Sponsor Insights

Brands Pile On to Pickleball as the Sport’s Popularity Soars

The U.S. Open Pickleball Championship is currently underway this week in Naples, Florida, where over 3K players are facing off in pro and amateur matches across 59 courts. While relatively new to the U.S., pickleball is the country’s fastest-growing sport, with 4.8M players nationwide–a nearly 40% increase since 2020–and more than 9M Americans expected to be swinging a paddle in 2025.

Pickleball’s red-hot popularity has marketers racing to cash in on the action: in the past 12 months, more than 150 brands have partnered with pickleball properties, with each property averaging 12 sponsors. Predictably, the sport’s top category is Apparel & Accessories, while Franklin–a pickleball paddle leader–and footwear honchos Skechers and DUPR lead the list of most active brands.

Signage is key for brands keen to make a splash at pickleball events: net signage, baseline signage (fixed or rotating), and courtside signage (fixed or rotating) are the top three assets for gaining visibility among the ever-expanding throngs of pickleball fans.  

Pickleball matches are also gaining traction on social media. All PPA Tour matches are streamed on YouTube, attracting over 40K followers (and counting)  to the channel. Online car retailer Carvana serves as the exclusive title sponsor of the tour, which boasts the largest-ever professional pickleball single-season prize money purse of $5.5M this season. 

As pickleball’s popularity continues to skyrocket–and more deep-pocketed investors join the long list that already includes Tom Brady, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant–expect a slew of brands from an array of industries to keep piling on to the pickleball train. 

March’s Hottest Brands Have Arrived!

For brands March is synonymous with March Madness, an action-packed month filled with activations from tournament sponsors, teams, and athletes. Coca-Cola, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Wendy’s, and AT&T rank among the most active brands during this perennial celebration of college basketball, as well as the 30 most searched brands on our platform last month.

Cloud security startup Wiz ranked #1 on last month’s list. On March 7th, the fast-growing company announced an exclusive strategic partnership with cybersecurity platform SentinelOne, with the goal of offering customers a top-tier cloud security solution to detect, prevent, and respond to cloud security threats. A week before, Wiz–now the top-valued, venture-backed cybersecurity vendor with a valuation of $10 billion–announced its first formal partner program, designed to help further accelerate the company’s sales by expanding its already robust value-added reseller (VAR) channels.

EasyPost took the #4 spot, on the heels of becoming the Official Shipping Solutions Partner of LIV Golf in late February. The agreement marks the first global partnership for the groundbreaking LIV Golf League, which features many of the world’s best golfers competing in 14 events in seven different countries throughout the year.

Soft drink giant Coca-Cola snagged 6th place after kicking off the month in high gear on March 5th, when Coca-Cola Zero Sugar partnered with 2023 Daytona 500 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JTG Daugherty Racing as co-primary sponsor on the No. 47 Camaro ZL1 for the NASCAR Cup event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The soda icon also launched an ambitious new global campaign, “Masterpiece,” last month, which follows the path of an ice-cold Coke as it journeys from canvas to canvas–spanning the works of masters like Andy Warhol and Vincent Van Gogh, as well as emerging contemporary talents–to highlight the importance of bringing inspiration to everyday moments. Meanwhile, BodyArmor, the brand’s energy drink subsidiary, debuted its biggest campaign to date on March 15th starring Jennifer Lopez, in hopes the superstar can help boost flagging sales of its low-calorie BodyArmor Lyte beverage. Coca-Cola also continued to partner with celebrities including Magic Johnson, Lil Dicky, Travis “Taco” Bennett, and Tamika Catching in its March Madness “Best Coke Ever?” campaign, promoting Coke Zero Sugar with TV spots, outdoor advertising, and experiential activations in the Final Four host cities.

Dick’s Sporting Goods landed at #9 after announcing a new partnership anointing the brand the Official Sporting Goods Retail Partner of the NCAA. DSG launched its biggest ad campaign yet, “Sports Change Lives,” and as part of the deal, which included frequent commercials during March Madness broadcasts. Ahead of the Final Four, the brand also inked NIL deals with eight college basketball standouts: South Carolina‘s Aliyah Boston, Stanford‘s Haley Jones, Villanova‘s Maddie Siegrist, and Indiana‘s Mackenzie Holmes on the women’s side, and Gonzaga‘s Drew Timme, UCLA‘s Jaime Jaquez, Kansas‘ Jalen Wilson, and Houston‘s Marcus Sasser on the men’s roster.

