In the midst of the National Basketball Association playoffs, American Express Co. has scored with a potentially lucrative NBA sponsorship.

Industry sources estimated that American Express will pay $24 million over three years for the right to be called the NBA's official charge card. The NBA has not had such a sponsor since its contract with MasterCard International ended in 1989.

Andy Wing, vice president of sports and entertainment services at American Express Travel Related Services Co., said the partnership will enable it to "offer our customers special access to tickets, merchandise, and other ways (that) create greater customer and shareholder value."

The agreement calls for American Express to advertise NBA-licensed products to current and potential cardholders worldwide and develop promotional opportunities with retailers.

American Express will receive marketing rights and preferred-ticket access to several top events, such as the NBA All-Star Weekend, season- opening games held every two years in Japan, and the "Jam Session" interactive events for fans.

The credit association will also provide media support of NBA programming on NBC and Turner Sports networks.

"There is no question that the NBA has a powerful brand," said Gail Wasserman, an American Express spokeswoman. "There is a great premium on NBA merchandise."

NBA games are televised in about 150 countries, according to figures provided by Ms. Wasserman. The league registers $2.7 billion annually in U.S. merchandise sales, bringing in another $350 million overseas.

The American Express announcement follows Visa U.S.A.'s selection last month as the official payment card of the National Football League.

Visa will pay an estimated $40 million for a five-year agreement that designates it the "official payment card" of the NFL. The deal gives it and its members rights to tie marketing and promotional programs to NFL events and players

In a related announcement, MBNA America Bank said it had won the right to issue Visa cards on behalf of each of the NFL's 30 teams over the next five years. The MBNA Corp. unit replaces Citibank, which had been issuing NFL affinity cards since 1987.

American Express, which has never issued a cobranded card, has not indicated any desire to do so through the NBA but would not rule out the possibility.

"We are pursuing cobranding venues with a number of companies, but we'll only strike a deal if the economics make sense," said Ms. Wasserman.

"A cobranded card could happen quickly," said Jim Andrews, vice president of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago-based newsletter. "The only hangup might be that they haven't done it before.

"It make sense, though, if you've got rights to this very powerful logo, to do such a thing. Imagine putting a Bulls' logo on an American Express card in Chicago and what the possibilities would be there."

As for which is the better catch, the NBA or NFL, "I think they're very similar," said Mr. Andrews. "Worldwide, I might give a slight edge to the NBA because it's been a little more aggressive in Europe and Asia, but if the NFL is behind, it's only a step behind."

Other corporations with NBA licensing agreements include AT&T, Coca- Cola, McDonald's, and Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.