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PROMO MARKETER OF YEAR;: NFL;LEVINSON LEADS GRAYING LEAGUE IN COHESIVE PROGRAM TOWARD YOUTH

By Published on .

When Sara Levinson was hired to manage the marketing of the most popular sport in the U.S., one of the first questions she asked was, "Why?"

Not "Why was I hired?" but "Why was the National Football League so popular?"

After all, the league had high TV ratings, more than $3 billion in licensed merchandise sales, $400 million in NFL-themed advertising from marketers and tremendous fan support.

So, in January 1995, four months after taking the job of president of NFL Properties, Ms. Levinson decided the NFL needed an exhaustive study of its fans. Overseeing the effort was VP-marketing Howard Handler, who worked with Ms. Levinson at MTV:Music Television.

The results served as "a guiding light," she says, for greater levels of sophistication and depth in '95 marketing programs.

For these reasons, Ms. Levinson and her team at NFL Properties have been named Advertising Age's 1995 Promotional Marketer of the Year.

The results of the survey were both the revelation and the tool for one of NFLP's most important promotional efforts ever: "Play Football," a major youth marketing effort.

"Play Football" was launched last fall with a $5 million ad campaign and tests of grass-roots programs, from flag football leagues to instructional clinics; new programs will be added this season.

NFL executives, like those at other pro sports leagues, were seeking to develop a younger fan base, through selling TV rights to Fox and recruiting a top MTV official. Still, the survey said something for the NFL to spawn "Play Football."

"Practically, the survey helped us to understand the path and process that goes into making a fan, and why they go out and buy an NFL T-shirt, book or video," says Mr. Handler. "What really impressed us was how that process really begins at a young age."

The "Play Football" ad campaign, created in-house, was launched simultaneously with another ad campaign for the NFL's $3.15 billion licensing business, best among the pro leagues.

The integrated, brand-centric marketing push was a marked departure from years of category-specific efforts. The national campaign tried to tap local passions with customized ads for each NFL market that identified the reasons those fans "pledge allegiance" to their favorite team.

That passion evolved into another tagline, "Feel the power," attached to a series of TV spots in game broadcasts last season. Look for "Feel the power" to become an umbrella concept for integrated marketing programs this fall.

"Our research told us to focus on our strengths: our heritage and the drama that's inherent in the structure of our season. We own a single day of the week and an entire season of the year. No other league can claim that," says Ms. Levinson.

That point also encouraged Ms. Levinson to pursue high-profile sponsor promotions.

In August, Shell Oil Co. launched its biggest NFL program ever, the "Drive to the Super Bowl" sweepstakes offering a Super Bowl trip as the grand prize and involving Coca-Cola Co. and other NFL sponsors as tie-in partners. Following came rookie sponsor Visa USA's "Call for Quarterbacks" sweepstakes that saw 38 million people register by phone for the chance to attend the Super Bowl as an honorary backup quarterback.

Event promotions such as these aren't unprecedented to the NFL. But Ms. Levinson wants to make them the rule rather than the exception.

Under that philosophy, NFLP, with its mass-merchandiser retail partners, will offer "GameDay," areas within stores where fans can find items from its licensees and sponsors. Coca-Cola and Visa International intend to tie into the program.

Then halfway through the season, key licensees will contribute to a program called "Second Season," designed to spur merchandise sales during the holidays. Look for Super Bowl XXXI broadcaster Fox and the NFL to brand the playoff month of January, a la the National Collegiate Athletic Association's "March Madness" for its basketball tournament.

"Last year was the beginning of a larger effort to take all our resources and create bigger bangs for our sponsors' bucks," says Ms. Levinson.

The intent to offer a full pantry of NFL marketing goodies to NFL sponsors required Ms. Levinson's staff to think in an integrated manner. Before Ms. Levinson's arrival, many insiders saw NFLP as comprised of several successful "fiefdoms"-sponsorship, licensing, events, club marketing-that rarely worked together.

Now, under Ms. Levinson, there's a separate marketing department led by Mr. Handler, who assembled his staff largely from these various fiefdoms. When it comes time to help sponsors and their agencies craft promotions, "hit squads" of top executives from various departments meet. These strategy sessions often include marketing execs from the NFL's broadcast partners.

Hence, Visa's "Call for Quarterbacks" was supported with a weeklong media commitment on Fox, during the November sweeps.

Also, the NFL helped Cotter & Co.'s True Value Hardware Stores take the underdeveloped "Man of the year" award program and turn it into a major media and grass-roots initiative by bringing cable network ESPN and its club marketing division to the table.

"Internally, at first, there was some resistance, because it wasn't natural for these `fiefdoms' to work together," says Ms. Levinson. Sponsors are impressed with the results.

"Under Sara's leadership, helping us to coordinate with local teams and encouraging the broadcasters to promote the program, we got off to a great start," says Chuck Kremers, VP-marketing at True Value, which plans to expand its NFL marketing.

The move toward big-event, integrated marketing is changing the NFLP's sponsorship philosophy. Executives are discussing plans to pare its sponsor list of nearly three-dozen companies to an elite 10 to 15.

Another idea is to create a three-tiered structure, with top level sponsors paying $12 million to $15 million a year (or whatever the market will bear), plus media and marketing commitments. Such sponsors would receive most if not all of NFLP's attention.

"We want narrower and deeper programs," says Jim Schwebel, VP-corporate sponsorship. Such a change will prove too expensive for some sponsors. While Shell's sweepstakes opus last year was considered successful, the company's new marketing management decided the promotion was too costly to repeat.

PRESSURE APPLIED

Ms. Levinson's innovations are also coming at a time when NFLP is under pressure from several owners to produce more revenue in an age of ever-escalating costs, particularly player salaries.

In fact, Jerry Jones, owner of the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys and a firm believer that individual-team marketing works better than centralized league marketing, believes teams generate more revenue if they can market themselves in key categories, and is suing the league to do so.

During the 1995 season, Mr. Jones inked sponsorship deals linking Texas Stadium, the Cowboys' home field, with American Express, Nike and Pepsi. Not only did these pacts go against the grain of the league's share-and-share-alike philosophy on revenues and precipitate a $300 million lawsuit from NFLP (and a $750 million countersuit from Mr. Jones), but the marketers who signed these Cowboy sponsorships compete against big-hitter NFL sponsors: Visa, Reebok and Coca-Cola.

Recently, Mr. Jones tried to get his fellow owners to suspend NFLP's telecommunications sponsorship negotiations but failed.

BIGGEST DEAL LOOMS

The telco deal, expected to close this month, will be the richest deal in sports history, netting the NFL as much as $25 million a year, according to league insiders.

But Ms. Levinson says political machinations and franchise movement won't affect the evolution of NFL Properties. "We live by the principal of doing what's good for the NFL," she says. "And we're going to stay the course."

Sara Levinson, Don Garber, Bruce Burke and Howard Handler.

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