It was an uncomfortable year to be an NFL corporate sponsor.
Just count the ways: The president’s anti-NFL tweets, player protests, league sponsor Papa John’s blaming unmet sales goals on its league association and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones feuding with Commissioner Roger Goodell were among the high-profile headlines most partners would want to avoid.
Still, many praised the league for the way it handled a trying situation — especially considering the lack of ownership consensus on the troublesome player protest issue.
“We’re one of the most scrutinized [NFL sponsors] because we are so visible,” said Nick Kelly, Anheuser-Busch InBev head of U.S. sports marketing, who lauded the league for its constant communication and making executives as senior as the commissioner available to A-B senior management. “It was so much better handled this time around than during the Ray Rice situation. … There may have been some residual damage to us early, but the feeling always was they were doing everything they could.”
Added Hyundai CMO Dean Evans: “NFL fans are still more favorably disposed to our brand and we’re still getting store and web traffic based on our NFL association. That didn’t change. It always seemed like an untouchable force, but I wouldn’t bet that it has peaked, just based on what I know about the people running it.”
If there was any stigma for marketers considering the NFL, it seems to have been dispelled. The league announced a new deal with mattress retailer Sleep Number in Minneapolis that was followed last week by a five-year extension with a marketer as conservative as any, Procter & Gamble.
“With everything that’s gone on, our [sponsorship] revenues keep going up,” noted Renie Anderson, NFL senior vice president of sponsorship and partnership management.
With that in mind, it’s already on to the next sales season.
Categories of interest include QSR, where McDonald’s ties have lapsed, and where Papa John’s has been a league sponsor since 2010, but its position seems less than stable, even with 18 team deals and a league affiliation that was renewed in 2016.
With more than 14,000 U.S. locations, McDonald’s is an attractive target for the NFL. But the company already has dropped its longtime Olympic sponsorship. McDonald’s also doesn’t sync beverage-wise, since it pours Coke — and Pepsi is one of the NFL’s biggest sponsors. Some synergy could be found with Buffalo Wild Wings, which pours Pepsi, even if it’s not the same scale that a McDonald’s or YUM Brands could bring.
The timing category remains an elusive target.
“Our officials wear watches that are specific to the game, so could we have a partner build one that’s even better?” asked Anderson. “Everything about our game is built on time, starting with the draft, where every team is on the clock.”
The league is also trying to sell either a presenting sponsor for the playoffs, or sponsorship for its menu of Thanksgiving Day Games, likely a retailer, which would use it to kick off the holiday shopping season.
Other category targets: gaming console, no longer part of Microsoft’s league package rights; oil and gas; financial services; additional technology partners; and performance eyewear, like an Oakley, a deal that could get interesting if it included on-field exposure rights.
Among the larger renewals are those of Ford and Hyundai; both have a year remaining.
“Are we getting the ROI out of it? Is the NFL what it was four years ago? I understand all the concerns, but the counter argument is that the NFL just towers over everything else in sports. So, we’ll see,” said Hyundai’s Evans.