Ford Motor Co. will enter its second year as a primary sponsor when the AFL season begins in April, and several more local and national sponsors are expected to ink deals in the next few months, said AFL executives.
The moves come as the league aims to sign its first consumer package-goods sponsors next season for on-site sampling; eventually the AFL wants a total of "five or six" primary sponsors, said Glenn Horine, president of AFL Properties, the New York-based sales arm of the AFL. Sponsorships vary widely in price, mostly from "six figures to low seven figures," he said.
Mr. Horine is featured this week in Advertising Age's "Marketing 1000" (See P. S-16) for big gains registered by the AFL in ad revenue and attendance.
Total attendance at AFL games is expected to hit nearly 4 million next season, up from 2.6 million this season, which ended in August. Nearly 20 teams make up the AFL and another 28 in the AFL2, the game's minor league.
Games are carried on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and cable's Viacom's TNN and Disney's ESPN. Although 21 AFL games that took place outside the U.S. last year were not broadcast, several games are likely to be broadcast in Japan next season.
The AFL is hoping the National Football League will exercise its option to buy 49.9% of the league on the eve of the new season. The NFL's option expires March 31, 2002.
"The AFL has a very strong grass-roots base in smaller markets that could provide great cross-marketing opportunities for the NFL and they could help extend our reach nationally," said C. David Baker, commissioner of the Chicago-based AFL.
The AFL formed a marketing relationship with the NFL in 1999, and since then the NFL has taken over the league's officiating and has assisted in some marketing development, said Mr. Baker.
In games played on Astroturf-covered cement stadium floors where players routinely crash into walls and tumble into the stands with the audience, the AFL "has wild action, cheerleaders and rock `n' roll without marketing sex or violence, while maintaining the integrity of a real game," he said.
Drew Cook, truck marketing communications manager at Ford Division, said the AFL "epitomizes Ford Tough," the company's ad tagline, although he declined to discuss the cost of the AFL deal. Ford is considering expanding a program it began at the last game of the AFL season, where it signed up prospects for test drives.
Mr. Cook said Ford also plans to expand local promotions around AFL next season. This season, it set aside 10 seats per game for dealers along the field, dubbed the "Built Ford Tough Zone."
Thanks to cheaper tickets (about half the cost of an average NFL ticket), plus smaller venues that let fans get closer to players and actually catch footballs that go astray in the stands, the AFL's popularity is growing fast with families, claims Mr. Horine.
"We want to make the action completely nonstop, including promotions and giveaways and product sampling," he said.
The AFL has shaken off any comparisons to the ill-fated XFL, whose brand of non-traditional football bombed last year, and Mr. Baker said the XFL's experience proves successful sports must be built through grass-roots marketing, not simply by broadcast coverage.
Adding to the AFL's momentum are five new teams entering the league next season, plus the fact that nine additional NFL team owners were recently approved for AFL teams not yet formed. They include Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins.
"High-profile NFL figures are getting involved in the AFL, helping turn this into mainstream, off-season football that's a real complement to the NFL," he said.
More than 300 football players have played at least one game in both the AFL and the NFL, which is helping the AFL's awareness grow as more players cross over between the leagues, he said.
"We see the AFL continuing to grow but always being a more accessible type of game for fans, and a more affordable opportunity for advertisers; we'd like to keep it that way," he said.
Contributing: Jean Halliday