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Volume 21 No. 30
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Sponsors give collective shrug, take wait-and-see approach to new ventures

Sponsorship marketing experts are largely indifferent at the prospect of more pro football.

“It may be a good fit for a brand that couldn’t afford the NFL,” said Nick Kelly, Anheuser-Busch InBev U.S. sports marketing head, who noted Bud Light’s heavy investment in the NFL. “But for traditional sponsors, it’s hard to see them testing out one of these leagues.”

However, Kelly finds the reborn XFL’s potential audience intriguing. “A pooled WWE/NFL audience would be unique; you’d still get males, but it would skew younger, and it would be during the NFL’s offseason. … Right now, that’s probably the only one we’d consider.”

As sponsorship vice president of the XFL during the first iteration of the league, Paul Kayaian sold more than $40 million of sponsorship deals to the likes of Burger King and Gatorade. He still sees value in a spring league, but only if the level of play is intriguing to the audience.

“The basic premise hasn’t changed: America loves football and there’s a letdown after the Super Bowl,” said Kayaian, who’s taught a college course on the failed league. “The one thing we couldn’t control was the quality of play. That has to be better to attract sponsors.”

Daniel Glantz, AIG global head of sponsorship, noted that many bigger brands are averse to startup properties. AIG is passing on the new football leagues for now.

“Whether it’s esports or something like this [spring football], trying to predict how they’ll develop is difficult,” he said, “so there’s a tendency for marketers, particularly at larger brands, to sit on the sidelines and see who survives.”

With a sponsorship of USA Rugby, this summer’s Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament and a jersey patch deal with the New Zealand All Blacks, rugby is AIG’s biggest sports platform. However, in 2016 it did venture into the new sports property world with sponsorship of the Drone Racing League. “You look for authentic connections,” Glantz explained, “and we were one of the first to provide drone insurance.”

With Reebok supporting an off-field marketing platform of cross-training and conditioning, U.S. marketing head John Lynch said a spring football league would not fit with its sponsorship strategy. However, “football is in a bit of a disruption period because of concussion concerns and media consumption changing, so you wonder if there isn’t a different way,” Lynch said. “The [spring] leagues we’ve seen have had some rule changes. Maybe now there’s a bigger opportunity to disrupt by changing rules more dramatically.”

Octagon Chairman and CEO Rick Dudley, whose firm represents big brands including Bank of America, BMW and Taco Bell, said he’s skeptical of the new football efforts.

“I don’t know that the world is waiting for another league,” he said, “but you have to take Vince McMahon seriously because of his money and ability to create a show, and obviously the [Charlie] Ebersol group has some pedigree.”

Nick Carey, Wells Fargo senior vice president and head of sponsorship, said some of the shoulder programming for the new leagues might be what differentiates them. Imagine a 24-hour-a-day locker-room feed, or a reality show based on a league’s top star.

“We’re not in the buy mode at all now,” Carey said, “but the NFL can’t fill every media pipe, and with digital and social being so inexpensive, everyone’s looking for content.”