March 2023 Most Searched Brands

Newly Launched Kings League—Football Designed for the Digital Age

Former FC Barcelona star, Gerard Piqué, recently launched an ambitious–and potentially groundbreaking–post-retirement project: Kings League Infojobs, a new seven-a-side, Spanish football league established in December 2022. Piqué selected 12 partners, called “presidents” (high-profile digital content creators and other former football athletes, including Iker Casillas and Kun Agüero), to build their own teams from the ground up–from creating names and logos to hiring management and technical staff.

One especially high-profile president, influencer Ibai Llanos–a Spanish internet celebrity and renowned esports caster known simply as “Ibai,” whose events hold worldwide streaming records–heads up league club Porcinos FC. The league is leveraging Llanos’ massive following (more than 9M on Instagram alone)–along with the followings of its other presidents–to grow its viewership.

This strategy is proving wildly successful so far. The Kings League has already drawn legions of viewers since its inaugural season kicked off on January 1, 2023, helped in part by an appearance by Brazilian football legend Ronaldinho in the 8th “journey” (weekly game day, in Kings League parlance, aka “matchday”). In January alone, the league racked up 238M views on TikTok, while the league’s Twitch account drew the platform’s highest average number of viewers worldwide the same month.

Kings League rules differ from traditional football regulations, with the goal of adding dynamism to the game via tactics including a tie-breaker penalty shootout, unlimited substitutions, and special “secret weapons” (detailed below). 

Anyone who wants to play for the league–from influencers to athletes, and everyone in between–can apply by submitting an application and video. Kings League then selects 200 players and holds a draft, where presidents and their coaches make their picks. 

Rules & Regulations

  • Kings League matches are held every Sunday from 4:00pm-10:00pm Central European Time (CET), and span 40 minutes divided into two halves.
  • At the conclusion of the 11-journey regular season–which lasts just 3 months–the eight best teams proceed to the playoffs, which will culminate in a Final Four on March 26 at Camp Nou (FC Barcelona Stadium). 
  • There are 2 seasons per year; May 2023 begins this year’s second season.
  • Before every match, each coach chooses an envelope containing a “secret weapon” (arma secreta in Spanish) that provides a playing advantage, which can be used once per game. The 20 “secret weapon” cards include the following advantages, among others:
    • Double goal (6): For 2 minutes, goals scored will count as two. 
    • Penalty from the center (4): A penalty kick from midfield–1-on-1 striker against the goalkeeper, with no rejection possible.
    • Wild card (1): Can be used as a wild card to play any of the other cards.
    • Piqué (1): Gerard Piqué will join the team as a player for that match.
  • At the 18th minute of the first half, a “League Card” is drawn that changes the number of players on the field (1vs1, 2vs2, 3vs3, 4vs4, or 5vs5) for the half’s last two minutes.
  • There are no draws; if teams are tied at the match’s end, a penalty shootout decides the winner.
  • In the starting kickoff, both teams must be on their goals until the countdown ends, and then run to take the ball at midfield.

On May 6, the Kings League will launch Queens League Oysho, named for the Spanish clothing retailer that’s its title sponsor. A women’s league with the same rules and format, its debut–to be played in tandem with the Kings League’s second season, with games held on Saturday–will help to further fuel the momentum of women’s football worldwide. 

League Sponsors

Kings League sponsors activate during matches via rotating billboards, product placement, and halftime challenges, among other assets. Each team can also sign its own sponsors, whose logos can be placed on the players’ jersey sleeves and shorts. Along with the weekly journey recap, “AfterKings,” broadcast Mondays on YouTube and Twitch–the league’s streaming partner–team presidents can stream their games on their preferred platforms, showcasing team sponsors with a product placement or digital billboard/logo activation.

INFOJOBS: The Kings League’s exclusive naming partner and primary jersey patch partner of all 12 teams, Europe’s leading career network brand also sponsors KOI, the esports team cofounded by Ibai.

Simyo: Marking one of its first forays into sports sponsorships, the Spanish telecom company ranks among the league’s main sponsors, whose assets include the “Simyo MVP” award.  

McDonald’s: To promote McDelivery, its delivery services brand, McDonald’s sponsorships in Spain span sports including football (Mirandes), basketball (Cazoo Baskonia), and esports (Movistar Riders), as well as out-of-home advertising worldwide. Within the Kings League, the fast food titan sponsors event-related content including the countdown to matches’ kickoff, and runs a banner ad on Twitch, the league’s streaming partner.

