For NBC, ‘Sunday Night’ Is More Than Football

SAN FRANCISCO If you’ve seen the new crop of ads for NBC’s upcoming season of Sunday Night Football, you may have noticed a heavy emphasis on the “Sunday night” part, but not so much the “football.” That’s not an oversight. The strategy is based on extensive research conducted last year that shows weekend sports viewing is for many people more about the social interaction than the game.

Mike McCarley, vp of strategic marketing and communications for NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, explained that when the show debuted in 2006, “our summer launch campaign had to introduce what Sunday Night Football was and that commentators John Madden and Al Michaels had moved from the Monday night game to the new Sunday night program.”

But this year, NBC is reaching beyond the die-hard football demographic to generate the broader viewership it needs—particularly among young adults.

The insights on how to do that were gleaned before the launch last year. Working with innovation strategy firm Jump Associates, the network sent members of its marketing team into nine living rooms of people in their 20s to observe them watching football at home and see what the experience was all about for them.

Then the marketer and consultants convened on couches in a conference room in Jump’s San Mateo, Calif., offices decorated to look like a typical living room to dissect their observations, review video of the hangout sessions, crunch audience stats and brainstorm. The living room setting, down to the sports magazines on a coffee table, helped the network execs get into the mood and mind-set of their target audience, said McCarley.

Those insights resulted in the branding strategy unfolding this summer, which includes a new tagline, “Sunday Night is football night,” and an entertainment-oriented position, said McCarley. The new TV work treats the athletes like buddies to each other and the fans rather than untouchable celebrities, and the Web site and print marketing treats the lighted football field as if it is a stage. (Ironically, the first SNF regular season game is Sept. 6, a Thursday night. It also features reporter Andrea Kremer, in addition to Madden and Michaels.)

“We realized that watching sports on a weekend night is a social and interactive activity for TV viewers,” said McCarley. “Think of Sunday Night Football like the Academy Awards show, where friends gather to eat and talk, root for their favorites and comment about the action on the screen—except this event comes every week,” noted Dev Patnaik, Jump co-founder. “Our research showed NBC that the game’s real content is the people in the room. The people watching are part of the show. Sunday night is not the time for the attitude ‘Shut up or leave the room so I can watch the game,'” he said. Rather viewers preferred to talk trash to each other about favorite players and plays.

Another discovery was that these viewers see themselves more as participants in the event rather than as spectators, said Patnaik. Researchers watched viewers play Madden NFL videogames while they watched the live football contests on TV. Good plays were not necessarily defined by what the commentators said, but by what the viewers had experienced on their video games, said Patnaik. “For instance, a receiver would miss a pass and the announcer would remark about how difficult the pass was, but a viewer would tell his buddies, ‘It wasn’t so tough. I caught a pass like that on Madden [videogame] yesterday,'” he said. These young viewers tend to see themselves as co-owners of the franchise. For them, the line is blurred between their group watching the game and the players on the field, Patnaik added. “It’s an American Idol world for them,” he said.

The living room sessions also helped the network get a better handle on what its programming competition is. Conversations with fans’ friends and spouses revealed that SNF is not competing with Monday Night Football, as many people assumed. Its real rivals are the Sunday daytime games and evening TV programming such as Desperate Housewives, The Simpsons and 60 Minutes, according to McCarley.

“The word ‘night’ is the key part of our slogan,” McCarley said. The underlying message needs to be that football is better at night—the screen is clearer, the field looks better and with the lights it feels like an entertainment event. “We want people to go to brunch during the day and look forward to getting together with friends to watch football at night,” said Patnaik.

On July 30, the network kicked off the main part of its ad campaign with TV spots featuring Madden and Michaels, as well as NFL players Reggie Bush and Peyton Manning on NBC and NBC Universal networks such as Bravo, USA and Sci-Fi, and other cable channels. Its glitzy promotional Web site, SundayNightIsFootballNight.com, is advertised heavily on NBC-owned news and lifestyle Web sites. To ratchet up the buzz, ads have also appeared on TV monitors in New York and Chicago taxis, in theater lobbies, on retail store TVs, on airline flight screens and on sports stadium screens.

The goal is to position the telecast as entertainment for fans and non-fans alike and to drive first-time viewers to the games by repeating the tagline “with ruthless consistency,” said McCarley. “We want the slogan to become part of the pop culture, with late-night TV hosts making fun of it,” he said.

The digital components for the promotion will expand over the season to include social networking as well as lifestyle content on sibling sites, such as the new “Football Foodies” section on the site for Bravo’s Top Chef.

TV sports viewing shows no signs of abating, but it does appear to be getting more complex, according to a July 2007 study by eMarketer. “Television remains the leading medium for sports content, but even sports fans glued to their TVs are engaging in a range of related activities online and on their mobile devices,” it read. A poll of fans watching games in spring 2007 showed that 58 percent were instant messaging, e-mailing or text messaging at the same time.