LOS ANGELES Like Christmas and presidential campaigns, football season seems to come earlier every year—a welcome phenomenon for the millions of Americans who obsess over the gridiron. But it's even better news for companies selling trucks, beer or pizza.
As the NFL regular season kicks off this Thursday, such marketers celebrate with new campaigns and fresh sponsorships designed exclusively for the mostly young, male fanatics who will sit starry-eyed before the TV every weekend for the next five months. It's a well-worn tradition in American advertising, one that's expected to see greater dollar signs than ever this year. And that's not just because the Patriots are expected to make the post-season again.
In an age of DVRs, time-shifted viewing and skippable ads, media execs believe pro sports remains a bastion of live viewing, making it that rare experience where, if you want to miss a commercial, you have to get up and leave the room—just like the good old days.
"If it's Desperate Housewives and you watch it later, it's no big deal," said Ira Berger, director of national broadcasting, The Richards Group, Dallas. "But for live sports, people want to know what happens when it happens."
Jason Kanefsky, svp, group account director, national broadcast at media agency MPG, also points to more suitable ad conditions beyond the DVR. "Commercial pods in live sports telecasts are much shorter than in prime time, daytime or any other time," he said. "If an advertiser is going to spend a considerable amount of money on a commercial unit, they have a better chance of it being watched in a sports telecast."
NBC had sold about 85 percent of its Sunday Night Football in-game ad inventory as of press time, while CBS was between 80-85 percent sold on its Sunday afternoon stock. ESPN has virtually sold out its Monday Night Football spots for the season, and Fox is about 85 percent sold out of its Sunday afternoon NFL advertising. The league collected over $1 billion from its top 15 advertisers last season, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus, and interviews with several of those marketers suggest that number will likely grow this year.
That includes the top advertiser. "Our football sponsorship will increase," said Mike Jackson, vp of marketing at GM, which already spends more than $140 million a season, making it the top spender on the sport, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus. Jackson said the GM game plan calls for NFL as the primary launch platform for both the revamped Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra pickup trucks through Interpublic Group shops Campbell-Ewald and Lowe, respectively.
Ford, the No. 3 spender last season, at more than $95 million, is also staying in the game. "From our perspective, it is the No. 1 media property for Ford trucks," said Brian Rathsburg, communications manager, Ford truck division. "And the F-series trucks will be the dominant player." Ford will take advantage of football-audience diversity by, for the first time, mixing a new JWT "Bold Moves" campaign with ethnic work from Pancom (Asian), Zubi (Hispanic) and Uniworld (black), playing them cross-channel.
After muscling up-and-coming Kia out of NBC halftime sponsorship, Toyota (No. 9 spender in '05, at $75 million) is launching the first San Antonio-built Tundras in the first quarter of '07 on NFL telecasts. "You have an opportunity to have a relationship with a viewer, in the environment they are very comfortable in," said John Lisko, strategic communications director at Toyota's shop, Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, Torrance, Calif. "It is another form of community—an offline community, water-cooler TV."
Naturally, no NFL commercial break would be complete without junk food and beer. Golden, Colo.-based Coors partnered with NBC last week and re-upped its "official beer sponsor of the NFL" status for Coors Light, an estimated $300 million deal beyond its annual spending on the brand (a third of which is already spent on games). The brewer designs packaging around football, and upcoming comedy spots from IPG's Draft FCB Group in Chicago will tout a Silver Ticket giveaway. Four fans break into press conferences held by Dick Vermeil and Bill Walsh, only to grill the coaches with Silver Ticket questions.
For pizza chains, football season represents a welcome end to the slow summer. Papa John's is getting particularly aggressive this year, taking its "Go Deep Armchair Quarterback" promo from last year's NFL playoffs (in which contestants see who can throw a football the farthest while holding a slice of pizza and reclining) to high school games. Per usual, Pizza Hut is using football to launch new products, including Sicilian Lasagna Pizza, which bowed last week in an ad from BBDO, New York.
The BK King also shows up at a pre-season press conference in a teaser spot from Crispin Porter + Bogusky that broke last week. In it, the weirdo mascot's agent fields dogged questions about The King having a "big head." In upcoming spots, he will play defense, then taunt opponents with Whoppers.
"The NFL generates talk value amongst our consumers," said Rob Reilly, vp, creative director, CP+B. "We found a way for The King to do what The King does best. Even during football games, he surprises people with food."
Having established "clear leadership" in tennis and soccer, Adidas needs to now step up its football game, said Simon Atkins, director of marketing communications. A campaign through Omnicom's TBWA\Chiat\Day, San Francisco will evolve the personae of signatory athletes Reggie Bush and Mario Williams. "Reggie will move much closer to a brand conversation," Atkins said, "utilizing his performance and tying it to a new brand campaign.
No sooner have Nascar's fumes faded than advertisers are rushing to NFL football, anxious to field new campaigns for trucks, beer, and fast food to diehard fans, especially young men who party hard in herds and watch in real time with deep-dish pizza in one hand and a pigskin in the other—Papa John's "Go Deep Armchair Quarterback" contest—not a DVR remote control.
Top sponsors cite near year-round opportunities from online fantasy leagues and ESPN draft days and extended pre-seasons. Because loyalty starts at the team level, franchises spot unique channels for unleashing parochial passions. Come Super Bowl, practically every hometown will see some local variation on the Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos' play where New England defensive tackle Richard Seymour shoves down a "Patriots Pick" breakfast for Dunkin' Donuts.
—with Brian Morrissey and Richard Williamson