SBJ/April 18-24, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Sponsors, other properties weighing impact of NFL lockout

Terry Lefton
Contemplating the NFL lockout, word-association style:

CONTINGENCIES: Anyone within the national nexus of sports, media and sponsorship marketing is looking at this word when it comes to fall planning. We haven’t spoken to a person within that world yet who believes the NFL will miss more than a few weeks of regular-season play. Hey, the league has been trying to find a way to schedule the Super Bowl on Presidents Day for some time on the off chance that incremental amounts of food and drink, and perhaps even TV fare, might be consumed if Super Bowl Sunday were followed by yet another national holiday.

So for any agency or client used to parading goods or services in front of the 99 million or so Americans who watch the NFL on TV every week during the season, the year up to now has been one dedicated to alternatives — as in, finding some if and when there are no NFL games for sponsors to leverage or buy advertising around.

EVENTUALITIES: Depending on what sort of brand you are marketing, that can mean different things. For some of Procter & Gamble’s packaged goods brands, it’s producing TV spots and points-of-sale with and without NFL indicia or players. For a brand like Buffalo Wild Wings, with 700 or so locations, it’s about figuring out what else can entertain the customers who account for so much revenue on Sundays in the fall and early winter.

OPPORTUNITIES?: Would Sunday and Monday nights without NFL games represent a bona fide opportunity for other sports properties? That’s another possibility being considered by network and cable TV companies, and by the sponsors that support them.

GETTY IMAGES
Don’t expect high-profile college games such as Florida-Alabama to end up on Sunday afternoon if the NFL’s work stoppage continues into the fall. But will Boise State’s blue field make an appearance?
College football would seem to have the best play, lest gridiron fans miss their weekly fix. However, moving glam games like Alabama-Florida or Notre Dame-USC from Saturday to Sunday is no trivial task, especially without a clear sign from the NFL that it won’t resolve its issues in time to compete for eyeballs — and maybe not even then.

“I’ve learned never to say never, but even if the NFL declared right now that it weren’t going to play a single game this fall, it is hard for me to believe there would be BCS product on Sunday afternoons to replace it,” said Ben Sutton, president of IMG College, which represents about 90 universities and conferences. “If it’s only the preseason that gets missed, I don’t think it’s even a point of discussion.”

Schools like Boise State and its ubiquitous blue football field seem to already play nearly every night of the week, so we would expect their ilk to be on TV the first September Sunday afternoon sans NFL. For the larger college football programs, Sunday will likely stay a day of rest, unless and until the NFL season is kaput.

“Hard to see a power conference of glamour teams making that move,” said Mike Boykin, executive vice president of sports marketing at GMR, which has NFL league and team sponsors Visa, MillerCoors and P&G as clients. “The interesting thing to me will be to see if other properties get promo weight from the networks that’s usually reserved for the NFL and what effect that will have.”

Boykin said a week doesn’t go by without some NFL contingency planning, “but now we are getting close to that moment where you have to do Plan B or C,” he said. Still, this is the NFL. “Who’s to say,” Boykin said, “that if you go in a new direction and then they settle, you won’t want to backtrack?” The NFL’s reach is so broad, victims of canceled or postponed games would be part of a long list that would also feature family bars and pizzerias, and TV retailers.

EXIGENCIES: NASCAR’s late-season Chase for the Sprint Cup could pick up some Sunday viewers without the NFL as competition. Still, like so many sports property marketers, NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps says sports are too interconnected for the tribulations of one league, especially the largest one, not to affect all of them negatively.

“If there are [NFL] games lost, and I’m hoping that’s a moot point, there may be short-term gains for us or any sport because some of those NFL eyeballs and [gross ratings points] will find somewhere else to go,” said Phelps, himself an NFL marketer from 1990 to 2004. “It’s better for all sports if the NFL is healthy. You don’t want to get to the place where fans are just done with sports because they are tired from all the off-field struggles.”

On the business-to-business side, those who buy everything from TV ad time and sports sponsorships to licensed sports product for large retail chains could sour on sports because of a single labor impasse, and they all buy across sports properties.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has seen much of one season (1994-95) and the entirety of another (2004-05) lost to lockouts. Now, with the NFL labor clock ticking, Bettman is asked with more frequency if the NFL’s loss could translate into the NHL’s gain. “An opportunity for us? Absolutely not,” he said. “Fans make an emotional investment, and anything labor or management does to interrupt that isn’t good across the industry. … Fans may then spend more time with a different sport, but that’s only short term.”

POSSIBILITIES: MLB would seem to be the most likely beneficiary of NFL-less Sundays, especially if the lockout is protracted enough to mean more postseason games in the NFL’s traditional Sunday afternoon slot. We are told by an insider that “every [MLB] rights holder has asked [for Sunday afternoon games], but our answer so far has been that it is too early to be picking over bones.” Without an NFL settlement by the mid-May television upfront, things should get more interesting there. However, as Optimum Sports Managing Director Tom McGovern points out, the success of postseason baseball on Sunday afternoons is not as automatic as being awarded first base after four balls. “The only thing proven to raise viewing levels on Sunday afternoon is the NFL,” he said.

As for the rest of the field?

“If NFL games are canceled, anyone with male-skewing TV programming will benefit from a revenues standpoint,” McGovern said. “Those are some of the conversations we’re all having right now.”

MICHAEL MARANTZ
Phillies manager Manuel joins Victorino in radio, print and TV ads for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
MANUEL AT THE WHEEL:
Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has signed a two-year deal to be the new spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Early this month, Manuel, along with Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino, did radio, print and TV ads filmed at Citizens Bank Park that should break in June.

The pair will be used to promote a road trip to see the Phillies at opposing parks, an offseason fan cruise, a manger-of-the-day opportunity, and branding spots that will air on Phillies TV and radio broadcasts. In-stadium signage and standees at AAA Mid-Atlantic locations also support.

While the Phillies are the auto club’s only MLB sponsorship, it sponsors several minor-league teams along with the Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland and Dover Speedway.

“We’ve used Victorino for several years, but now that we are tying them to our brand messaging, Charlie seemed like the right guy to layer on,” said Matthew Haas, director, partnership marketing, at AAA Mid-Atlantic. “The bottom line for all our sponsorships now is brand lift and building our database to grow membership.”

Marc Bluestein’s Aquarius Sports and Entertainment of Fulton, Md., is AAA Mid-Atlantic’s sponsorship agency of record. Alex Radetsky at Radegen Sports Management represents Manuel for marketing.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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