NFL, NETS PUT FANS IN THE RED (CARPET) ZONE 'WELCOME BACK': FROM RALLIES TO TV SPOTS, THE GOAL IS TO GET FOOTBALL LOVERS TO PUT ON THEIR GAME FACE

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Are you ready for some football?

As the kickoff of a new season nears, the National Football League and its TV partners and sponsors are rolling out the red carpet for fans.

The NFL's marketing campaign for this year builds on a successful effort from last year that featured players who showed up at supermarkets and train stations to thank fans for their support. The new ads carry the tagline, "Welcome back. Feel the power '99."

'MAN-TO-FAN MARKETING'

One key element of the marketing push is a series of rallies that will be held in six markets-Cleveland; Denver; Green Bay, Wis.; Kansas City, Mo.; Minneapolis; and Pittsburgh-and Kohl's Corp.'s department stores will sponsor events at local stores where football players will sign autographs and hand out gifts.

"It's about 'man-to-fan marketing,' " said Howard Handler, NFL senior VP-marketing and fan development.

A series of "Welcome back" TV spots, created in-house, are already on the air; they feature players from the Cleveland Browns, New England Patriots, New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks.

"We wanted to create a campaign to ramp up our fans because toward the end of summer, there are a lot of things going on," Mr. Handler said. "We wanted to get connected with them very quickly."

The spots feature location shoots in the shipyards of Seattle, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, on a baseball field in Massachusetts and in the new football stadium of the Cleveland Browns.

While Mr. Handler wouldn't reveal the monetary value of the new season's marketing launch, the league said it has secured about 800 gross ratings points from its TV partners: ABC, CBS, Fox and ESPN.

MORE 'POKER DOGS'

ESPN in September breaks the next in a series of "Poker Dogs" promos for its "ESPN Sunday Night Football" broadcast of 18 games. The new spots, via Wieden & Kennedy, New York, feature a number of NFL players interacting with animated dogs. Spots use the voices of comedian Gilbert Gottfried, actor Art Carney and NBA great George Gervin.

Last year, ESPN did a similar campaign, with the poker-playing dogs.

"This year we just raised the silliness factor," said Tom Clendenin, VP-advertising and promotion. "In our research, the recall of the dogs was extraordinary. So we decided to revisit it."

The player-specific promo spots-with Wayne Chrebet, Eddie George, Jason Sehorn, Terrell Davis, Herman Moore, Mike Alstott, Randy Moss, Jerome Bettis and Willie Roaf-will run on ESPN a week before those players' respective teams are scheduled to appear on "Sunday Night Football."

Wieden also is producing a number of generic spots for the season. And a print component will run in ESPN the Magazine touting the game schedule with an illustration of the dogs.

FOX HOSTS IN CLAYMATION

Fox Sports started its NFL campaign in mid-July, with TV spots featuring pregame hosts Terry Bradshaw, James Brown, Chris Collinsworth and Howie Long in Claymation form (AA, July 12). DirecTV also has a new effort-budgeted at about $15 million to $20 million-pushing its "NFL Sunday Ticket" package of games.

The league also will use its Web site (NFL.com) for the "Welcome back" campaign. Internet users will be able to listen to 50- and 60-second outtakes from the TV ads. Additionally, the NFL is working with E-greetings.com, for a promo that will let the league send 100,000 e-mail messages welcoming back its fans.

On Aug. 29, the NFL is running a newspaper free-standing insert and will run an ad in USA Today Sept. 10 welcoming back its sponsors.

PUMPING UP THE 'POWER'

Starting on Sept. 12, the day the football season begins, the latest versions of the NFL's 4-year-old "Feel the power" in-season campaign will kick off. In them, today's superstar players will reflect on great players of yesteryear.

The league's new efforts to target kids include a "Play Football Month" campaign in September. In October, there will be an animated spot for Halloween, targeting 12-to-24-year-olds.

For women, the NFL will continue its sponsorship of "Race for the Cure," a series of running events across the U.S. that promote the awareness of breast

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