Excitement over Nintendo Co.’s Wii may not be limited to consumers.

Early indications are that the groundbreaking gaming system could open up sponsorship opportunities with the electronic game category for properties beyond those that appeal to hardcore players.

That is because Wii is being credited with heightening interest in video games among casual players with demographics that go well beyond teen, tween and young adult males.

Nintendo of America, Inc.’s deals on behalf of the Wii system and its games–particularly Wii Fit, which has the potential to reach blockbuster status based on Japanese and U.K. sales and massive U.S. demand in the two weeks since sales began here–may indicate what is to come from other hardware manufacturers and game publishers.

To wit: Nintendo is sponsoring the Houston Int’l Festival, Lowes Foods Taste of Charlotte and other general-market properties as part of a mobile marketing campaign to promote and demonstrate the Wii system and its games.

The company also used mass-market sponsorship to hype the Wii Fit launch. Leveraging its relationship with Target Corp., the largest sponsor of Chip Ganassi Racing, Nintendo titled two of the team’s entries that competed in the IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 on May 25.

Promoting the deals as the Wii Fit 1,100, the company leveraged publicity around the sponsorship to tout its connection to fitness and endurance.

At least one competitor already is following suit and stepping out from sponsorship of action sports and rock music–long the mainstays for most electronic game companies.

Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox last week announced a five-year, $20 million deal with the Seattle MLS expansion team Sounders FC. The tie includes jersey sponsorship for Xbox 360 Live, the naming of the soccer playing surface at the team’s home venue the Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field, and exclusive category sponsorship of the league.

Microsoft also leveraged its relationship with Boys & Girls Clubs of America to develop the cause’s inaugural National Family Fitness Day last month. BGCA clubs in 10 cities hosted after-school events where attendees could play the game Dance Dance Revolution Universe 2 and learn about healthy lifestyles.

Xbox also recently signed two deals that are more traditional for the category: The July-through-August, 30-stop Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, and a multiyear tie to the HipHopSodaShop, a franchised restaurant chain headed by former NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis.

The third of the three companies that own the video game hardware category–Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc.–continues to expand its presence with music properties. Its PlayStation 3 brand will sponsor the inaugural All Points West Music & Arts Festival at New Jersey’s Liberty State Park in August, a deal that follows a new tie to last month’s The Bamboozle festival at the nearby Meadowlands Sports Complex.

According to research firm The NPD Group, sales of video game systems rose 13 percent the first four months of this year over the same period in ’07. Industry analysts pointed out the number could have been significantly higher had Nintendo been able to keep up with demand for the Wii, which far outstripped supply.

Software Also Growing Strong; 2K Sports Adds Music, Other Deals
NPD reports January-through-April sales of video game titles rose a whopping 31 percent over last year. Much of that jump can be credited to the release of Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc.’s Grand Theft Auto IV, which earned $500 million in global sales its first week of distribution in late April.

Take-Two’s 2K Sports line recently signed new deals with the MLB San Francisco Giants and Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival to promote its Major League Baseball 2K8 game. 2K Sports sponsors other MLB teams, including the New York Mets, to support the league-licensed game.

2K Sports’ sponsorship of Pitchfork is part of a larger partnership with event owner Pitchfork Media, Inc., in which the online music magazine publisher selected half of the songs that appear in Major League Baseball 2K8. Within the game, each of those songs is designated as a Pitchfork Pick and biographical information on each artist is provided.

Pitchfork promotes the game and song reviews at PitchforkMedia.com and the two companies co-hosted an event at March’s South by Southwest confab that featured a performance by Pitchfork Pick Jay Reatard and other artists.

“Music is very important to the lifestyle of the video game consumer,” said Tim Rosa, 2K Sports’ director of brand and lifestyle marketing.

2K Sports prefers title sponsorship when possible. “In most cases, we don’t see much value in spending $200,000 to promote a promoter’s brand,” Rosa said. “We get more value out of being associated with the name of the event, and where 2K can be part of the actual experience.”

Rosa points to the brand’s four-year-old title of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer as an example.

