NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In the battle to sway public sentiment over a potential National Football League lockout, the NFL Players Association is hoping a social-media-backed video and petition drive will gain traction with fans.
The union is breaking a 60-second spot entitled "Let Us Play," an impassioned sympathy play in which players and fans alike intone "Let us play" and "Let them play." There is no other dialogue in the spot, which starts out with a camera zooming in on a padlock of a chain-link fence, and stark images from an empty football stadium.
NFL Players Association's spot
The ad is something of a response to the letter that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent to fans and season-ticket holders at the start of the playoffs earlier this month, outlining the league's position.
Here's the twist in a week when everybody will be talking about the $3-million-per-30-second commercials on the Super Bowl: The NFLPA spot uses social media almost exclusively as its platform.
The ad will appear on TV only once: during CBS's telecast of the NFLPA All-Star Game on Saturday, Feb. 5, a day before the ad bonanza during Super Bowl XLV on Fox on Feb. 6. The "Let Us Play" spot can be seen on nfllockout.com, and the Players Association's YouTube channel. NFL players have also begun using the #LETUSPLAY Twitter hashtag in their tweets. Numerous players have used their Twitter accounts for months to update fans on the labor negotiations.
"For us, it's a simple issue: it's a lockout being threatened by the owners of American's most popular sport," said George Atallah, assistant executive director of external affairs for the Washington-based NFL Players Association. "In that context, the 'Let Us Play' message is one that is delivered not just by the players but by the fans. That's an important message to send, and we are not spending a penny to put this on the networks to send that message."
The union gets two minutes worth of spots on CBS's telecast of the NFLPA All-Star Game as part of its sponsorship of the game. Otherwise, the NFLPA is leery of doing business with the broadcast networks, which they believe are sympathetic to the owners' cause by continuing to pay the NFL its combined $4 billion in rights fees even if the 2011 season is delayed or, worse, canceled.
"We'll spread this virally," Mr. Atallah said, "much like Pepsi did last year for the Super Bowl."
The NFLPA hired social-media-centric ad agency New Media Strategies, Arlington, Va., to produce the spot.
"There's no bigger conversation in all of marketing and advertising every year than the discussion around the Super Bowl ads, right? Well, our best distribution model is being able to make sure we're part of that and a sizable force in the conversation, and the best way to latch onto that conversation is through social media," said New Media Strategies CEO Pete Snyder. "It's a complex issue, yes, but at its root it's simple -- the union's side is, look, we just want to play. We fully expect the fan base to take it that way and to start talking about a lockout."
The Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the players expires on March 4. The owners have threatened to lock the players out unless they can come to an agreement on such issues as an equitable form of revenue distribution, a rookie wage scale, and an 18-game season, among other items.
While Mr. Goodell's letter struck the first blow, sports marketing experts agree the NFLPA spot is a smart move.
"It allows the union to get ahead of the conversation and frame their side before the owners truly have their say," said Drew Kerr, president of New York-based public-relations firm Four Corners Communications. "The owners are going to have to respond now. They're on defense now, to use a sports term. You have to hand it to the Players Association. They're using broad strokes here, but it's sympathetic broad strokes. And to do it with social media is a great idea. The union has been brilliant at that."
Indeed, just today, NFLPA Executive Director Demaurice Smith went to Twitter to respond to a comment from Mr. Goodell. When the commissioner was quoted as saying he'd take a salary of $1 if there is a lockout, Mr. Smith humorously tweeted: "NFL executives reducing salaries in the event of a lockout? If we have a deal by Super Bowl, I'll go down to 68 cents."