NFL on Saturdays? Examining the fallout of disappearing fall college football games
College football’s Power 5 lost a big chunk of its marketing firepower Tuesday when the Big 10 and Pac-12 cancelled fall football. Even if the ACC, SEC and Big 12 manage to play—and all three conferences say they want to—the season is already severely disrupted, leaving brands and TV networks scrambling to fill the college gridiron void. The sport lured more than $1.5 billion in advertising in 2019, according to Kantar Media, with AT&T, Allstate, Dr Pepper, State Farm and Chick-Fil-A leading the way.
Below, a look at the fallout, and what could come next.
All NFL, all the time
There is rising speculation that the National Football League could shift some games to Saturdays, or even Fridays, creating new inventory for brands desperate to reach viewers on live sports. A sports marketing executive at a major company that is a heavy NFL advertiser says the league has yet to approach the company—but this person did not rule it out. “We are going to have to wait to see what happens with the NFL schedule if it is impacted at all—if they take on the inventory on Saturdays or other nights.”
As The Ringer’s Bill Simmons noted on his podcast on Tuesday, “It would be amazing if the NFL somehow made more money during a pandemic … the only institution we had that somehow figured out how to take advantage of this.”
For advertisers, Saturday games “would certainly help alleviate some of the issues with college football,” one media buyer says. “It would cushion the blow and give advertisers a place to shift money.” Deals for NFL ad time have been slow-moving during upfront negotiations, when networks typically look to secure a bulk of their ad commitments for the new season. But the postponement or cancellation of the college football season could help jumpstart deal-making, according to multiple media buyers. “If college football gets canceled, money is going to be flooding into the NFL and you will be in a bad position if you are sitting on the sideline right now,” the buyer says.
Of course, this all assumes the NFL is able to move forward with its full season—but the league has so far signaled no intention to slow down—even if there might not be any fans at stadiums. An NFL spokesman declined comment when asked about a potential Saturday shift.
College town depression
While big brands can soften to blow by shifting media investments to the NFL, National Basketball Association and other sports that are still playing, it’s impossible to replace local buys and sponsorships aimed at reaching football fans in college towns—where often the hometown team is bigger than anything the NFL can bring. “The beauty of college sports is it’s every city, big and small, across the country. It really envelopes the entire community,” says Mary Scott, president of United Entertainment Group, an entertainment and sports marketing agency. “It’s a pretty broad ecosystem—there is a really big trickle-down effect.”
“The biggest loss for us on the college side is going to be where there are no NFL teams,” says the sports marketing executive at the major advertiser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In states “like Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma ... it’s challenging for us to replicate that type of programming without college football,” this person stated. Of course, many of these small-town markets are in the SEC and Big 12—think Tuscaloosa, Alabama or Norman, Oklahoma—where games are still slated, for now. But in Big 10 communities, businesses are bracing for the worst. Hotels, restaurants and bars in Lincoln, Nebraska—where the Cornhuskers play—could lose $6 million for each home game lost, according to convention bureau figures cited by NET, Nebraska’s public TV and radio network.
Re-imagining sponsorship deals
Much of the value in sponsorship deals is the ability to use university trademarks—slapping a mascot logo on a soda can, for instance. Without games, those deals aren’t worth as much. But “that association at retail still is powerful and still carries significant meaning,” says David Abrutyn, a partner at VP at Bruin Sports Capital, which owns several sports marketing and branding agencies. “And I think that is where you will see a pivot to leaning on the creative agencies and partners of these bigger brands: how can we still connect with that passion in the absence of games in the short term?”
Guinness is pressing forward with a 7-year deal it recently inked making it the “official beer of Notre Dame Fighting Irish alumni and fans.” Marketing, including a TV ads, will feature Notre Dame alum and NFL legend Joe Montana. And the Irish brew is slapping Notre Dame logos on cans in markets in seven states where it identified a high percentage of Notre Dame alums, including New York and Chicago. As of now, Notre Dame, which is affiliated with the ACC in football, is planning to go through with its season. Regardless of what happens, “we are still planning to do a pretty extensive marketing campaign,” says Jay Sethi, who oversees Guinness as the chief marketing officer for Diageo Beer Co. “There is a 40 million fan base ... they love this team, and we know many of them love Guinness. They are still talking about the team. They are still watching old memories.”
Learfield IMG College—which works with college programs managing multimedia rights, as well as digital, ticketing, concessions and other services—has crafted a new “With U” campaign that allows universities and their sponsors to customize assets under a variety of scenarios, including seasons taking place, interrupted or postponed.
“There isn't a better time to go and connect with those fans, and particularly in support of the schools that those fans care about than right now,” says Learfield IMG College CEO Cole Gahagan. “In a moment when that solidarity matters, I think fans are going to react more now to those brands who are associated with their universities.”
Without two of the five Power 5 conferences—and the absence of perennial national title contenders like Ohio State and Penn State—the College Football Playoff will lack some luster, if it’s even played. “It’s too soon to say what the implications will be," playoff executive director Bill Hancock told USA Today in a statement. “We will wait for guidance from the [playoff] board and management committee.”
Sponsors such as Dr Pepper, Allstate and Chick fil-A have a lot riding on the postseason. Dr Pepper, for instance, typically builds its fall marketing calendar around the sport. The brand declined requests for interviews on its plans. Disney-owned ESPN holds the rights to the playoff and brokers the brand deals. A Disney spokesman did not immediately respond to a question about ESPN’s playoff plans. As for the full season, he stated: “We have been working with our programming teams and our advertising partners on scenario planning for potential changes to the conferences’ planned play schedules. As those changes happen, we will ensure our partners have the opportunity to move into other sports and entertainment programming or shift their media and marketing with the conferences’ new proposed league timing.”
Beyond the playoff, brands are involved in dozens of lower-profile bowl games. Some of those will assuredly be cut—because as Brett McMurphy, a college football reporter for Stadium, recently pointed out on Twitter, there won’t be enough teams playing to fill all the bowl spots.
One bowl already on life support is the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, whose title sponsorship comes from the Kellogg-owned cereal.
Contributing Jeanine Poggi, Luke Guillory