Grefusa: The Spanish food products manufacturer ranks among the league’s main sponsors, and also sponsors its referees. Active in the streaming market, the snack brand also sponsors Ibai’s events, as well as Team Heretics, an esports team.

XiaoMI: An active sponsor of football properties–including the Mexican and Finnish national federations–as well as music festivals and esports teams, the Chinese consumer electronics manufacturer is one of the league’s main partners and its VAR (Instant Replay) sponsor. The brand’s logo also features on the back of all team jerseys.

CUPRA: The Spanish carmaker’s many sponsorships include the World Padel Tour, FC Barcelona, tennis events like the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell, and KOI, Ibai’s esports club. As the Kings League Stadium Sponsor, the brand’s cars are displayed outside of CUPRA Arena, the league’s home.

Spotify: Hot on the heels of a landmark July 2022 deal with FC Barcelona that named the music streaming giant Main Partner and Official Audio Streaming Partner of the club–and saw the team’s stadium rebranded Spotify Camp Nou–the brand seized the opportunity to get in on the ground level of FC Barcelona alum Piqué’s newest venture, sponsoring the Kings League “secret weapon” cards.

Tire Brand Sponsorships Shift Into Overdrive as Racing Season Resumes

With the 2023 NASCAR and F1 seasons having recently roared back into gear, tire brands are again taking center stage at the race track. In the last 12 months there have been more than 125 tire brands buying sponsorships or media across all properties, averaging 6 sponsorship deals each. Twenty-six percent of all tire brands with at least 1 sponsorship or media deal have a partnership with a motorsports property.

Continental ranks first by sponsorship volume with 102 deals, including partnerships with the Tour de France and MLS, among others. Bridgestone follows as a relatively distant second with 70 partnerships, while Michelin is third with 47 deals. Pirelli Tire, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Hankook, Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, Balkrishna Industries Limited (BKT), Toyo Tires, and Nexen Tire round out the top 10 brands, in that order. 

Social posts lead the list of most frequently bought assets. Toyo Tires’ branded Instagram post with UFC, welcoming Khabib Nurmagomedov to the UFC Hall of Fame, scored the most engagement, while the partnership between the International Cricket Council and MRF Tyres performed best among social campaigns, engaging 13.2M across 521 total posts. Property entitlements, digital content, TV-visible signage, and brand exposure are other assets popular with tire makers.

Among Italy’s most storied companies, Pirelli Tire has been a motorsport mainstay since 1907, and the exclusive global official tyre partner of the FIA Formula One World Championship since 2011, having inked a one-year extension with F1 last year.

With one of the longest-running relationships in racing history, dating back to 1954, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and NASCAR announced a new multi-year agreement last December, renewing Goodyear as the exclusive tire supplier for NASCAR’s top three national series.

Tire Category Insights

Out of Home Activations

Out Of Home (OOH) properties have been getting more use and visibility in the sponsorship world due to the unique ways brands have been able to leverage this asset. A wide variety of brands leverage OOH through car (and city bus) wraps, sponsorship logo placements and elevated activities. The OOH industry has been on the incline due to the power of technology (ever heard of 3D printing?). Here are some insights into how OOH properties—and how some brands are taking their marketing campaigns to the next level.

Overall, the Out Of Home Property sponsorship is growing more now than ever. You will not only see these sponsorships in airports but you will see them in malls, bike shares and outdoor advertising. This side of sponsorship is increasing now more than ever and the start of this big part of sponsorship has just scratched the surface. 

February’s Most Searched Brands Are In and Super Bowl Advertisers Score Big

February marked a high-flying month for the sponsorship industry, as deep-pocketed brands capitalized on Super Bowl LVII’s 113M viewership. Of the 30 most searched brands on the SponsorUnited platform, 30% of them had a Super Bowl commercial. In addition, some very big deals made headlines including the six-year extension of MLS’s league-wide kit supplier partnership with adidas, worth a reported $830M.

After making its Super Bowl debut with a commercial encouraging consumers to “shop like a billionaire,” new online superstore Temu ranked #1 in our February rankings. The Boston-based startup then surpassed Amazon and Walmart to become the most downloaded shopping app in the U.S. one week ago–not bad for a month’s work. 

In the 6th spot is Jersey Mike’s, which on February 2nd announced a multiyear US partnership that names the sub shop the “Official Sub Sandwich of the NHL”–the chain’s first partnership with a professional sports league. Besides other exclusive marketing rights, Jersey Mike’s will receive broadcast exposure through Digitally Enhanced Dasherboards–the NHL’s advanced approach to dynamic dasherboard advertising–during the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

American personal finance company, NerdWallet, lands at #7, after signing its first-ever MLS partnership last week with the Philadelphia Union, just three days before the season’s start. 

