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There's no such thing as an amicable divorce in the National Football League.

Just ask marketers in Cleveland. Two weeks ago, the Browns announced they were leaving for Baltimore, earning the eternal enmity of jilted fans and leaving team sponsors uncomfortably in the middle.

Marketers in some nine other NFL cities could face similar aggravations. The Houston Oilers last week were seemingly bound for Nashville, Tenn., and while that team's ties to local marketers haven't been as extensive as the Browns', its relationship with fans has grown equally acrimonious.

Two fast-food operators are among those that scrambled when Clevelanders started snarling.

The 257-unit McDonald's Restaurants of Northeast Ohio removed its 100-plus signs from Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The co-op then took to the radio in 22 Ohio counties with a 60-second open letter to Browns owner Art Modell: "With your recent shocking announcement, you have made it clear that you no longer want `your' team to be a part of `our' community," says the spot from Stern Advertising.

The 28 Papa John's Pizza restaurants in Cleveland-part of an 820-unit chain growing quickly in the Southeast and Midwest-just last month hired Griswold-Eshleman to develop local advertising and promotions. The Browns backlash forced them to pull $50,000 in ads from radio broadcasts and abandon plans for an upcoming promotion.

Team tie-in hard to beat

Papa John's is now looking at other marketing vehicles. But filling the Browns' shoes won't be easy.

"There aren't many things that can galvanize a city like the NFL," said Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing Report, Chicago. "The NFL gives a sponsor a weekly event, a 3-hour window on TV and thousands of the most passionate fans in sports. You can't replace that by sponsoring a zoo or a children's museum."

In Houston, the Oilers don't control the marketing in the Astrodome so the franchise doesn't have much inventory to offer marketers, and therefore doesn't have a strong sponsorship program-hence Oilers owner Bud Adams' decision to move into a stadium where he controls all the marketing revenue.

Franchises need to control deals

"That will be the key to keep these teams," Mr. Friedman said. "Teams need to ramp up their marketing and get into stadiums where they can control its marketable inventory."

In Nashville, Bill Hudson, president of Bill Hudson Associates, the agency for Mid-Tennessee McDonald's Co-op, said an NFL team is an "unknown quantity" now.

"I'm sure there will be all kinds of caveats in a deal," he said. "You have to protect yourself."

It doesn't appear that either Cleveland or Houston has soured on football or the NFL, though it may take years to get new teams into these markets. However, nearby teams may have an interim solution to fill the void. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has already said he intends to aggressively market his team in Houston if the Oilers leave.

Alan Salomon contributed to this story.

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