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The North American sports market is projected to grow from $54 billion in 2012 to $68 billion through 2017, according to PwC. Here’s how and why you’re sure to score with sports-related promotions.

In today’s world, stadiums, arenas and ballparks can cost hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars to construct, and ticket prices are jacked up to recoup the investment. The cost of a day at the park can be prohibitive for many, and teams need to be creative and provide incentives to help convince fans to dig deep into their pockets to attend.

When the team is winning, it’s not so hard to get fans in the door. But in an average or a losing season, it can be difficult to fill seats in these mega-sized venues. “The trick is how to get people off the couch, where the beer is cheaper and there’s no line for the bathroom,” says Chad Everett, vice president of sales, Success Promotions (asi/338528). It’s no surprise there has been an uptick in game-day giveaways, season ticket holder appreciation handouts and hospitality gifts and fan appreciation days.

Corporations, too, have embraced sports sponsorship, as they recognize that such partnerships can help build loyalty and support for their own brand. It’s mutually beneficial: Companies get a deeper engagement with the fans, and the teams get much-needed revenues as well as the ability to sell more tickets.

The IEG Sponsorship Report projected North American sponsorship spending on sports in 2013 of $13.8 billion, up 6% from 2012. Sports topped the list in commanding sponsorship dollars. IEG says sports and entertainment will grow at a faster rate than other types of partnerships and command nearly eight out of every 10 sponsorship dollars.

Here’s how distributors and suppliers are getting in on the action.

GAME-DAY GIVEAWAYS

Baseball is a clutch market for promotional products, partly because so many games are played in one season, but also because there are numerous layers of minor league teams in addition to the pros, offering abundant promotional opportunities. Also, research shows that teams see an uptick in attendance when they offer giveaways.

Bobbleheads top the list of the most popular baseball giveaway in 2012 and 2013 according to SportsBusiness Journal. “Everyone is trying to create the next big bobblehead. It’s still tried and true,” says Everett.

Take the fan freak-out last September following the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera bobblehead debacle as evidence. The first 18,000 fans to arrive at the game were supposed to receive them but the supply was late. Vouchers were given out but let’s just say the promotion struck out as long lines and chaos ensued.

That’s a lesson about working with trusted suppliers, especially when time is of the essence. Another key to success is offering high perceived value and unique ideas.

BDA Inc. (asi/137616) hit the ball out of the park when they created a bearded knit cap giveaway for the Seattle Mariners, a unique and fun promotional product that the Bleacher Report deemed “The Giveaway of the Year.”

The first 20,000 fans to enter the park received the hats. Instead of relying on traditional ads to drive the event, the club leveraged social media to create an interactive experience for fans, and scored an impressive 45% boost in attendance from the team’s average gate during the 2013 season. “Fans embraced the novelty of the beard hats,” says Jay Deutsch, BDA’s CEO and co-founder.

Thousands of fans shared photos of themselves wearing the hats on a special game-day hashtag, #BeardMe, and the best images were shared on the official Mariners’ social media accounts and on the Safeco Field video screen via Tagboard.

Fans were encouraged to place a virtual beard hat on any photo for the chance to win a trip to New York to see the Mariners play the Yankees, along with a visit to the MLB’s FanCave.

An oversized cutout of a giant beard hat head made appearances for photo opportunities in the King’s Court section of the ballpark, the ‘Pen beer garden and the University of Washington campus. In addition, local celebrities and Mariner players donned the beard hat for a game of “Guess the Celebrity” on social media.

“It was a blast to watch Mariners’ fans share photos of themselves in the beard hat on social media. We’re already looking forward to next season’s Beard Hat Night,” says Mariners’ Senior Director of Marketing Gregg Greene.

The St. Louis Cardinals also hit the right note in a tribute to team legend Stan Musial, who played for St. Louis his entire 22-year baseball career, accumulating numerous honors, awards and records. Musial was revered not only for his athletic skill but also for his strength of character and kindness.

