Sponsors Urge Sports to Ease In-Game Restrictions

Sports media buyers are cautioning sports leagues to relax restrictions on where official advertiser sponsors can promote their products, especially within TV telecasts, or risk losing some of those sponsorship dollars to other media opportunities.

Speaking at Street & Smith’s Sports Group’s Sports Sponsorship Symposium in New York last week, Tom McGovern, OMD’s director of sports marketing, took the National Football League to task for its policy of prohibiting in-game enhancements (on-air promotions during telecasts). McGovern, who represents clients including Visa, Pepsi and FedEx, said some advertisers, including official NFL sponsors, are thus forced into pre-game shows already jammed with ads. “These sponsors are paying so much money, and they are unable to distinguish themselves,” he said.

Larry Novenstern, svp/director of national broadcast at Deutsch, whose clients include Bank of America, Coors Light and Mitsubishi, agreed. “Advertisers are paying the leagues for entitlements, and the leagues should allow them to do more,” he said.

One advertiser that dropped its official sponsorships of the NFL and the National Basketball Association is Miller Brewing Co. Richard Reider, manager of sports and entertainment marketing, said although the brewer paid both leagues hefty fees to be an official sponsor, it still had to negotiate separate local-market rights with each individual team. “We can’t use the [NFL logo], but we can still advertise in the game,” said Reider.

NFL representative Greg Aiello said the topic of in-game enhancements “comes up in discussions with the networks from time to time,” but added that the league “has no plans to change the policy at this time.”

By contrast, Nascar was cited as the most friendly league on TV for ad enhancements. “[Nascar] says if it wasn’t for the sponsors, there wouldn’t be a race,” said Novenstern.

With prime-time reality shows offering more product-placement opportunities—and attracting young male viewers—the sports leagues risk losing dollars. Novenstern cited Mitsubishi’s involvement with NBC’s The Restaurant. Other examples include Coca-Cola and Ford’s involvement in Fox’s American Idol and Adidas and Pontiac’s presence in Survivor.

“The networks are doing a better job of realizing that the business model has changed,” said Tim Spengler, evp/head of national broadcast at Initiative Media. “They are opening up their assets more,” he said. “This has allowed advertisers into TV events without buying a sponsorship [with a league.]”

Spengler cited a deal his agency did with ESPN. As part of the deal, Home Depot built the traveling College Game Day pre- and post-game show set, and the program is called College Game Day Built by Home Depot.

How can the leagues be convinced to ease their limits? Reider suggests: “You have to be willing to walk away.”