Comparing pro sports leagues' credit cards

If you're a sports fan in search of a new credit card, there's good news. Whatever your passion -- from Major League Baseball to the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- credit card issuers are offering something for everyone.

As with any other credit card, however, sports affinity cards should be judged by their specific terms and conditions, not their logos.

"For me, there's a problem with associating credit with something like a sports team that you have an emotional attachment to," says Bruce McClary, spokesman for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Everett, Wash. "People considering team logo cards should base their decisions on the financial benefits and not the emotional elements such as team loyalty."

That means examining interest rates, grace periods, balance transfer policies and annual fees, as well as the rewards offered with the card. After all, that free Tom Brady jersey might be great, but if the rest of the card's terms are bad, you're really not getting a deal. 

Most of the nation's top sports leagues offer credit cards branded with the league logo, team logo or both. The two that don't offer branded credit cards -- the NBA and the NHL -- have marketing agreements with American Express and Discover, respectively, to offer cardholders exclusive rewards related to that sport.

"American Express will provide cardmembers with exclusive experiences and access to regular-season and playoff games, and premier NBA events such as NBA All-Star, the NBA Draft, and NBA Games -- London 2011, the league's first-ever regular-season games in Europe," American Express said in a Dec. 10, 2010, statement announcing its NBA partnership. 

Here's what to look for when shopping for your favorite sport's credit card:

Rewards: Sports-team affiliated cards typically offer a discount off purchases at that sport league's online store and, in some cases, game tickets. Consumers can earn one bonus point for every $1 charged to the credit card, and those points can be redeemed for special experiences, official apparel, tickets, travel and cash back.

"If you live in a city where the team plays and you know you are going to buy tickets and merchandise, it might be worth it," McClary said.

The downside of rewards cards is that they may encourage you to buy things that you can't afford or don't need in order to rack up points, says Kim McGrigg, community manager for Money Management International, a credit counseling firm based in Sugar Land, Texas, with branches in 24 states. "This is a dangerous habit because if anything happens to you, like a job loss or other financial problem, you will have more debt that you anticipated," she says.

Be sure that the rewards you're interested in aren't completely out of your reach or unreasonable in terms of the number of points it takes to earn them, says McClary. "If it's impossible to redeem enough points even to get a stick of gum or a baseball cap, years of spending or overspending won't earn you the rewards you want," he says.

Of course, if you don't pay your balance off each month, the amount of interest you pay could exceed the value of any rewards you receive.

Interest rates: Your sports team card should offer an interest rate that you could get elsewhere based on your credit score, especially if you plan to carry a balance. Most teams' and leagues' credit cards offer interest rates between 8.99 percent and 20.99 percent. The UFC card offers the lowest rate -- 8.99 percent for consumers with high credit scores -- while the MLB, NASCAR and PGA cards top out at 20.99 percent for consumers with less-than-stellar credit. As of late December, the national average APR for new card offers was 14.68 percent.

Introductory APRs and balance transfers: Several cards were offering a 0 percent APR for purchases for seven to 10 billing cycles and interest-free balance transfers for the first 60 days. As of mid-December, cards offering this promotion include the NASCAR RacePoints Visa and MLB ExtraBases Visa, both issued by Bank of America.

Annual fees: Most of the major sports affiliate cards surveyed carry no annual fees at this time.

Other fees: Always check the fine print for other fees, which can include foreign currency transaction fees, higher interest rates for cash advances, late payment fees and over limit fees. For example, if you're late with a payment, the NFL card's penalty interest rate is high enough to warrant a yellow flag: It's 30.24 percent.

A final word"There are a lot of ways to show loyalty to a sports team other than a credit card," says McGrigg. "When you choose a credit card, you should be loyal to your financial plan rather than a sports team. The terms on a credit card can change, and they may not meet your financial needs."

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