effectiveness of sports marketing.

Belle of the ball games

Sports marketing is a way of life for Belle Tire. The Allen Park, Mich.-based company has 79 stores in Michigan and northern Ohio. But it's Michigan's professional sports teams, specifically Detroit's, on which it concentrates its advertising.

"Probably our most notable affiliations are with the Detroit Pistons and Detroit Red Wings," says Vice President Jeff Kruse. "The Tigers are probably at the bottom of our list, although they are on the list."


Belle Tire has different advertising strategies for each sport. It has sponsored the Pistons for 15 years. For its advertising dollars, it gets unique signage at The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Belle Tire name and logo is part of revolving signage on the 80-foot-long scoreboard table, and around the base of the upper deck -- "it goes around the whole perimeter with animation."

As part of the package, Belle also gets the following: * three commercials per televised broadcast. "We're just selling our brand," says Kruse.

* sponsorship of the "Belle Tire Fast Break of the Game" contest. Winners of a $100 gift certificate for automotive service are drawn from entries submitted at Belle Tire outlets. "You can't really talk to anyone in town who doesn't know the Detroit Pistons, and Belle Tire is synonymous with the Detroit Pistons. The exposure works quite well."

Belle's 11-year association with the Red Wings is even stronger. The Belle Tire sign is approximately four feet high by 12-feet long and prominently displayed on two dasher boards in opposing corners at Joe Louis Arena. "It's a high exposure area," says Kruse. "The TV cameras are constantly on it." The animated Belle tire mascot, holding a hockey stick, is the star of two television commercials per game.

"We don't have big sales and 'Hurry down before midnight' ads," he says. Instead, Belle Tire promotes itself and its employees (who are featured in the ads) with the tag line "Trust us. We'll make you happy you came in."

Belle Tire has supported the Detroit Tigers for three years. The team has "respectable TV viewership and faithful, if not rabid, followers," says Kruse. "We have two in-stadium signs (in Comerica Park). We have one in the right center power alley. It's a huge sign with just our name and logo." If any batter hits the 20-foot-high by 40-foot-wide sign, a lucky winner receives a $100 gift certificate. There also is a large static sign on the scoreboard.

"We have a deal with Belle Tire that provides them with significant presence at our ballpark via signage on the scoreboard, outfield wall, and on our Diamondview -- the rotating signage behind home plate," says Steve Harms, vice president of corporate sales for the Detroit Tigers.

"Other marketing programs available with us include print advertising, sponsoring a premium giveaway promotion, features on our scoreboard, and in-market promotions."

Harms says specific costs and fees are confidential. "But our sponsorships range anywhere from $15,000 on the low end all the way up to seven figures."

Programs may or may not be exclusive to a market segment, according to Harms. "In Belle Tire's case, they do have an exclusive with us for in-stadium advertising. We could do a sponsorship deal with a competitor for an in-market promotion and other elements."


How successful is the advertising? "I cannot provide you specific figures, but a good indicator for how well a sports marketing program is working for a company is if they continue engaging with a sports property year after year," says Harms. "In Belle Tire's case, this will be their third consecutive season in 2006 as a sponsor of the Detroit Tigers."

"We really don't survey to see how well it works," says Kruse. "We can just tell."

However, there are ways to figure out success indirectly. For example, television and radio ratings can be tracked.

A 2004 MLB Executive Market Report has helped Belle Tire break down the Tigers' fan base, both overall and at the games.

The report also concluded that "nearly one in five local Detroit Tigers fans is looking to buy a new vehicle in the next year."

Belle Tire also advertises at minor league ballparks in small markets such as Grand Rapids, Mich. (the White Caps) and Toledo, Ohio (the Mud Hens).

"It's brand building. It's like any advertising - it's consumer awareness." The dealership sells BFGoodrich, Continental, Kelly, Goodyear, General, Michelin, Bridgestone, Firestone, Toyo, Vogue and Uniroyal. It does not offer Hankook, which advertises in 14 major league parks, including Comerica Park. "We do not have a direct involvement with Hankook," says Harms. "They are on our home plate signage through a national advertising deal with Dorna, the sign company."

Going the other way

Conrad's, a chain of 31 stores in Northeast Ohio, aligns itself with the Cleveland Indians indirectly. According to General Manager Dominic Umek, the company buys space on the Indians' TV network through a media buyer.

"We're the post-game sponsor," he says. The company's advertising outlay includes naming rights (Conrad's Indians Post Game Show), on-screen promotions during and after the game, and multiple mentions by announcers during interviews and commentary.


In-game promotions of the post-game include 30-second commercial spots; the first 20 seconds, produced by the Indians, promote the post-game show. "We follow that up with 10-second spots we produce," says Umek. Sometimes they promote a sale, although last fall the company launched its "home of the four tires in 30 seconds guarantee" campaign. Its success led to a change in Conrad's marketing message: The post-game show is now sponsored by Conrad's Tire Express & Total Car Care.

Umek says his company's sports marketing is valuable. "We feel that regardless of how competitive the team is or not, we get value out of this investment." Based on an independent evaluation of Conrad's advertising by media buyers, he estimates he gets 1.8 value per investment dollar, or $1.80 value per $1 spent. He also believes the cost to Conrad's versus what it would be if it directly sponsored the Indians is less -- and the perceived connection to the Indians in the eyes of the fans may be the same.

Major leagues vs. minor leagues: Apples to apples, advertising costs may be the same

Matt Brown, director of corporate sales for the Cleveland Indians, says there is a misconception about advertising with a major league team compared to a minor league team. And he should know.

