Completing a hat trick of sports league sponsorships for the credit card industry, MasterCard International announced a four-year agreement this week with the National Hockey League.

The bank card association did not disclose the cost of the package. An industry source estimated that the rights to use the NHL name alone could cost up to $1 million annually.

MasterCard already has the 1998 soccer World Cup in its sponsorship portfolio, for which it paid an estimated $40 million.

Sports has become an active competitive arena for the card industry.

In May, American Express Co. signed a three-year deal estimated at $24 million with the National Basketball Association, which had not had such a sponsor since a contract with MasterCard ended in 1989.

In April, Visa U.S.A. announced a five-year agreement with the National Football League, said to be worth $40 million. Visa is also an Olympics sponsor and recently added a tie-in with the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing.

"It's almost too obvious to say, but for the three card organizations to be aligned with three of the four major sports leagues, it puts them head to head in marketing, which mirrors the reality each faces," said David Jacobson, senior editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago-based newsletter.

As part of MasterCard's deal, all 26 NHL teams will market affinity cards. A source said MasterCard is negotiating with MBNA America Bank to be the issuer, and an agreement is expected within six weeks.

The MBNA Corp. unit won the right in April to issue Visa affinity cards on behalf of the National Football League's 30 teams.

MasterCard also reached a deal with Fox, the only noncable U.S. television network that carries NHL games, ensuring it will be the only credit card advertised during telecasts.

"We don't want to allow ourselves to be ambushed on the air," said Mava K. Heffler, senior vice president for global promotions at Purchase, N.Y.-based MasterCard.

Fox will air 16 hockey games this season, beginning Jan. 20 with the all-star game in Boston.

With ESPN and ESPN2, the cable networks that will carry more than 100 NHL regular-season and playoff contests, MasterCard was able to reach only a "period exclusivity." Only designated blocks of time will be exclusive to MasterCard.

Steve Apesos, MasterCard's vice president for U.S. promotions marketing, explained that Visa previously entered into a similar agreement with ESPN Enterprises Inc., based in Bristol, Conn.

NHL games are aired in about 140 countries, and a fifth of the league's players come from outside the U.S. and Canada, according to Bernadette Mansur, vice president of corporate communications.

Mr. Apesos said MasterCard is currently looking at a variety of promotions and marketing programs as part of its NHL relationship. For example, he said, MasterCard will work with the annual players' luncheon, to be held during the Stanley Cup finals in June.

Jed Pearsall, president of Performance Research, a Newport, R.I., marketing firm, seemed most enthusiastic about the affinity card aspect of the contract.

He cited the October announcement by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to name American Express the official credit card of Texas Stadium - one of several such unilateral deals by Mr. Jones that have infuriated the NFL.

"The market benefits of a sponsorship with a league are more pronounced at the local level," said Mr. Pearsall. "Fans rally behind a team, not the league. In some cases, it might be more effective to go with teams."

The NHL records about $1 billion annually in licensed merchandise sales.

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.