The major card brands are revving up their sports sponsorships to get a piece of the fans' excitement about sports heroes.

Visa Inc., MasterCard Inc., Discover Financial Services and, most recently, American Express Co. say these sponsorships are less about attracting new customers than about nurturing their relationships with the ones they already have.

Megan Bramlette, director at Auriemma Consulting Group in Westbury, N.Y., said that this tactic, indeed, keeps customers loyal.

"Loyalty is super-important today," she said. "The priorities today are not really about acquisition; the focus is on maintaining your best customers by keeping them happy."

Sporting events historically have let the card brands do special things for cardholders, and "these experiences encourage customers to stay with a card brand," she said.

Examples of major sports sponsorships include Visa's worldwide partnership in the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament and its deal with the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. MasterCard highlights Major League Baseball, the rugby World Cup and UEFA Champions League soccer in Europe.

Amex in late December signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the National Basketball Association, and it has partnership deals with the U.S. Open tennis tournament and, in golf, with the U.S. Open and PGA Championship tournaments. Discover recently introduced several sports sponsorships, including with college football's Orange Bowl and the National Hockey League.

In the global arena, perhaps the biggest and most-watched sporting event is the FIFA World Cup, which this year was held in June and July in South Africa. Visa has its sponsorship locked in until 2014.

"Sports partnerships are … about tapping in to consumer interest in the property and associating your brand with another brand and tapping that shared value," said Jennifer Bazante, Visa's head of global brand marketing. Soccer "is in people's lives every day, and Visa is as well."

More than 90 markets worldwide used Visa FIFA-themed marketing, and more than 500 financial institutions and merchants participated in advertising, customized promotions, point of sale signage and direct mail inspired by the sponsorship.

Visa was the only card accepted at World Cup venues in South Africa, a stipulation Visa also had for last winter's Vancouver Winter Olympics. Visa declined to reveal any data to show how its World Cup marketing campaign affected issuers and acquirers or to specify its goals for increased card use.

However, it reported that spending on Visa cards by visitors to the Vancouver Games totaled more than $115 million.

Last spring, the card network introduced the Visa Match Planner, an application that let users create World Cup viewing schedules to share with friends on social networking services such as Facebook Inc.'s website.

The Match Planner let users organize match-viewing parties at home or in bars, chat with friends online, track scores and standings and receive Visa offers from merchants such as the FIFA Official Store at FIFA.com.

"It's no longer about traditional media," Bazante said, "and it's important to take a more multimedia approach to deliver a message. Fans love to talk about teams."

MasterCard rivals Visa's sports sponsorships with soccer deals in Europe, Major League Baseball, rugby, team sponsorships in the National Hockey League, the National Football League and basketball leagues in the Baltic states of Eastern Europe.

The card network has had a longstanding relationship with international soccer. Its sponsorships with the UEFA Champions League in Europe and the UEFA Super Cup are both similar to a European World Cup, said Michael Robichaud, MasterCard's head of sponsorships.

"Soccer is such a local-global sport because it's the same game everywhere," he said.

In 2007, Visa became the official sponsor of the FIFA World Cup after the latter's legal squabble with MasterCard, which was the previous sponsor. Based on a settlement agreement between the parties, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed MasterCard's suit against FIFA on June 21, 2007.

Sports sponsorships help tap in to customers' passions, Robichaud said. "Sponsorships are a way of getting at the customer when they are most excited."

One perk MasterCard offers its cardholders from the brand's UEFA deal is the chance to escort players into the stadium. "These are experiences that money can't buy," Robichaud said, and "it makes the cardholder part of the event."

On the global stage, MasterCard has secured sponsorship as an official partner of the Rugby World Cup 2011, which is to take place in September in New Zealand. The Rugby World Cup is what many consider the largest spectator event after soccer's FIFA World Cup.

