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MLB’s decision to allow CBD

June 27, 2022


Marketing and Sponsorship: MLB’s decision to allow CBD raises two questions: How big will the deals be? Which league is next?

By Terry Lefton

Agency principals, MLB team marketers, and of course, those at CBD brands all heralded last week’s decision by baseball to allow CBD sponsorships as long overdue, and a move that will catalyze a domino effect across sports. Now they have to figure how much this unfamiliar category is worth.

CBD marketers desperately need the reach, influence and power of sports as a legitimizer for their products, often conflated with recreational psychoactive pot.

“Absent the FDA or Congress regulating the CBD industry, MLB saying they are allowing CBD sponsors just gives us big credibility,” said Charlotte’s Web CEO Jacques Tortoroli. “It will help consumers’ perception of the quality and effectiveness of CBD. ... We’re prohibited by the FDA from talking directly about some [product] benefits, so education is huge for us and the industry.”

How much they are willing to pay for that, especially to be among the first few deals, is the question being asked across every pro teams’s sales department, not only those in MLB.

Navigate recently did a study to assess the potential of the CBD category for the Chicago Cubs and five other MLB teams. President Jeff Nelson said that research indicated the potential for a handful of teams to sell seven-figure deals “tied to assets, especially if it’s a uniform patch deal.”

Echoed Alex Seyferth, Cubs corporate partnerships vice president, who said he’s already talked to several CBD brands, “We are really intrigued about the potential for the category, especially if you are a first mover, so MLB’s efforts there should really help. It has potential to be a top category.”

“I would bet half the teams will have deals in place for next season,” said Troup Parkinson, Boston Red Sox executive vice president of partnerships, adding that CBD brands have been knocking on his door for two or three years. “It would be aggressive to think of this as something like crypto at its beginning. It’s a top-10 category, but maybe only a handful of sizable ones across baseball. ... We won’t rush, but we should have a substantial deal by next season.”

The other big stick-and-ball properties have been meeting with CBD brands for two or three years, but have been reluctant to grant sponsorship rights. Now, they are expected to follow suit.

“We’ve all been learning about this category since before the pandemic,” said a business development executive at one of those leagues. “There was a taboo, but that’s over.”

Tyler Reddick in 3CHI Chevrolet
3Chi is an early sponsor as CBD brands look for ways to market and promote their products.getty images

Marc Bluestein, president and CEO of Aquarius Sports and Entertainment, has been working with a CBD client, exploring potential opportunities across big sports properties for the past 18 months. He said he’s at contract for that client with one of the largest NGBs.

“The faucet has been turned on by MLB now,” he said. “The key will be focusing in health and wellness. The designations we are working on are not official CBD. We want to cover the CBD category [exclusively] of course, but the language is ‘official health and wellness provider or partner.’”

“Consolidation is already happening in that businesses, so we are all wondering how much money is there,” said a West Coast MLB team marketer, also wondering out loud how soon an MLB leaguewide deal will be completed.

While use of MLB IP and assets to help educate consumers about CBDs is the goal, just as important to CBD companies is getting access to run TV ads, since they are widely blocked from doing so elsewhere — inside and outside of sports programming by standards and practice policies of most TV outlets.

Tony Schiller, partner at Paragon Marketing, Chicago, has been meeting with several CBD brands lately to gauge their interest in sports marketing.

“There is pent-up demand from these companies, because generally they can’t buy advertising that reaches a mass audience. ... The beauty of being first will have considerable value here.”

CBDs are widely available and the market has been estimated to explode from $4.9 billion to $47.22 billion by 2028.

“There’s a lack of understanding as to what CBDs are, so being able to use sports as an educational platform is precisely what the category has been waiting for,” said former cbdMD CMO Ken Cohn, now executive vice president at The Strategic Agency. “One thing to watch is that most of these companies sell both THC [psychoactive] and non-THC products. It’ll be interesting to see how MLB or any big property manages that.”

Ryan Smith, Playfly Premier senior vice president of corporate partnerships, is one the very few sales types with CBD category experience, having cut a seven-figure jersey ad deal with cbdMD and the Big3 basketball league a few years back. “It’s a bit like crypto in that it takes time to understand. If crypto taught us anything, it’s caution, but this is a category desperate for a national platform, so the top brands will spend.”

Now the question is how far we are from sponsorships of psychoactive pot. Beer has long been sports’ lifeblood and the largest breweries have investments in Canadian pot companies ranging from the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. “We’ll see THC deals within 12 to 24 months,” said Schiller. “In some cases, it’s the same companies; in every case, the THC companies or brands will have far more money behind them than CBD brands.”

Another intriguing question: Which property will follow MLB with a leaguewide deal? We’d bet on either NASCAR or the NBA, but even in this age of legalized sports betting, it’s unclear on whether there are published odds on that.

Terry Lefton can be reached at

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