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Volume 23 No. 28
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Sponsors of NFL teams are not happy with the lack of airtime for their tarp ads

New rules allowed teams to turn the first eight rows of seating into ad placements this year, but one report says it has delivered less than half the expected return on investment.
Photo: getty images

One of the NFL’s biggest attempts to preserve sponsor revenue during the pandemic season is drawing negative reviews after early action.

In June, the NFL decided to block about the first eight rows of seats in every stadium, ostensibly to keep COVID-19 from spreading between fans and on-field personnel. But it also represented a rare chance for teams to give their sponsors national television exposure by selling logo space on the tarps. Theoretically, that camera-visible signage – usually strictly limited by league policy — could make up much of the contract value lost to the pandemic.

On opening weekend, television viewers simply didn’t see much of the logos. A few ads in the end zones and the sidelines opposite the main cameras could be seen briefly on some plays, but those on the camera side were virtually invisible. There was no expectation that any changes would be made until every team had hosted at least one home game, which happened in Week 2. 

“I was incredibly disappointed,” said Larry Rothstein, president of Source Communications, who had a client take tarp advertising as a make-good for in-person impressions in one stadium he declined to name. “You couldn’t see anything. I let the team know at the end of the game that we need to talk. … It made for an interesting conversation with my client, who watched the game intently to see their logo and never saw it.”

Teams can relay those complaints to the league office, but the teams and the league made no formal guarantees of camera time. Network directors and camera operators are tasked with creating a compelling broadcast, not satisfying team sponsor demands. A production philosophy shared by network executives is to stay away from shots of big, empty stadiums, which they feel does not translate to must-see TV. That means tighter shots of game action on the field and players and coaches on the sidelines. 

* Sports Atlas: Download all the data related to NFL team tarp ads

Taking ad-vantage

NFL teams debuted new seat cover logo space in Week 1, the biggest expansion of on-camera sponsorship assets in modern history. Teams mostly used the space as make-goods for contracts with sponsors who lost impressions because of the lack of fans under pandemic restrictions.

Most seat cover buyers:
11 — Gatorade*
7 — Verizon*
5 — Toyota
4 — Bank of America, Visa*, Ford*, Geico
3 — Bridgestone*, Gillette*, NRG Energy, US Bank
2 — Bud Light/BL Seltzer*, Corona, Empower, Harrah’s, Hy-Vee, Kroger, M&T Bank, Publix, Rocket Mortgage*, United Airlines

* League sponsor

Total brands: 143
Average number of unique brands per team: 9

Top five categories:

Financial 15%
Auto 10%
Health care 9%
Insurance 8%
Non-alcoholic beverages 6%

Source: Sponsor United

Take the first “Sunday Night Football” game of the season, for example, which opened SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. Typically, NBC would run its graphics packages over crowd shots during games. With an empty stadium, though, NBC decided to place cameras outside the stadium and showed the graphics over outside views of the new facility.

If the networks won’t cooperate, teams will have to come up with other solutions to give their sponsors the make-good they’re looking for because the early returns left many unhappy. 

“I had medium expectations going in, but I thought they definitely underperformed, and a lot of clients were disappointed,” said Genesco Sports Enterprises CEO John Tatum, whose agency represents sponsors Anheuser-Busch, Campbell’s Soup, Frito-Lay and Pepsi. “It was a good idea, but the execution was pretty bad.”

Tony Schiller, executive vice president and partner at Paragon Marketing Group, called them “underwhelming.” He said he had numerous clients take the tarp logos but declined to name them.

Teams saw things differently. San Francisco 49ers CRO Brent Schoeb reported positive sponsor feedback. He said the large viewership of NFL games makes up for the less time on camera compared to dasherboard ads in the NHL or behind home plate in MLB. The overwhelming majority of logos were make-goods for existing contracts, not new sales.

“The seat tarps are part of the overall make-good strategy, they’re not the end-all, be-all; for some they’re a significant make-good, for some others you sprinkle in some digital and social make-goods as well,” Schoeb said.

“They were fine,” said Kevin Rochlitz, the Baltimore Ravens’ chief sales officer. “Our marketing group did a good job of color coordinating, so I thought they were visible, so we were happy with it.”

* Sports Atlas: View and search tarp information for each NFL team

According to a preliminary study of two Week 1 games conducted by an agency representing NFL teams, the media value generated by the signs averaged about a 2x return on investment, less than half the 4-5x projection developed by their analysis of footage from prior years’ broadcasts. That analysis didn’t include any prime-time or major-market games, so a fuller study may yield different figures, a source said.

That aligns with reports from those close to the short sales process this summer.

One large media agency was bearish on the opportunity to begin with, a buyer there said, because they knew broadcasters had no incentive to show the ads.

Insiders said the logo sales process was rushed, with teams only having a few weeks between the NFL publishing the final policy and an early August deadline to begin manufacturing the covers. Prices were all over the place — some teams sought more than $1 million, but most tarps sold for the mid-to-low six figures, sources said.

But the real value of these signs depends on many factors, including where the signs are located and how many prime-time games each stadium will have. Navigate Research pegs the media value for the rest of the season in the end zones at $2.5 million-$3 million, with sideline spots generating $1 million-$1.25 million.

Others factors are more nuanced — the pitch of the seating bowl, the location of the camera bays, even how many replay reviews officials undertake.

Experts said the NFL will have to take the input seriously and make adjustments if the initial reviews don’t improve. Value-add tactics could include allowing sponsors to include campaign tag lines or calls to action, or adding some kind of augmented reality element.

“I can’t say it [was] a bust in Week 1,” said Chris Caldwell, senior vice president at MKTG, which represents Procter & Gamble, which had several tarps on opening week. “I don’t think anyone’s thinking that, they’re thinking, ‘how does it get better moving forward?’”

Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.