Brown's background is in minor league promotions. He used to sell based on the premise that major league baseball is too expensive. "That culture has changed," he says.

"Minor league baseball is event-based marketing, because no one cares if you win or lose." As it turns out, that philosophy is similar in the major leagues, although "it doesn't hurt to have a winning team."

In Cleveland, the scoreboard advertisers are First Energy, KeyBanc, Budweiser and Cleveland Clinic. Brown describes them as "significant partners," with six-figure campaigns with the Indians. He also says television advertising can be expensive.

But area businesses have plenty of cost-effective options. What if you only wanted to sponsor a night at the ballpark, such as "Fireworks Night"? In the minor leagues, the cost would be $6,000 to $10,000, with an attendance of 6,000 fans. In the major leagues, the cost would be $30,000 to $40,000, with 30,000 fans. "Apples to apples, the comparisons are exact."

Kiosks or table displays also are relatively inexpensive. Picnic lunches at Jacobs Field may be less expensive than at some minor league parks.

Brown says he is looking for someone to sponsor the Indians' "speed pitch" booth. "You could throw the ball through a tire. It makes sense in our market to have a tire dealer. It's Cleveland. Rubber hits the road, right? I also would love to do a tire roll promotion on the field."


Dunn Tire hits home run with stadium: Name sponsorship keeps name out there

"Ninety-eight percent of people who think of you as top-of-mind are going to shop you first," says Pat Logue, director of marketing and advertising for Dunn Tire Corp. in Cheektowaga, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo.

Dunn Tire's name sponsorship of the Buffalo Bisons’ minor league baseball stadium in Buffalo -- "Dunn Tire Park" -- has certainly helped the dealership's top-of-mind awareness among consumers, according to Logue.

Dunn Tire pays $300,000 a year for naming rights to the stadium. "It's in a high-traffic area in Buffalo on one of the most heavily traveled routes in the city."

Dunn became the stadium's name sponsor in 1998. Before that, the facility was sponsored by North Americare, a health care company. North Americare decided to relinquish sponsorship and contacted Dunn Tire via a third party.

"We saw it as an opportunity to step in," says Logue. "It made a tremendous amount of sense, and it also coincided with National Tire & Battery Inc.'s announcement that it was entering the Buffalo market. We thought, 'Here's a national retailer coming into town. How do we keep our name out there?' It was part of a branding strategy."

Dunn Tire's contract with the Bisons, a Triple A team, lasts for at least two more years.

Logo mojo: Promoters use golf balls to market brands

Putters come and go (just ask any golfer), but golf balls, especially ones with logos, seem to last forever. They get lost. They get found. And their advertising message gets spread around.

Decades after it ended, the famous Uni, Roy and Al campaign is still being promoted whenever someone retrieves an appropriately marked Uniroyal Tire golf ball from a lake.

As our cover photo shows, tire manufacturers, distributors and dealers in the United States like to give out golf balls with their logos on them. So do many other domestic companies. About eight million dozen golf balls with logos are produced each year.


"On the premium ball side, it's estimated that 30% of total premium golf production eventually gets logo-ed," says Dan Murphy, director of marketing for Bridgestone Golf Inc. "It's big business." He defines "premium" golf balls as those higher than $20 a dozen.

Murphy thinks golf balls have a high perceived value. "So relating a brand to golf is a positive thing."

According to the National Golf Foundation, about 80 million dozen golf balls are produced worldwide each year. The U.S. market accounts for about 45 million dozen golf balls annually, not counting range balls.

"As you go up in price point, you see a higher ratio of logo balls," he adds. Bridgestone manufactures its own golf balls; even without logos, the Bridgestone name gets brandished about every time someone uses a Bridgestone Precept brand golf ball. "The synergy between the two products from a branding standpoint is fabulous," says Michael Fluck, advertising and Internet manager for Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire LLC. (Bridgestone also is sponsoring the World Golf Championship series, which includes the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, for at least the next three years.)

"We were in the golf promotion in the mid-'90s," says Guy Mannino, CEO and president of Pirelli Tire North America Inc. "It's not a big deal now."

He says so many companies promote themselves in a similar fashion, which dulls its marketing luster in Pirelli's eyes. "We still make them, and if we have a dealer meeting or golf outing, we (give them) out."

There are close to 30 million adult golfers in the United States. The National Golf Foundation breaks down the demographics as follows (each represents about half of the total adult golfers):

* "core" golfers who play at least eight times a year (and average 37 rounds a year). Close to 80% are male.

* "occasional" golfers, defined as those who play between one and seven times a year.

The value of golf ball logo advertising is hard to quantify. "(It is) very hard to move the needle on awareness with a logo golf ball alone," says Kendria Sweet, account supervisor for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a marketing, advertising and public relations firm based in Charlotte, N.C. "They would need to be a component in a much larger campaign (or) plan."

Sweet believes golf balls do not have the longevity of other golf-related logo giveaways such as golf towels, hats or pullovers. "Golfers lose golf balls fairly quickly and they play with their 'freebies' first. Unless you spend the money to logo the best brand, the perception of quality is not there, and even then not so much."

"The payback is in goodwill," says Ed Markey, a spokesman for Goodyear North American Tire. "It's a simple offering and we use it in the environment that is appropriate."

Value is relative. A dozen Uniroyal 252 Dimple golf balls, featuring Uni, Roy and Al "Steel Belted Radials" on the box, recently was listed for $24.95 on eBay. It didn't sell.

About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.