The team hosted a “Stan the Man” Night last April to honor the player, who had passed away at age 92. “He was a legend in the ballpark and the community,” says Cardinal’s Promotions and Events Coordinator Megan Sommers. The team wanted to offer fans something that would be memorable and unique, and would honor Musial. They selected the harmonica, as Musial’s favorite non-baseball pastime was playing the instrument. “There was no question a harmonica would be a great choice,” she says.

Success Promotions, which supplied the harmonicas, paid great attention to detail. The harmonica, which bore Musial’s signature engraved on top, was housed in a box with a simulated finish designed to look like the wood and logo of a Louisville Slugger bat. The music for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was included, and during the seventh inning stretch fans were instructed to play the tune as footage of Stan Musial playing the same song appeared on the stadium screen. Over 25,000 harmonicas were distributed.

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Ball Pro Promotional Group’s (asi/38120) President Tim Hanson says golf is a sweet spot in sports marketing. “While we are the number-one source for all sports, most of the dollars we see are spent in the golf arena,” he says. The National Golf Foundation (NGF) reported that regular, everyday golfers, aided by corporate and other sponsors, raised almost $4 billion for charity in 2011 through over 143,000 golf fundraising events.

When it comes to tournament fundraisers, most people think the money comes from the golfers, when in reality it comes from the sponsors. “The more sponsors you can get, the more money you can raise,” Hanson says. “Products with multiple imprint locations allow more opportunities for sponsors to get exposure and justify the expense.” About 75% of Ball Pro’s sales are golf-related.

“There is tremendous opportunity in golf,” agrees ePromos Brand Consultant Dan Fradette. He recommends reaching out to the tournament gatekeepers – the local golf course superintendents. “If you can get them to endorse you, that goes a long way.” These gatekeepers know next year’s schedule of tournaments and can recommend how to connect with the organizers.

“Be persistent and don’t be afraid to ask,” says Fradette. “A lot of these tournaments want to give things away, but they don’t know what to give, or understand things like timetables.”

Think beyond obvious products, like balls, tees and towels, which work, yes, but you should ask specific questions about the type of event, such as whether or not it is a fundraiser, and what the format is, and then make product recommendations accordingly. Golfers actually want unique and different products that they don’t already have in their bag.

Bundling products and soliciting multiple sponsors makes sense when marketing to a sporting audience. “Bundling takes the commodity out of the product – you are providing the whole package,” Hanson says. “You simplify everyone’s life.”

For a tournament, he recommends bundling several golf-related items in a branded pouch, shoe bag or duffle. While golf balls are always appreciated, he suggests going with lower-priced balls and spending a little more on other unique products such as a Pitchfix switchblade divot tool with a removable, imprinted ball marker. “They look high tech and people love them,” says Hanson.

EVENT INITIATIVES

Runners in the most recent NYC marathon had one thing in common – the orange fleece-lined ponchos that many of them wore upon completion of their 26.2-mile run on a chilly November afternoon. Runners formed a sea of orange as they exited New York’s Central Park.

The ponchos were supposed to debut at the 2012 Marathon, as part of a newly created, no-baggage initiative designed to minimize congestion and delays at the finish line and park exit. When the 2012 race was cancelled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the first round of ponchos was donated to hurricane recovery efforts.

Traditionally, runners receive a heat sheet post-race, and for this event, 56,000 were provided by sponsors United Airlines and Foot Locker. However, given the new no-baggage policy, the race organizers, The New York Road Runners (NYRR), sought to provide a garment that would keep the runner warm and dry but would be easy to distribute and keep the runner flow moving at the distribution point to avoid delays and backup. Runners who chose the no-baggage option received a poncho.

The brightly colored ponchos were derived from the corporate color of the 2013 title sponsor, Dutch bank ING. Boston-based Stran & Co. (asi/337725) supplied the ponchos, which were waterproof and wind-resistant. Runners expressed their gratitude on the NYC Marathon Facebook page and via the organization’s various Twitter handles and Instagram, taking this promotion from concept to the finish line with the desired result.