GM, FCA look to score with sports sponsorships

Michael Wayland, and Melissa Burden

There’s a sports rivalry brewing in the corner offices of Detroit automakers for Michigan’s most coveted sports teams.

While Ford Motor Co.’s founding family owns the Detroit Lions and all auto sponsorships that go with it, General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV are making major moves with the University of Michigan, Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons.

A ceremonial opening of the Dodge Atrium at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Friday — complete with a 707-horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat marked the beginning of a new partnership between Fiat Chrysler and Palace Sports and Entertainment, which manages the home of the Pistons.

But the opening is bittersweet for the automaker, coming weeks after Ram Truck lost its ties with the Red Wings.

Just before the beginning of the NHL season, and after months of negotiations, Chevrolet became the official sponsor of the hockey team. The change ended five years of corporate sponsorship of the Red Wings by Ram that included Red Wings limited-edition pickups, a Ram-branded mural of goalie Jimmy Howard, on-ice sponsorship and other major branding inside Joe Louis Arena.

“We would’ve certainly have liked to do the Pistons and Red Wings at the same time; it did just not work out,” said Jeff Hines, director of Fiat Chrysler’s Great Lakes Business Center, which handles regional sponsorships and advertising. “They weren’t exclusive to each other.”

Bob Hegbloom, head of Ram in North America, told The Detroit News that the company analyzes the cost and reward of every partnership, and the cost “got to the point where it was time to walk away.”

“The Red Wings was a nice run but it was time for us to move on,” Hegbloom said during a media event Tuesday.

Financial details of the deals weren’t disclosed by Ram, Chevrolet or Olympia Entertainment, which handles venues owned by Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch.

Under Olympia Entertainment’s new deal with Chevrolet, the brand becomes the official vehicle of the Red Wings and the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Joe Louis Arena, the Fox and Comerica Park are all operated by Olympia.

The deal expands a longstanding relationship between Chevrolet and Olympia Entertainment. Chevrolet has long held the rights to showcasing its vehicles at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. Chevy’s sponsorship includes putting two vehicles atop the fountain at Comerica.

“As the only automotive manufacturer based in Detroit, we are proud to support our hometown teams the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers,” Chevy spokeswoman Cristi Vazquez said in an email.

‘A new opportunity’

Craig Turnbull, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Olympia Entertainment and the Red Wings, declined to reveal the length of the Chevy contract.

“Certainly in the sponsorship business you’re always looking for a good relationship,” he said. “While we had a fantastic relationship with the Chrysler company for a long period of time, it’s just a new opportunity for us.”

Jeff Summers, head of advertising for Ram, said, “What we look at is the right balance and mix that would drive the most engagement or most eyeballs and impressions in all those different types of properties. From a Red Wings perspective, that was a very good partnership for us.”

Ram curtains, outside advertisements, the mural of Howard and other Ram assets have been removed or are in the process of being removed from Joe Louis Arena. The only presence of Chevrolet so far is an in-ice logo of the Chevy bow tie that’s been in place since opening night for the Wings season Oct. 9.

Chevy’s sponsorship for the Red Wings eventually will include other signage and digital advertising. “You’ll probably see some other pieces show up throughout the season,” Turnbull said.

Although it lost its deal with the Red Wings, Fiat Chrysler has expanded its presence in other areas in Michigan — most notably with the University of Michigan football program.

The Ram logo is on the headsets used for the Wolverines staff, including new coach Jim Harbaugh.

“We knew he was going to be an individual in college football that was going to be highly visible this year,” Hegbloom said.

The company said the deal is only for one year, but is “always apprised of new opportunities.”

The deal for the headsets was actually made with New York-based sports, event and talent management company IMG. It’s a common practice for colleges to outsource marketing and advertising to groups such as IMG.

Looking ahead

Fiat Chrysler’s Hines said, “We’re trying to look forward, not just for the next month, two months or three months, but really look forward to the vision of the franchise and does it really meet up with what our brands are all about. That’s why we feel good about our Michigan partnership with coach Harbaugh as well as the Pistons.”

The Pistons’ deal with Palace Sports and Entertainment also includes a presence for Fiat Chrysler at Meadow Brook Music Festival and DTE Energy Music Theatre. Cars and trucks are on display.

“It gets a lot of great publicity,” Hines said about people taking photos with the high-performance Hellcat at the Palace. “We also like the social aspect that can bring. It expands our reach and partnership beyond just the in-arena exposure.”