SBJ/May 23-29, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

NFL clubs ramp up communications to calm their sponsors

Terry Lefton
As the NFL and what used to be its players union do their best to keep America’s litigators dining out on Kobe beef and Lafite Rothschild, we find ourselves wondering what it’s like for team marketers to sell in the face of all the angst about when the NFL will begin a regular season that its schedule says will start Sept. 8.

A survey of 10 club marketers, some on the record and some without names attached in deference to team and league policies, found renewals, ticketing and suites generally keeping pace with prior years. New business, as you might expect, is an entirely different issue, and anyone who was expecting significant price increases for club sponsorship inventory before the lockout has readjusted.

The good news for the buy side is that there does seem to be a lockout-based discount. The bad news is that marketers are generally timid in good times and these don’t classify as those, coming just after a recession whose effect in still being felt, perhaps more at the club level than with national deals.

“Corporate marketers hate uncertainty more than red ink, and unfortunately uncertainty is something we have a lot of,” said a top sales exec at a Western NFL team, who asked for anonymity.

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In St. Louis, the Rams are looking at dozens of renewals pending, including hometown A-B.
In the midst of all that doubt, club marketers say it’s all about hand-holding, even for their largest clients. New York Giants Chief Marketing Officer Mike Stevens said the club decided not to hold a sponsor summit until next year, but “we have increased communication with all of our business partners three to fourfold and we have met personally with all of them.”

While most of the Giants’ largest deals were signed to coincide with the opening of the new Jets/Giants stadium last season, the team still has around a dozen deals “at the lawyer stage,” Stevens said. “Every deal takes more time and has more complexities,” he said, “but most of the companies we deal with have had collective-bargaining situations of their own, so they understand the complexities.”

Among the clubs most affected are those trying to sell off the basis of recent success. The labor morass seems to have obscured much of that — for now.

“So far, the biggest impact of the labor situation is that it’s killed the momentum around our brand,” said a senior marketer at an NFL team that qualified for the playoffs last season. “We’d like to be selling based on our success last season, but that’s just been obscured.”

Deals are getting done. The Baltimore Ravens have a new sponsorship pact with Taco Bell, and KFC is in the fold as the team’s official chicken. Verizon also extended its telecommunications rights in the offseason to include FiOS, its cable TV service.

“You try to keep it business as usual,” said Kevin Rochlitz, Ravens vice president of national partnerships and sales, who said his team is also in active discussions within the coffee restaurant, furniture retailer and real estate categories. “Let all your partners know we will get through this and keep them in the loop to the degree you can, because they have bosses who want the updates to be from you — even if the information is no different from what was on ‘SportsCenter.’”

For many, it’s all about attitude. “It’s clearly tougher to get a conversation going with prospects and keep it going,” said Ari Roitman, Philadelphia Eagles senior vice president of business, during a recent summit of team business partners. “But regardless of how long this goes, I will not walk down the hall at any time during this offseason and say we didn’t get a deal done because of the work stoppage.”

Roitman added that the team is “on schedule,” with five renewals or new sponsorships at the papering stage.

Echoed Houston Texans President Jamey Rootes, “You can easily talk yourself into a lot of bad things in this environment, so we made a decision early on to treat this season like any other and be prepared to go when the switch is flipped.” Rootes said the Texans have signed new business in the seven figures. Electronics and appliance retailer Conn’s is in, and First Community Credit Union will offer Texans-branded debit cards, assuming there’s a season.

“The sales cycle is longer and there are more questions to answer, but for sponsorships, suites and tickets, we’re no worse off than a year ago,” Rootes said.

Like many other NFL teams, the Kansas City Chiefs have a handful of deals that are fully negotiated but won’t be signed until a CBA is finalized. Others have multiyear deals where fees are backloaded in deference to the uncertainty surrounding the 2011 season.

“We still have some momentum from our stadium renovation, and the people we have prospecting for new business tell me they are busier than ever,” said Kansas City Chiefs President Mark Donovan, adding that ticket sales are also strong following the team’s first division title since 2003. “The business side of all this has become a lot like what we see in polls from the fans: They believe it will get done.”

In St. Louis, the Rams had dozens of renewals pending, including one of the league’s biggest local beer deals, a byproduct of the team representing Anheuser-Busch’s hometown. Rams CMO Bob Reif said he expects that deal to be competed by July, about the same as the last deal the club did with the brewery.

“This is the NFL, so our sales should have a longer-term focus anyway,” Reif said. “The opportunity here is that if you take care of clients to the degree you can in this kind of situation, you can really build trust and possibly more business down the road.”

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