Prime Hydration–a sports drink founded by Youtubers Logan Paul and KSI–follows at #8. On January 31st, the beverage brand announced a global marketing partnership designating Prime as the “Official Global Sports Drink of UFC.” The deal encompasses a wide range of activations into key UFC assets, including every UFC Pay-Per-View and Fight Night, highlighted by broadcast features and never-before-seen branding inside the world-famous Octagon.

Feb Rankings
Feb Rankings

The Padel-Pickleball Craze: Why Fans, Brands and Investors Can’t Get Enough of These Sports

As ever-growing legions of fans get into the swing of padel and pickleball, savvy sponsors and investors–including a who’s-who of pro athletes and boldface names–are racing to grab a piece of the action. 

Popular in Spain and parts of Latin America for over 50 years, padel–the world’s fastest-growing sport–is now blazing a trail around the globe, with 30 new padel clubs/organizations and 100 new courts opening every week, according to Deloitte. 

The World Padel Tour began on February 18th in Abu Dhabi and will run through year’s end, with 27 Open and Master events across 14 countries–the most ever–including Chile, Finland, Germany, Mexico, and Paraguay, amongst others. Fittingly, it will be the most international tour yet, reflecting Padel’s seemingly unstoppable momentum. 

On February 17th, Spanish nutrition brand HSN was announced as a tour sponsor, joining returning sponsors Adeslas, Cupra, Estrella Damm, Maxcolchon, and Nox, amongst others. 

As reported in our 2022 Sports Sponsorship Year In Review, Gianluca Vacchi, Andy Murray, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Zinedine Zidane have invested in padel clubs, helping to keep the sport squarely in the headlines. Not surprisingly, social media also continues to play a crucial role in fueling interest in padel and engaging new fans: the World Padel Tour saw social media growth of 18% YoY, to more than 2M followers currently across all platforms. 

Meanwhile, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America, with 4.8M players nationwide–a nearly 40% increase since 2020. At this pace, there will be more than 9M Americans swinging a pickleball paddle in 2025.

Major League Pickleball kicked off its season at the end of January, with its next event slated for March 23-26 in Daytona, Florida. In December, MLP sent shockwaves through the sport when it merged with rival Professional Pickleball Association’s newly formed VIBE Pickleball League, whose first team owner is Mark Cuban. The surprise move allowed MLP to expand to 24 teams this year (from 8 in 2021), with six events scheduled for 2023. The news followed the announcement days earlier that Jimmy Buffett’s casual dining chain, Margaritaville, would become MLP’s title sponsor– branding the league as “MLP by Margaritaville”–marking one of its largest commercial deals to date. Michelob Ultra, Cirkul, and Ora Organic are also league sponsors.

MLP investors include Tom Brady, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Drew Brees, Heidi Klum, and Eva Longoria, among dozens of others. In late January, MLP announced that the Tennis Channel will be broadcasting the league’s events on cable television throughout the season. 

PPA, sponsored by Carvana, will continue its individual-competition operations with two monthly events, having commenced its season on January 12th. The 2023 Carvana PPA Tour tour will boast the largest-ever professional pickleball single-season prize money purse of $5.5M, and be the first professional tour to host 25 events in a single season. Other PPA sponsors include Molson Coors’ Vizzy Hard Seltzer, FILA, OGIO, Holland America, and Baird, among others.

As the season heats up and pickleball fever spreads unabated nationwide, watch this space for news of other non-endemic sponsors jumping on the pickleball bandwagon.

Top Insights From Our 2022 Reports

SponsorUnited released 12 sponsorship & media reports across leagues, categories, and industries in 2022. Here’s a look at some of our best performing social media posts last year, featuring insights from each report. 

2022 Sponsorship Year In Review: Most Endorsed Global Athletes–Norfolk State standout Rayquan Smith ranked #1 with 58 deals.

MLS 2022 Marketing Partnerships Report: MLS clubs generated $461 million in sponsorship revenue in 2022.

MLB 2022 Marketing Partnerships Report: Japanese brands bought backstop ads all season when baseball phenom Shohei Ohtani stepped up to the plate: 22 brands scooped up signage at Angels home games, while 11 brands followed “Shotime” to 10 other teams’ stadiums. The first inning was sponsors’ prime time, all but guaranteeing exposure with Ohtani on the bump or at the dish.