“They tried to sell us on cosponsoring the event, but we said, ‘You guys need to sex this up. We have the number one college basketball game (College Hoops 2K8), and we can help you create a buzz and drive attendance.’ It’s been really successful for us.”

In addition to sponsorship, 2K Sports has created two proprietary mobile marketing programs: The 2K Sports Hit-N-Run Tour, a national program that visits college campuses, consumer electronics chains and spring training baseball games, and the 2K Sports Bounce Tour, a property that bridges basketball, hip-hop and video game cultures, Rosa said.

In addition to 2K Sports, Take-Two’s other game labels are Rockstar Games, 2K Games, 2K Play, Global Star and Gathering.

Properties seeking video game/system partnerships should keep exclusivity in mind when proposing deals.

Because hardware manufacturers also publish games, they usually seek exclusivity in both the hardware and software categories. That gives them the flexibility to promote their own games, as well as to demonstrate how games produced by multiple third-party publishers work on their system.

On the other side of the coin, game publishers typically purchase exclusivity in the software category and seek rights to pass through to the hardware manufacturers of their choice.

“We’re platform agnostic,” said Brian Movalson, director of sports marketing for Electronic Arts Inc.’s EA Sports, which titles the Maui Invitational college basketball tournament through ’09 and also sponsors NBA Europe Live.

Electronic Arts has offered $2 billion to purchase Take-Two in a hostile takeover.

Sponsorship Activity By Electronic Game Hardware Manufacturers

Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc.
Donna Armentor, senior manager of promotions

Sponsorships: Title: AM JAM Tour amateur youth skateboard and BMX competition, 14 cities; Cosponsor: AST Dew Tour (titles Orlando, Fla. stop); All Points West Music & Arts Festival, Jersey City, N.J.; The Bamboozle music festival, East Rutherford, N.J.; Coachella music festival, Calif.; Lollapalooza delivered by AT&T, Chicago; MLB San Francisco Giants; Movement: Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival; X Games.

Additional Comments: Leverages ties with the PlayStation Patrol Truck gaming station. AM JAM is held in partnership with Woodward Camp, the action sports recreational camp located in Woodward, Pa. Winners on the March-through-May skate park tour–which is open to seven-to-18-year-olds–earn a week at the camp, PlayStation Portable handheld systems and other prizes. The most promising athlete among the event winners receives $5,000. Leveraged Winter X Games with on-site gaming competitions featuring athletes and the unveiling of new games and a secret code for Gran Turismo 5 Prologue.

Nintendo of America, Inc.
Ricky Kim, manager of consumer promotions

Sponsorships: Multi-brand: Mobile marketing program, which includes sponsorships of Houston Int’l Festival and Lowes Foods Taste of Charlotte. Wii Fit: Title: Chip Ganassi Racing NASCAR Sprint Cup and IndyCar Series teams, one race each.

Additional Comments: Sponsoring Houston Int’l Festival on behalf of Mario Kart Wii game and Lowes Foods on behalf of Wii Fit. Also makes Nintendo DS system. Marina del Rey, Calif.-based USMP manages Nintendo’s mobile marketing programs. Contact: Allie Herrera, account coordinator, Tel: 310/754-3000.

Microsoft Corp.
Mike Fischer, general manager, Xbox marketing
Bobbi Washatka, group marketing manager, Xbox
Jennifer Knueppel, marketing manager, Xbox

Sponsorships: American Collegiate Intramural Sports; BecomeAnex.org presents Sasquatch! Music Festival, George, Wash.; Big 10 Conference; Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Manchester, Tenn.; HipHopSodaShop restaurants; MLS; MLS Sounders FC, Seattle; NBA Seattle SuperSonics; Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival; Vans Warped Tour presented by AT&T.

Additional Comments: Sasquatch! tie included sponsorship of the main stage and Rock Band game competitions in the on-site Xbox 360 Club. New York City-based Cornerstone Promotions helps negotiate and manage ties. Contact: Patrick Schmidt, account director, Tel: 212/741-7100.