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Celtics seek season sponsor in newest marketing trend

This season, you could be cheering for the Boston Celtics, brought to you by Dunkin' Donuts. Or Foxwoods. Or Mohegan Sun.

Following a trend started by the NBA's Detroit Pistons that is being imitated across professional sports, the Celtics are looking for a so-called presenting sponsor for their upcoming season. The deal, should one come, would be more costly for the company that gets involved than any other Celtics sponsorship. The sponsor's logo would be splashed on everything from game tickets to Celtics' e-mails and letterhead. The team won't disclose how much it is seeking from a season sponsor but said it would likely cost in the millions.

Sports marketing specialists said that kind of sponsorship could be worth between $1 million and $3 million, while typical Celtics sponsorships cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That the Celtics are pursuing such a deal is another sign the team, already regarded as among the best marketing operations in the National Basketball Association, will be much more aggressive about how it generates revenue now that it has a lineup many believe can contend for a championship this season.

"It's a lot easier to justify that type of a spend when it's a team that everybody figures is going to do well," said Sean Barror, the Celtics' vice president of marketing. The Celtics first considered the idea after the Pistons signed mortgage firm Rock Financial as presenting sponsor in 2003, a deal widely considered the first in modern pro sports. Rock Financial's logo now appears on game tickets, arena signs, and Pistons media guides. All Pistons' advertising includes the tagline "Rock Financial presents." Players participate in Rock-sponsored charity events, and at some home games, a fan gets a month's mortgage paid, courtesy of the company.

David Hall, the Rock Financial senior vice president who negotiated the deal, wouldn't disclose its cost but said both sides pay for advertising to promote the other. But while raving about its positives, Hall said it is impossible to quantify how much the deal has helped business.

"It's sort of the opposite of buying commercial time. We're doing a lot of feel-good stuff. It's just really hard to measure," he said.

Lack of measurable results hasn't kept presenting sponsorships from springing up all over professional sports. In 2005, Rock Financial founder Dan Gilbert bought the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers and promptly signed Cub Cadet, a tractor and lawn mower company, as the team's presenting sponsor. The Lake Erie Monsters, a minor league hockey team also owned by Gilbert, announced health insurer Kaiser Permanente as its presenting sponsor on Monday.

Basketball's San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, and New Jersey Nets also have had presenting sponsors. No Boston professional team has had a company sponsor an entire season, but KeySpan Energy Group sponsored the Red Sox's three-game series with the New York Yankees this month.

The Celtics have only defined the deal they hope to sign in broad terms: It would incorporate the presenting sponsor's logo in their advertising, e-mails, and most other marketing materials and possibly include some sort of contest that would involve both the team and the sponsor. Other than that, Barror said, the details would be worked out in negotiations with the sponsor. Already the team is talking to several current sponsors and two other companies, he said.

Jon Hickey, senior vice president of sports and entertainment marketing at ad firm Mullen and a former Celtics marketing vice president, said Dick's Sporting Goods, Dunkin' Donuts, and Connecticut's Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos are good candidates. Dick's, Dunkin', and Mohegan Sun are already Celtics sponsors while both casinos might need the visibility if competing facilities are approved in Massachusetts, he said.

Tom Manchester, Dunkin' Donuts' vice president of sports marketing, said the chain is already instantly recognizable to Celtics fans. "We wouldn't really need it. I could see the presenting sponsor being valuable to somebody who's just coming into the market," he said.

Dunkin' was the presenting sponsor last year for the Connecticut Sun, the WNBA team owned by the Mohegan Tribe, which operates Mohegan Sun. Mitchell Etess, chief executive for the casino and the Sun, said the organization would consider a Celtics presenting sponsorship.

"That's something that we would look at based on the cost of it. Anytime you look at one of these things, you look at what you get and what benefits you get out of it," he said.

Keith Reed can be reached at reed@globe.com.

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