Women In Sports 2022: Most Endorsed Female Athletes–the NWSL’s Alex Morgan took the #1 spot with 27 deals.

Music Artist Marketing Partnerships Report: Indie folk band Bon Iver inked the most partnerships with 39 deals–94% of which were with groups/organizations.  

NHL 2021-22 Marketing & Partnerships Annual Report: The NHL league account posted more on social media than any other pro sports league–and 2x more than the second-place NFL. No NHL team or player has a larger social following than the league itself.

2021-22 European Football Partnerships Report: “Since our teams started working with SponsorUnited a year ago, work processes have become more efficient, agile, and productive, giving us the opportunity to reach the right people in each company, as well as to know in detail what is the trajectory of each brand.” 

– Jose Luis Crespo Bola, LaLiga

NBA 2021-22 Marketing & Partnerships Annual Report: The NBA and Hennessy, the league’s first Global Spirits Partner, joined forces to unveil two one-of-kind basketball courts.

2021-22 Marketing Partnership Finance Report: Five brands–ally, Fifth Third Bank, LendingTree, PayPal, & Webull–sponsored uniforms in 3 or more different leagues/associations. 

NFL Marketing & Partnerships Annual Report: ​​The NFL and Roblox partnered to launch the “NFL Tycoon” game within Roblox–an experience that aimed to engage the next generation of football fans in the metaverse by allowing fans to build, play, and learn in their own NFL world. 

As part of Tide’s environmentally focused efforts, fans entered to win a “Tide Cold Washer.” A talking washing machine featured 10 NFL players, including Matt Ryan, who was featured in new TV spots.

MLS 2021 Marketing & Partnerships Annual Report: 18 teams within MLS during the 2021 season had a single jersey sleeve partner.

Technology Sponsorships Annual Report: The Brooklyn Nets were the first professional sports team to arrive in the metaverse, creating 3-D renderings of their games within seconds–allowing fans to place themselves around (or even on) the court during play. 

100 Most Searched Brands of 2022

As we dive into a new year, here’s the list of the 100 most searched brands by sponsorship executives on the SponsorUnited platform in 2022.

Toyota led the way at #1. With over 1,100 sponsorship/media deals, the Japanese automotive giant boasted major sponsorships with properties all over the world, including AS Roma, Buffalo Bills, and FC Dallas. The company ended the year by announcing that it’s becoming the Official Vehicle of World of Outlaws, the home of premier dirt track racing for more than 40 years. Over 150 of Toyota’s 2022 partnerships were media deals with local news shows and networks.

Dunkin’ was the second most searched brand on the platform. The company jumped into the NIL space last February by signing University of North Carolina basketball player, Deja Kelly, and University of Georgia track star, Matthew Boling, to Team Dunkin’, whose roster now includes over 30 standout student athletes. Dunkin’ also rolled out limited-edition donuts with the Tennessee Titans and University of Georgia Athletics last summer.

Soft drink powerhouse Coca-Cola took the third spot. With more than 1,700 partnerships, the company sponsored 55 music festivals in 2022, including Tomorrowland, Lollapalooza, and the Governors Ball. Coca-Cola also became an Official Sponsor of Liverpool and the Tottenham Hotspurs, and was the presenting sponsor of the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour.

Verizon, the fourth most searched brand of 2022, sponsored more than 30 music festivals, including Coachella, Forecastle Festival, and III Points. Last April, the telecom titan became the Official Founding Partner of League of Legends: Wild Rift Esports for North America, followed by a high-profile turn as Official Partner of the F1 Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix in May. Verizon also partnered with over 100 properties across the top five major US pro sports leagues. 

Some of last year’s trends were reflected in the top 100 search–namely, the rise and fall of the crypto industry. Crypto.com, FTX, and Coinbase were among the top 25 most searched brands. Overall, the financial category had a strong year, with 3 financial sub-categories–banking, cryptocurrency, and fintech–ranking among the top 5 most searched.  

QSR Category Report

2022 Category Takeaways:

  1. QSR Burger pulled away as the top QSR sub-category, now having 23% more sponsorships than any other sub-category.
  2. QSR Coffee & Tea surpassed QSR Sandwich in total sponsorships in 2022.
  3. QSR Chicken surpassed QSR Pizza in total sponsorships in 2022.
  4. The number of QSR Social Partnerships increased by 23% in 2022, yet engagement and number of posts per deal have decreased in the same timeframe.