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The Future of Sports Leagues: My 5 Considerations for Cannabis Brands Thinking About Sponsorship

Despite the slow crawl toward acceptance, the legalities of cannabis sponsorship remain a hindrance.

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RYLAND ZWEIFEL — stock.adobe.com

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

One thing is clear: The cultural tide is shifting toward the acceptance of cannabis brands and products in the sports industry. With high-profile athletes like Rob Gronkowski, Mike Tyson, Al Harrington and Joe Montana attaching their names to cannabis and CBD brands, the writing is on the wall.

Even the notoriously strict NFL is beginning to see the light. In 2019, the league and the players’ association agreed to jointly study cannabis as a pain management tool. The NHL Alumni Association has teamed up with Canopy Growth to research and study 100 retired players to assess the efficacy of CBD products in treating post-concussion neurological disorders.

Despite the slow crawl toward acceptance, the legalities of cannabis sponsorship remain a hindrance. Even in places that have legalized recreational and/or medical cannabis use, like many states and all of Canada, cannabis advertising is subject to strict rules.

But, some of that may be about to change. President Biden and Vice President Harris have voiced their support for decriminalization of cannabis at the federal level, which could open the door to a whole host of new opportunities.

If this decriminalization happens or is phased in over the next four years, sports leagues, particularly the Big Four, will likely need to amend their collective bargaining agreements. As long as cannabis use remains prohibited, league sponsorships will not happen.

With league revenues being lost to Covid-19 and traditional sponsorship categories like the automotive, retail and hospitality industries suffering catastrophic losses, changes in industry sponsorship deals will likely be necessary for survival.

While the Big Four leagues haven’t moved to accept team or league sponsorship from cannabis brands, it doesn’t mean that others in the sports industry aren’t jumping at the opportunity. Some leagues have already embraced cannabis or CBD sponsorship:

In 2018, the United Soccer League’s Las Vegas Lights FC became the first U.S.-based professional sports team with a cannabis sponsorship. The team signed a deal with NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, a dispensary located near the stadium, which sells Lights jerseys and merchandise in its retail space.

In 2020, USL signed a 4-year deal with Synchronicity, a full-spectrum hemp oil brand from Functional Remedies. The league has 47 North American teams and games are broadcast on ESPN. Under the agreement, Synchronicity’s products will be featured on USL stadium signage, social media channels, the website and the app network.

The National Women’s Soccer League has been on the leading edge of this sponsorship movement. Three league franchises are sponsored by CBD brands, and two of them, the Utah Royals and the NC Courage, are sponsored by Mendi.

Aside from sponsorship deals inked with individual players, like Bubba Watson, PGA tournaments are starting to accept cannabis industry sponsorship. In January 2020, The Farmers Insurance Open was sponsored by CV Sciences’ brand PlusCBD Oil. In addition to being one of the event sponsors, the brand had a booth set up on-site for those attending the event.

In 2019, Bellator MMA signed a sponsorship deal with cbdMD. The category-exclusive deal, renewed in July 2020, gives cbdMD the opportunity to be prominently featured on the mat during fights.

The Big3 is a professional three-on-three basketball league that features many former NBA and international players. In 2019, the league signed a sponsorship deal with cbdMD. As the first professional league to openly allow the use of CBD for pain management, the partnership makes sense. The brand logo appears on the jersey of all 12 league teams. This is a big deal because league games are broadcast nationally on both CBS and CBS Sports Network, putting the brand in front of a massive audience.

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As pressure mounts from athletes, fans and accounting departments, it is likely that CBD and cannabis sponsorship will be commonplace in the next few years. Yet, to get the most out of a potential sponsorship, cannabis and CBD brands should consider the following points when considering or implementing a sponsorship program:

1. Be clear on your goals: Know what you want to get out of your sponsorship, and make sure the event or organization represents the culture you want to promote and the audience you’re trying to reach with your brand. Don’t waste time trying to force your way in front of an audience that won’t care.

2. Be clear on what you receive for your investment: There are many sponsorship levels to consider. Know exactly what you will receive for each level, and negotiate accordingly. Sponsorship is an investment, so make sure you know what you will get for that investment, how it will be measured and how long the sponsorship will run.

3. Be an integrated part of the event: Make sure your brand can be a tangible part of the event, even if only in a small way. Maybe it’s a product, experience or resource. Think beyond the logo and the branded water bottle.

4. Market the heck out of it: Use every opportunity to showcase why you’re supporting the event and how fans can get involved, find you, use creative hashtags, activate on social, etc. before, during and after the event. Educate and involve employees and existing customers alike.

5. The long tail: Once the event is over, don’t lose the momentum. Showcase the results or impact of the event, and share highlights, upcoming news, special offers or discount codes with your new fans.

The above tips can help you position your cannabis brand for a potential sponsorship in a way that helps your brand stand out, engages customers and makes a difference.

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