SBJ/June 4-10, 2012/Marketing and Sponsorship

With IBM and Motorola out, will NFL go big in tech category?

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Terry Lefton
Four months after the Super Bowl and two months before training camps open, the NFL’s offseason scoreboard reads thusly: two sponsors out and one renewed for the team on Park Avenue.

Longtime NFL sponsor IBM, a league sponsor since 2003, has opted not to renew its league sponsorship rights, joining Motorola (SportsBusiness Journal, March 19) as another veteran sponsor deciding not to return to the NFL. While “Big Blue” is more familiar as a nickname for the New Jersey-based Super Bowl champs, the tech industry version has been a model business-to-business sponsor during its tenure as an NFL corporate sponsor, using league infrastructure projects like the digitization of NFL Films and other IT projects to demonstrate its capabilities.

Without sharing considerable detail on the non-renewal, Rick Singer, who heads IBM’s sponsorships as vice president of client executive marketing, called it an amicable split.

“It was a good nine-year run,” he said. “We had some very good discussions, but we decided that the things they want to do aren’t the same as what we want to. It wasn’t about money as much as it was about each party’s philosophy on the [technology] category.”

The headset rights held by Motorola could be packaged as part of a broader category.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Singer said no decision has been made yet on whether the healthy IBM budget line that was used to support NFL rights will be re-allocated to another sports sponsorship, here or abroad. IBM’s domestic sponsorship portfolio includes tennis’ U.S. Open, The Masters, the USGA and the Tony Awards.

As for the NFL rationale in all things tech, we’re told that the league is on the street with the framework of a larger technology deal, and that the thought within league circles is that adding IBM’s broad category rights in computer hardware, software and IT services to those formerly held by departed telecom hardware rights holder Motorola could form the rudiments of a broad technology deal. Such a sponsorship could include Motorola-like headset branding, integration of tablet PCs on NFL sidelines, widespread use of tablets by coaches and as playbooks, and rewiring NFL stadiums.

Since it would involve the league’s competition committee and league and team marketing and sponsorship teams working together, the politics of such a deal are complex enough to render it nearly impossible. As in all cases, however, the NFL’s magnitude will allow it to set the bar, both in rights fees and scope, in whatever tech deal it achieves.

We do not expect tablet market leader Apple to pay rights fees to any sports property any time soon. We do believe that any secondary brand, be it Lenovo (an IBM stepchild, for those in search of potential irony) or Samsung, could use the power of the NFL to quickly make a credible claim at being the No. 2 brand to Apple.

Hard to believe the NFL will be able to fashion such a complex deal in time for the coming season. Looking at it through the lens of Motorola’s lapsed telecom deal, club marketers have already been told that while the league does not expect to have a telecom hardware deal before the coming season, the category is still off limits for clubs to sell.

What will the coaches’ headsets, which have carried branding since the mid-1990s, look like next season? We’re told that without a sponsor, that valuable real estate would promote NFL.com or NFL Network. However, we’re also cautioned that the category is changing week to week, so stay tuned, via whatever handheld device you deem most appropriate.

TIRE-D OF THE SHOW?
: Well-placed NFL sources tell us that Bridgestone has extended its NFL deal, but opted out of its title sponsorship of the Super Bowl halftime show. Bridgestone’s last sponsorship agreement bound it to the NFL through the 2014 season, and it had titled the halftime extravaganza since 2008, during which musicians Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, the Black Eyed Peas and Madonna have headlined.

Madonna’s Super Bowl halftime show will be the last for Bridgestone.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Bridgestone is shifting its NFL efforts to a “year-round platform, including training camp, kickoff, and will still have a presence at Super Bowl,” we’re told by one involved marketer.

In winning Sponsor of the Year accolades at the Sports Business Awards recently, Bridgestone marketers cited their affiliation with jewel events of the biggest sports properties as the key strategy in growing both brand equity and sales measures in what has been a declining tire market. However, Madonna’s performance at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show included rapper M.I.A. flipping the bird. M.I.A.’s childish action was seen by a record television audience of 111.3 million viewers. So we’re wondering if that played a role in the tire brand veering right with its NFL rights.

That puts the NFL back on the street with its Super Bowl halftime show for the first time under its current marketing and sales regime. Another rhetorical question before departing: Would that inventory be enough to attract a tech sponsor of the type outlined above?

COMINGS & GOINGS: Mark Rooks, PepsiCo senior director of sports marketing, has resigned after 13 years with the food and beverage giant. Rooks is joining Dick’s Sporting Goods at its Pittsburgh headquarters as vice president of sports and community. Rooks started at Pepsi in 1999 and has served in various marketing roles. He was senior brand manager on Mountain Dew, and director of marketing for the North American Coffee Partnership, a joint venture with Starbucks. … The NCAA’s director of corporate alliances, Peter Davis, is leaving in July after a decade to join BDA, a licensee of the NCAA and most other major sports properties. Davis will manage BDA’s relationships with the NCAA, MLB, NFL, NASCAR and USOC and be based in Charlotte.

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