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Volume 22 No. 23

Marketing and Sponsorship

Looking out across the intersection of sports and commerce, we see the Alliance of American Football, one fledgling spring professional football league, scuffling for money, and another, the XFL 2.0, waiting for the AAF to fold.

For some time, we’ve been wanting to tell the story of yet another attempted spring league. It had well-connected industry names at the helm but still couldn’t get off the ground. Fortunately, the group had enough combined intelligence and experience to acquiesce and fold before pouring money down a hole. So, call this a cautionary tale for anyone looking to launch spring pro football.

Houston businessman Mark Singleton has been trying to launch a spring league for at least eight years. His vision of the Spring Professional Football League was for a single-entity ownership developmental circuit, in which players would last three years — either dropping out or making it to the next level. There would be no possibility of bidding wars against the NFL.

Over the past few years, things got more serious. Sources involved at the time tell us that Fox and NBC had committed to share the SPFL as a TV property, with a projected launch date of 2020. Industry veterans in on the project, sources tell us, included TV sports veterans Eric Shanks of Fox; former NBC sales, production and programming exec Mike Trager; and Dennis Mannion, who’d signed a term sheet as CEO after senior marketing and management roles with Palace Sports & Entertainment, the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Dodgers, among others.

“I was pretty fired up about it,” said Mannion, the only person connected with the SPFL who agreed to talk on the record, “and it was clear to me that Fox and NBC really thought it was strong. … I liked the model because it replicated the exact rules of the NFL and it truly set itself up as developmental. The founder [Singleton] had a really strong financial and operating plan.”

The AAF is finding it difficult to sell tickets to pro football games in February and March.
Photo: getty images

The SPFL was looking at some smaller towns and facilities, and perhaps optimistically projecting an average attendance of 20,000. All of that seems similar to the AAF — except for one supposition. “This idea that people are dying for football as soon as the Super Bowl ends is just not true,” said a senior executive for one of the networks involved. “People need a break from football then. Summer is the right time for a developmental league. … Selling tickets in cold-weather cities in February and March is just not a good bet.” So the league was to play from mid-April and finish by early July.

The AAF started this year the week after the Super Bowl. The new XFL will kick off Feb. 8, 2020.

Even with optimism from the prospective TV networks, which were set to televise every SPFL game, there was consensus among the parties that it would take a minimum of $200 million in cash (not just a line of credit) to fund the startup for its first two seasons. They raised around $75 million by late last summer before funding dried up, at least partly because of the AAF and the XFL, in the opinion of one involved party.

“We had some initial traction, but [when] both other leagues announced, that muddied the waters for investors and we couldn’t get any more,” said a senior industry source who worked on the proposed league. After a monthlong extension of an original deadline, the two networks pulled out last September. “The smart money turned out to be ‘Let’s not do it without the $200 million in the bank.’

“It may not be feasible for anyone because football is such an expensive sport. The workmen’s comp and insurance issues are enough to derail a league by themselves.”

The XFL is backed with funding from Vince McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment. Still, we remain convinced that the expense of tackle football is enough to crush even the most substantial of heavyweights, and that while there’s an appetite and ample talent to supply a “G League for football,” that won’t be successful unless and until the NFL lends dollars, IP and associated credibility.

Still, that siren song about replicating the American Football League’s success in the 1960s seems more compelling than ever, even though there’s a junkyard of failed football startups since the AFL was founded 60 years ago.

“Everybody thinks they’ll be sport’s next entrepreneurial genius, but it’s hard work and it takes a long time to establish any league,” said the network senior executive, “because football is still the single most expensive sport to run and maintain.”

LONG DRIVE: WME-IMG Consulting has quietly won an agency shootout to activate Audi’s U.S. sports properties, which include one of Major League Soccer’s largest sponsorship deals; a title sponsorship for the home stadium of D.C. United; and 90 Audi quattro Cup amateur golf tournaments, which feed into a national final. The Audi business had been under review since early last year. It was last with CSM LeadDog.

 

Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

 

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

The deal is the first official beer sponsorship for the fledgling MMA circuit.
Photo: professional fighters league

Any sports property’s first beer sponsorship is a landmark. Such is the case with the Professional Fighters League.

The mixed martial arts circuit, formerly the World Series of Fighting but now approaching its second season under new ownership and the PFL moniker, has signed Anheuser-Busch InBev to a multiyear global rights deal. Financial terms were not available. The sponsorship will support Estrella Jalisco beer, introduced by A-B to the U.S. market in 2016 as an alternative to Corona, long the top-selling American import, as well as Heineken’s Tecate and Dos Equis Mexican brands.

ABI gets malt-beverage category exclusivity within the league and its media rights holders; camera-visible branding within the PFL’s “decagon”; IP rights for advertising; pass-through rights for retail and on-premise campaigns; along with the “Official Beer of the PFL” designation. The MMA circuit also will produce exclusive digital content for ABI.

ABI had sponsorship rights for its Bud Light brand with the UFC for nine years before being supplanted by Modelo in 2018.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to get back into MMA,” said Nick Kelly, ABI head of U.S. sports marketing. “The ability for us to plan with their regular season and playoffs format makes it much easier for us to leverage.”

Estrella Jalisco has been available at retail largely in Texas and California; distribution is now expanding to larger metros, including Chicago, New York and portions of Florida.

ABI did a test at the PFL’s New Year’s event. The PFL season begins May 9, backed by a new distribution deal with ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN+ OTT service.

“Brands understand how to activate with our model and we have good traction with millennials, Gen Z and multicultural audiences,” said PFL CEO Peter Murray. “Thursday nights have also become important for beer and other sports advertisers as they look to prime the pump for the weekend.”

AMB Sports & Entertainment believes there were "no hiccups" in the shift to making Mercedes-Benz Stadium cash-free during Sunday's FC Cincinnati-Atlanta United match, according to Eric Mandel of the ATLANTA BUSINESS CHRONICLE. AMB Group Senior Dir of Corporate & Marketing Communications Heather Sautter said the move to accepting only cards and mobile payments "went very smoothly" and officials are "pleased with the progress." She said that the kiosks allowing fans to exchange cash for debit cards "were utilized by less than one percent of the 70,000-plus attendees." AMB Group CEO Steve Cannon had said that the potential demand for the machines was an "unknown and that officials were prepared to tweak the number as the year goes on" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 3/12).

A CLOSER LOOK: Cannon, Atlanta United President Darren Eales and Falcons President & CEO Rich McKay prior to Sunday's game stopped by the SBJ/SBD offices and discussed the move to make Mercedes-Benz Stadium cash-free, as well as the reason they are further cutting the prices of some concessions.