Marijuana Companies Fill the Ultimate Nontraditional Category
Photo: LAS VEGAS LIGHTS
The USL Las Vegas Lights were the first pro sports team in America with a cannabis sponsorship, signing a three-year pact last year with a cannabis dispensary that’s four blocks from the team’s downtown Vegas stadium.
NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, owned by the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, sells Lights jerseys and other merchandise in the same massive (almost 16,000-square-foot) retail space where it sells buds and vape pens. The sponsorship includes a 36-by-18-foot sign at the team’s home, Cashman Field, that says “Get Lit.’’
Lights owner and CEO Brett Lashbrook said his team gets paid for the “high five-figure” annual sponsorship the same way every quarter — with cash stuffed into a brown paper bag, a result of banks’ reluctance to work with marijuana companies. Activation behind the sponsorship includes some routine ticket promotions and bounce-back offers.
“Really, it’s like any other sponsorship in terms of activation, it’s just in an incredibly nontraditional category,” said Lashbrook, the former COO at MLS team Orlando City.
“The shock value within the sports world over this sponsorship has all been outside of Nevada,’’ he added. Even though there are USL teams in pot-legal locales such as Colorado, California and Canada, the Lights remain the USL’s only team with a cannabis sponsorship, which says all you need to know about the stigma still attached to marijuana after 82 years of federal prohibition.
CBD, the non-psychoactive portion of hemp and marijuana plants, seems to be nearing big sport sponsorships. Most industry experts interviewed for this story predicted that one of the big four American stick-and-ball leagues will allow CBD deals within a year or two.
So how far are we from widespread marketing, including sports sponsorships, for products containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis? Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in 10 states, permitted for medical usage in 33, and it’s legal throughout Canada.
“It’s just going to follow the same path as gambling — state by state,’’ said former Visa sponsorship chief Michael Lynch, now servicing the nascent cannabis industry through 3 Emerald Marketing, a new California sports and entertainment marketing agency. “Some league will have to do it first, and I believe it will be the NBA, because [Commissioner] Adam Silver is an innovator.”
The biggest indicator that marijuana will make it into sports as an intoxicant is the sizable investments in the industry by North America’s largest breweries, all of which already spend heavily on sports media and sponsorships.
Looking to develop cannabis-infused beverages, Corona beer marketer Constellation Brands, has invested more than $4 billion in Canopy Growth, one of Canada’s biggest cannabis companies, which equates to around a 40% equity stake. Anheuser-Busch InBev is working with Tilray, another Canadian pot producer. Molson Coors is developing THC-infused beverages with Hexo Corp., another large Canadian cannabis concern.
Last June, Heineken started selling Lagunitas-branded Hi-Fi Hops. The nonalcoholic beverage comes in two versions — one with 10 milligrams of THC, and one with 5 milligrams of THC and 5 milligrams of CBD and is sold in some of California’s cannabis dispensaries.
“You look at the brewers’ investments and you just know this has to find its way into sports eventually,” said Brian Cooper, president and CEO of marketing agency MKTG Canada. “We’re probably three to five years away, but eventually this will be as big in sports as booze and beer combined.”
Wealth management expert and New York Yankees minority owner Barry Klarberg asserted, “The next billionaires are coming from this business.’’ Still, Klarberg, who recently has been representing athletes and cannabis companies, added “I don’t see the big leagues allowing this — even for CBDs — until it’s legal across the United States.”