Inside the Campaign: The NFL and 72andSunny Go Off Script for Season-Long Campaign

They wrangled Keegan-Michael Key, the Kelce brothers, Patrick Mahomes and more for 16 ads

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For generations, the mutterings of fans who witnessed improbable on-field moments fueled the myth that National Football League Games were scripted. When former NFL player Arian Foster claimed earlier this year that he was handed such a script, that myth metastasized into memes.

Within about an hour of Foster’s statement, 72andSunny agency founder Glenn Cole and executive creative director Zach Hilder thought about turning those memes into a sports marketing campaign. 

“He and I had a chat about it, like, ‘That would be an amazing mythology—building on the conspiracy theory would be really fantastic,’” Cole said. “But we didn’t know what our brief would or should be, so we just put it aside.”

By midsummer, however, 72andSunny began talking with their longtime partners at the NFL about framing the NFL not simply as a sports option for fans, but as an entertainment option for families. For casual fans less invested in the plays and players and diehards who knew the league inside and out, labeling far-fetched plays or feats “scripted” was a bit of fun, memeworthy common ground. If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could joke about it in the offseason, there was no reason for 72andSunny not to pitch it to league marketers.

“If I’m being perfectly candid, it wasn’t exactly on brief,” said NFL CMO Tim Ellis. “When we saw it, my immediate feedback was like, ‘Alright, guys, we’re not on brief, but I frickin’ love this campaign, so we’re gonna do it anyway.’”

After being teased out on the NFL’s social media, the “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” campaign launched on Amazon Prime Video during a Thursday Night Football game.

Featuring actor and comedian Keegan-Michael Key at a table read of the 2023 NFL season script—along with NFL players Travis and Jason Kelce, Patrick Mahomes, Kirk Cousins, DK Metcalf, Jalen Ramsey and Dexter Lawrence—the campaign will feature 16 different spots throughout the season. 

The campaign hones in on key points of the NFL calendar—including international Thanksgiving, Christmas and the first Black Friday matchups—and sets the tone for the 2023 season. It also shows what marketers can achieve when they’ve spent years developing faith in one another.

“The brief was ‘Football brings people together, and we’re a stage of epic possibilities,’” said Marissa Solis, the NFL’s svp of global brand and consumer marketing. “Maybe it wasn’t 100% on brief, but at the end of the day, [the campaign] does bring people together.”

Making it work

The NFL has been working with 72andSunny since Ellis came aboard five years ago. Before then, Ellis had a seven-year relationship with the agency while serving as CMO of Activision. 

According to Ellis, that’s established a foundation of trust in the NFL’s relationship with 72andSunny.

“We have a level of flexibility, we trust each other and we find ways to capitalize on the biggest ideas to deliver on our long-term objective of creating more fans, more avid fans, more avid multicultural fans and more younger fans,” Ellis said.

From the NFL’s side, that means trusting your creative partners with creative solutions to your issue. Cole noted that 72andSunny could’ve used a direct approach—showing families watching football and telling the world the NFL is an entertainment brand—or it could employ more abstract methods that trust the audience already knows what the NFL is suggesting. It requires both sides hearing each other out.

“[Tim] came to me and said, ‘O.K., I can see how this would work. However, the script then needs to be entertainment-grade writing’—which was his way of saying it’s not there yet,” Cole said. “And the script wasn’t there, but the idea was there, the platform was there.”

Family reunion

Over two months, the NFL’s marketers and 72andSunny hammered out the script and wrangled a cast. Starting with their NFL 100 Super Bowl ad in 2019 that wrangled 65 league stars and alums for one spot, the league and and its agency have spent each year preparing for the logistically impossible by packing as much talent as possible into their biggest ads of the year.

For this campaign, Ellis found himself on a red carpet in Los Angeles in mid-July, pitching Mahomes just before the premiere of his Netflix series The Quarterback. While he was there, he approached the Kelce brothers and Cousins about the project, even getting the Kelces’ mother, Donna, to make a cameo. While acknowledging that Mahomes’ multiple sponsorship commitments leave him little free time and make him “not an easy guy to even talk to, much less get him to come work with you,” Ellis said it was worth the effort for one of the spots’ better jokes (aimed at “the Mahomes character”) and the campaign’s overall health.

In a campaign filled with NFL stars, it was Key who proved one of the most crucial pickups. Key had hosted the NFL Honors in 2017 and 2022 and was featured during last year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, making him, in Ellis’ words, “a friend of the family.” 

Key had discussions with both the NFL marketers and 72andSunny about how he envisioned his role and took part in the editing process, but also brought a lighter tone to the set that Cole said “permitted players to just kind of be silly.” He had a strong dialogue with players, made them feel comfortable and, along with his wife—actor and producer Elle Key—helped players find the right level of on-camera energy.

“Any idea that came from him, we were confident we wouldn’t have to explain why that’s not an NFL thing, and we never had to,” Cole said about Key, who also be at the league’s kickoff game in Kansas City on Sept. 7. “It sounds like a small detail, but that can be hours on set trying to correct somebody who’s not in the know.”

Director Aaron Stoller and production company Biscuit—who Cole had worked with on an improv-laden ad for Google featuring 2Chainz and Awkwafina—rounded out the group and gave the set its NFL Films-soundstage look and “Succession as a film” feel.

“I really appreciate the sophistication of it,” Cole said. “His approach was, ‘Well, if we’re gonna do this, we gotta treat it like it’s real and elevate it.'”

Part of the plan

This campaign represents one side of what Ellis calls the NFL’s two-pronged marketing strategy of the last five years. 

Balanced by a marketing program that positions the NFL as a “force for good” that gives back to local communities, campaigns like the more game-focused “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” position the NFL as an escape. While the NFL has long been a dominant force in linear television, its marketers are aware that both loyal and casual fans face myriad competing entertainment options that aren’t necessarily sports.

The NFL script
The NFL’s marketers actually printed up a 300-page, 99%-redacted “script” for the upcoming season.

By focusing this campaign on prime NFL viewing dates Thanksgiving, the NFL’s marketers are seeking the same impact as league sponsors. According to data and analytics firm EDO, NFL games made up half of the Top 10 most effective broadcasts for advertisers. Of those games, three were played on Thanksgiving alone. 

Even launching the campaign during a pregame Thursday Night Football game was a pretty good idea: EDO said those broadcasts on Amazon’s Prime Video last year were 116% more effective at driving consumer engagement than the broadcast prime-time average. 

The NFL has a long-form spot running before kickoff game on NBC, but it’s also sneaking it out through other channels. Beyond the ads, the NFL’s marketing team has produced a 300-page season script that’s 99% redacted and has been delivered to a handful of fans and influencers. 

“We’re really capitalizing on this folklore and the fact that this is epic—it’s better than fiction,” Solis said. “You’re just going to see it on social, on linear, in our games, through our creators.. so it’s just a great way to carry that buzz and excitement throughout the season.” 


Client: NFL 
Agency: 72andSunny
Production Company:  Biscuit
Director: Aaron Stoller

Player talent:
Dexter Lawrence — New York Giants 
Jalen Ramsey — Miami Dolphins
Ja’mar Chase — Cincinnati  Bengals
Justin Fields — Chicago  Bears 
DK Metcalf — Seattle Seahawks 
Jason Kelce — Philadelphia Eagles 
Travis Kelce — Kansas City Chiefs 
Patrick Mahomes — Kansas City  Chiefs 
Kirk Cousins — Minnesota Vikings

Non-player talent
Keegan-Michael Key 
Donna Kelce – (mother of Jason and Travis Kelce)

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