SBD/Issue 89/Sponsorships, Advertising & Marketing

AFL Banking On Celebrity Owners In Poker-Themed Ads For ‘06

By Brad Pinkerton, Staff Writer

AFL To Kick Off 20th
Season This Weekend
If there’s one U.S. city that best exemplifies the fast-paced, high-scoring style of the AFL, it’s Las Vegas. Fittingly, the league kicks off its 20th season this weekend behind the campaign “Drive To ArenaBowl XX,” which will be held in Vegas for the second consecutive season. The league was discussing holding the game in New Orleans before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The league is hoping to build on last year’s championship — the first to be played at a neutral site — that drew a crowd of 10,822, short of a sellout, at the Thomas & Mack Center. AFL Senior VP/Marketing & Fan Development David Haney said the league is looking to build momentum toward ArenaBowl XX with a series of TV spots breaking throughout the season that blend AFL personalities with elements of Las Vegas, specifically Texas Hold ‘Em poker. Haney: “The concept was to integrate Las Vegas, the popularity of poker and Arena football. And that’s quite a stew when you combine all three of those things.” Haney hopes the ads lead to an increased awareness of the ArenaBowl being held in Las Vegas and ultimately a boost in ticket sales.

AFL Turning To Celebrity Owners
Like Ditka To Market League
CELEBRITY POKER: The spots, via Phoenix Communications, showcase some of the household names involved in AFL franchises, like Rush co-Owner Mike Ditka, Soul co-Owner Jon Bon Jovi and Crush co-Owner John Elway. There will be up to five spots — three 30-second spots are already finished and up to two more could be shot later — rolling out over the course of the season, each featuring a Las Vegas setting and poker theme. Phoenix Communications Exec Producer Geoff Belinfante said the agency pitched the idea of having poker as a backdrop to AFL officials, who then “modified” the concept. Belinfante said, “It was a collaboration. They took the idea, then added the mascots and cheerleaders. ... The thought came from us, the execution came from them.” Other celebrities appearing in the ads include Soul President Ron Jaworski and nine-time World Series of Poker Champion Phil Hellmuth to give the spots some poker cred. The first of the ads will debut this weekend on NBC and FSN, as well as in AFL arenas and at Champs Sports and Aaron’s locations nationwide.

STAR POWER: Unlike the NFL, the AFL doesn’t have the luxury of marketing well-known players to attract fans. Instead, the league is relying on the high-powered celebrity of its owners, as evidenced by the cast in the commercials. Haney said, “They bring their Q-ratings with them, they bring credibility to the presentation and they bring a high degree of entertainment to the advertising message.” Haney added, “When we get to the point that our players are getting endorsement contracts and become more household names, certainly we want to move away from just the celebrity ownership of it and move to the players.” Belinfante acknowledged, “The celebrities are in many cases the owners.” He added the celebrity owners in the spots “instantaneously get them noticed and the message of the AFL follows. It’s terrific they allow themselves to be used.”

SIN CITY: Holding a league championship game in the gambling capital of the world may raise some eyebrows, but Haney said the ads focus more on poker and the atmosphere of Las Vegas, not gambling. Haney: “Poker is simply the stage. The poker table is kind of the natural stage for it to take place. It’s more of an Arena Football/Las Vegas theme than anything else.” More Haney: “We were very careful to make sure that they were all in fun; there’s never dollars mentioned.” No AFL players or coaches are involved in the spots, so Haney is “not really concerned about connecting Arena Football to gambling.”

Bon Jovi (l) And Elway Make
Appearance On NBC's "Today" Show

ROCK AND ROLL: Consistent with its effort to use its celebrity owners as the faces of the league, the AFL had Elway and Bon Jovi at Rockefeller Plaza with Matt Lauer and Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today” show this morning. Lauer and Curry were given personalized No. 20 jerseys from the Crush and Soul. NBC begins its AFL coverage this Sunday.

MORE AFL: This continues THE DAILY’s week-long look at the AFL. Tomorrow, look for an examination of the marketing efforts by new franchises in Utah and K.C. Also, visit to see our Q&A with Avengers Owner Casey Wasserman, an AFL Spons-o-Meter and a Turnkey Sports Poll about the league. In addition, see this week’s issue of SportsBusiness Journal for an in-depth on the AFL.

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