Despite all the scheduling disruptions last season, total NFL hours viewed fell by less than 5%, according to Jeremy Carey, managing director at Optimum Sports, an Omnicom-owned sports marketing agency that represents dozens of NFL sponsors and advertisers. “I look at that and say ‘Wow, that is what they did with so many uncertainties last year.’” he says. “It speaks to the power of the [NFL] brand, it speaks to the power of the broadcast—and for us, it lets us know we can’t not be there.”
In another sign of strength, the league did not lose a single sponsor after last season and managed to add three new partners for the 2021-22 slate—FanDuel, Diageo and Cisco—while expanding deals with Caesars Entertainment and DraftKings, which are now designated as “official sports betting partners,” along with FanDuel. That gives the league 37 sponsors heading into the new season. And the deals are not slowing down even as COVID rises: Lexus on Wednesday announced a new multiyear deal with the Miami Dolphins and its home venue of Hard Rock Stadium that includes “significant branding presence at all stadium events.”
See all the winners of Ad Age's 2021 Small Agency Awards here.
Last season, the league and individual teams raked in $1.62 billion in sponsorship revenue, up from $1.47 billion in 2019-2020, according to sponsorship consultancy IEG. New additions included Postmates, which joined in September 2020 as the league’s first “on-demand food delivery partner”—a category that gained steam in the pandemic. “While NFL continues to operate as a mass-reach platform for some of the usual suspects in sponsorship, it has quickly evolved as a marketing destination for new categories, lesser-known brands and new executions,” Peter Laatz, global managing director at IEG, stated earlier this year when the report was issued.
But the league and its teams had to get creative to satisfy sponsors that lost out on reaching fans in crowded stadiums. For instance, at the Super Bowl, where attendance was limited, sponsors got placement on LED signage that covered the first few rows of Raymond James Stadium.
“We reimagined everything,” says Tracie Rodburg, the NFL’s senior VP for sponsorship management. “We really worked closely with our partners on finding the assets we could deliver,” she adds, including using ad inventory on its own NFL Network.
“Our goal this year, as the commissioner says, is to have full stadiums,” she says. “While there is still uncertainty going into this year, there was way more uncertainty last year.”
One wildcard for brands this season is a new rule stating that a team experiencing a COVID outbreak will forfeit a game if it cannot be rescheduled within the 18-week season. While that could bring more certainty that the season gets completed on time, the rule, if activated, would result in lost opportunities for brands to activate sponsorships at the home site of the canceled game.
What brands have planned
Most brands have yet to reveal their NFL ad or sponsorship plans for the season, including big spenders Pepsi and Verizon. Anheuser-Busch InBev, whose Bud Light brand is one of the league’s biggest sponsors, declined an interview request but issued a statement from Bud Light Marketing VP Andy Goeler describing its NFL campaign as “centered around celebrating fans no matter where they’re rooting on their favorite teams—whether that be from the comfort of their homes, watching at their favorite bar, or at their team’s stadium,” adding that “we remain ready to respond to the changing environment.”
Subway, which inked an NFL sponsorship deal in July 2020, is “working on a new creative campaign that taps into football culture, featuring some of the NFL’s incredible roster of talent,” Chief Marketing Officer Carrie Walsh said in a statement to Ad Age. “We are still planning for on-site activation this season, but are ready to pivot to virtual experiences as needed.”
DraftKings this week put out a new campaign called “The Feels,” which stars Martin Lawrence and dramatizes the emotions experienced by sports bettors by putting in human form thoughts and feelings like “logic” and “indecision.” The ads feature a man watching a game at home—not at a stadium.
Asked if COVID influenced the approach, VP of Brand and Sports Marketing Michael Shonkoff in a statement said: “Perhaps our decision to focus on the at-home experience was done subconsciously as we recognize there having been a shift in consumption habits given the challenges presented by COVID. However, provided that DraftKings’ mobile app conveniently lends itself to gaming from the safety and comfort of home, the vision for an at-home ad spot was there from the start, further emphasizing DraftKings' mobility as a source of entertainment."