CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Major pro sports halls of fame tend to be largely pristine, marketer-free shrines to their respective sports, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame is breaking with that tradition in a new multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal with Van Heusen and JC Penney.
The fashion brand and retailer are partnering with the hall on a microsite housed within JC Penney's website that intends to give fans a voice in the debate over which players ought to be enshrined in the Canton, Ohio, museum. A voice, of course, is not the same as a vote -- but the fan's choice will be promoted extensively via the NFL Network, the league's premium-cable-TV outlet, and could influence the selection process. The microsite for the partnership incorporates social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.
"It's like a CNN poll," said George Veras, president of Pro Football Hall of Fame Enterprises, a recently launched unit within the hall that will pursue deals with marketers and other ventures. "You know, the president of the United States looks at polls, and they can impact the process."
Major shift in media strategy
For Van Heusen, the deal represents a major philosophical shift in its approach to marketing. For years, the company's ad budget has been dominated by print fashion titles. As recently as two years ago, according to Phillips-Van Heusen Chief Marketing Officer Mike Kelly, the company was spending as much as 80% of its ad budget on fashion books. This year, those books won't even get the biggest slice of the spending pie, as he expects sports to grab more than 50% of Van Heusen's ad outlay.
"We'd been concerned that the fashion-print model was becoming less and less effective," said Mr. Kelly. "Our research showed that our target's interest was sports, sports, sports, and then maybe news, and pretty much in that order."
And an aggressive move into sports by Phillips-Van Heusen subsidiary Izod eased any remaining doubts that the sports sector ought to be a priority. Izod, like Van Heusen, had been primarily a fashion advertiser, but after seeing a positive return from major sports deals such as securing naming rights for the Meadowlands Arena and sponsoring IndyCar racing, has shifted more heavily into sports. Mr. Kelly said Izod's success was critical, internally, in selling a more sports-centric strategy for Van Heusen as well. So, knowing that it would want a substantial retail activation component for whichever program it pursued, Van Heusen agreed to partner with JC Penney, which had also been casting about for ways to better target and engage men, on a sports initiative.
Still, Van Heusen and JC Penney do risk a potential backlash if the fan's choice doesn't pass muster with the pro football writers who wield the votes that count. But executives at Penney and Van Heusen said they welcomed being associated with what they hope will be a hearty debate that will expand the Hall of Fame's reach.
The deal also calls for major retail displays within JC Penney stores, and appearances at NFL stadiums by Hall of Famers such as Dick Butkus, Lynn Swann and Gale Sayers, who will promote not only the fan voting but also, in an effort to spark debate, their own choices.
"That's what's great about sports," said Bill Getner, VP-men's marketing at J.C. Penney. "There's going to be that debate."
Blanketing sports media
The arguing certainly won't lack for exposure. All told, The Van Heusen Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan's Choice campaign will be featured in ads running a variety of media including broadcast such as "ESPN Monday Night Football," NFL Network, ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike" program; print such as The New York Times; an 80-by-60-foot Times Square billboard at 42nd and Broadway; and on the web including ESPN.com, NFL.com, Yahoo.com, AskMen.com, Brash.com and Facebook. The NFL Network will also air four specials devoted to the Hall of Fame.
The companies became aware of the opportunity with the Hall of Fame's new enterprises unit because the president of Van Heusen's licensing division, Kenneth Wyse, was a friend and high-school classmate of the Hall of Fame's Mr. Veras, who let him know about the company's interest in new sports deals.
"That's how it happened," chuckled Mr. Veras.
And while this is the first major sponsorship deal for the Hall of Fame, Mr. Veras made it clear he does not expect it to be the last. The Hall is currently looking at finding sponsors for its enshrinement week and for a Hall of Fame events platform.