MasterCard cardholders who apply for Rugby World Cup 2011 tickets with their cards will double their chances to secure tickets to the semifinal games and the final. Tournament organizer Rugby New Zealand 2011 is making the tickets available through a ballot process open to fans that have applied for tickets for the earlier matches, according to MasterCard.

The Rugby World Cup sponsorship is strong for MasterCard because the rugby fan base tends to be more affluent than those of other sports, such as soccer, and many wealthy people are expected to make the trek to New Zealand for the tournament, according to Auriemma's Bramlette. "There is the added benefit to grow the brand in a market that is receptive," she said.

American Express, which long has prided itself on its customers' loyalty to the brand, excels at providing perk experiences for cardholders through its sports sponsorships.

Its latest sponsorship, reuniting Amex with the National Basketball Association after a five-year hiatus, is larger in scope than the NBA sponsorship that ran from 1995 to 2005, a spokesman said. The new deal encompasses the NBA, USA Basketball, the WNBA and the NBA Development League; it will give customers behind-the-scenes access to events. It also lets Amex market its brand at the NBA Games-London 2011, the league's first-ever regular-season games in Europe.

Two other high-profile Amex marketing efforts involve tennis and golf. The company has learned through its own transaction data that its cardholders often are players of these sports who spend money not only by watching them but also by participating in them.

For the past 17 years, Amex has been a partner in the U.S. Open tennis tournament, at which it offers a concierge service for cardholders to get restaurant reservations and car services. It also supports off-site events such as a large screen in Madison Square Park to let nonticketholders watch the matches. Its NextContenders.com site offers behind-the-scenes features about players like John Isner and Caroline Wozniacki.

"The majority of our strategy is around the loyalty play and rewarding our cardmembers who are part of our brand," said Jessica Igoe, Amex's vice president of global sponsorship and event marketing.

For Amex, the sponsorships also are about attracting new customers, she said. Observers say this strategy works.

"There is a case to make for [sporting-event sponsorships] not only in relationship-building but also in creating a brand and image that is favorable and appealing to the customer," said Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite Group. "It's the behind-the-scenes stuff" that really attracts people, he said.

Amex also is an official patron of the Professional Golfers Association of America, whose benefits to cardholders include access to premier championship experiences. Amex also is the first corporate partner of the United States Golfers Association.

Aside from access to events, Amex offers on-site perks to cardholders, such as the Amex CourseCast TV, a hand-held television that cardholders may carry with them to watch the event's telecast.

Amex also offers CourseCast Radio, which lets cardholders listen to play-by-play commentary on the event from ESPN radio. Cardholders need only show their Amex card to acquire the devices for the day, said Courtney Kelso, Amex's vice president of sports and entertainment access strategy. The tennis partnership has similar offerings.

"We know that whatever we sponsor, cardmembers are really passionate about the events," Kelso said.

After relatively minimal involvement in the sports-sponsorship arena, Discover in November announced deals with the Orange Bowl college football game and the National Hockey League. The Riverwoods, Ill., card issuer and network previously was involved only in smaller, local sports sponsorships, such as the Illinois High School Swimming Association, the Women's National Basketball Association and the now-defunct Arena Football League.

Despite the apparent change in strategy, Discover is simply pursuing deals that reflect its customers' interests, said Jennifer Murillo, director of advertising. Through its own consumer research, Discover determined that its cardholder base was passionate about college football, she said.

"These opportunities came to us at the right time," Murillo said an e-mail statement.

Discover in November also began showing TV ads, called "Peggy," related to the Orange Bowl. The ads feature former college coaches Lou Holtz and Bobby Bowden experiencing the frustration of dealing with poor customer service from a fictitious credit company.

Delving into larger, more-national sports sponsorships is a big move for Discover, said Auriemma's Bramlette. "Discover's entry in this is not shocking based on the fact that the competition already is doing sports sponsorships," she said. "What is interesting is that they have very consciously picked a couple of mass-market events."

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.