NFL revokes ban on drug co. sponsorship

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Pharmaceutical companies are rushing for the end zone after the National Football League lifted its ban on health-care sponsorship and advertising. All 32 NFL franchises, as well as the league itself, can now make deals with drug companies.

"It's like the Super Bowl for us," said one drug company VP-marketing. "It's an important foothold to gain an association with the NFL."

"We're always encouraged to see restrictions eliminated that might infringe on our ability to communicate with and educate patients about their health," said Deborah Dick-Rath, exec VP-global advertising, Novartis.

While the league office has now given the green light to pharmaceutical advertising, it has put some restrictions in place. One limitation is that advertising with NFL players or teams can only be done for individual products, meaning Pfizer can't suddenly bill itself as the presenting sponsor of the New York Giants, only one of its products can. The NFL has limited those products to drugs in eight specific categories: allergies; cholesterol reducers; dermatology; diabetes; erectile dysfunction; gastrointestinal; hair renewal and growth; and prostate medication.

The NFL will allow current players, coaches, owners and team personnel to endorse products, but they can't appear in uniform or otherwise be identified as being with a club or the NFL. This will allow Atlanta Falcons Head Coach Dan Reeves to continue as the voice for Merck & Co.'s cholesterol-reducing drug Zocor.

initial reluctance

All proposals will also have to be submitted through the league office, although that is standard with most sponsorship agreements.

In return, pharmaceutical companies will be able to use team and league marques in their advertising.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue sent a letter to all 32 teams advising them of his decision in early February. With the problems all sports leagues have had with substances such as ephedra and steroids, the league was reluctant to partner with pharmaceutical companies.

`time was right'

"We've been monitoring this category over the last few years and have become increasingly more comfortable about exploring some opportunities there," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "Given that pharma is one of the most heavily regulated sectors, and this extends to the advertising of prescription drugs, we felt the time was right."

Shortly after the commissioner's letter, word began leaking from team marketing executives to their counterparts at the drug companies, who in turn have inundated the NFL.

By any indicator, from fan polls to TV ratings, the NFL is the most popular sport in the country. According to Nielsen Media Research, total viewers per game increased 5% in 2002 (14.4 million vs. 13.7 million) and NFL games accounted for four of the top 14 programs on network TV so far this season, and six of the top 10 reaching men 18-34.

The demographics alone are appealing to drug companies. "We're always in the market for new and innovative ways to reach out and connect with consumers," said Dorothy Wetzel, Pfizer's VP-consumer marketing, U.S. pharmaceuticals. "Tapping into existing passions is one way to do it."

Merck front-runner

Merck did not return a call for comment, but it appears to be a front-runner to land the first significant sponsorship deal with the NFL itself. The league and Merck briefly had a partnership in 2000, when Zocor sponsored a season-long contest on the league's Web site, NFL.com. Each week, fans were asked to vote for the player whose performance exhibited the most heart during the previous game. Merck hired former NFL coach Bill Parcells and former NFL quarterback Joe Montana as spokesmen for the campaign.

Other major sports leagues have not been shy about making deals with pharmaceutical companies. Major League Baseball player Rafael Palmiero of the Texas Rangers endorses Pfizer's erectile-dysfunction drug Viagra, while Viagra is also the main sponsor of Nascar driver Mark Martin.

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