NFL campaigns show gridiron-starved fans getting ready for the game

While other professional sports have launched, football is seen as a bellwether for a return to normalcy.

The NFL season kicks off tonight, with the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs facing off against the Houston Texans. And while it is not the only game in town, the way sports marketing is going, it could be considered the only big game around.

Marketers, ranging from Snickers and Lowe’s to Verizon Media and broadcast partner ESPN, are flooding the zone with spots and digital engagements designed to piggyback on consumers’ anticipated hunger for big sporting events. Meanwhile, the league itself is rolling out campaigns for branded gear that celebrates the fan experience, along with campaigns around getting out the vote and voicing player support for social justice. 

As COVID-19, civil unrest and the politics around the presidential election continue to impact  American life, the NFL has planned extensive social justice messaging for its first week and been encouraging its players to use their voices. Players from both teams in tonight’s game are in talks about a joint demonstration that makes a statement on racial injustice and shows unity. One possibility being discussed is both teams remaining in their locker rooms during the national anthem, although plans are still evolving. 

“When you are a bit of a unifier in society, how you use your platform becomes really critical,” said Michael Steiner, vice president of marketing at the NFL. “When you have this platform, you have to take the opportunity to listen to all audiences, to have a heightened awareness, to be authentic.”

The league is launching in an environment that has not been starved for sports, per se, but more hungering for old routines, noted Tom McGovern, president of Optimum Sports, the sports marketing agency of the Omnicom Media Group.

The US Open tennis is flying under the radar this year, the Kentucky Derby was shifted to Labor Day weekend, the NBA, already facing a downward ratings trend, is playing in a spectator-free bubble during its traditional September off-season, and August rolled around with no Big Ten and Pac-12 college football.

“It’s the same way people love seeing their kids go back to school, because they want to get back to their routines,” said McGovern. “Every other sport has come back, but this sport is launching in its regular time, and people are going to be tuning in a big way.”

Optimum places media for NFL advertisers including Pepsi and Frito-Lay. McGovern is estimating that the season will track about the same as last year, which pulled in approximately $5 billion in advertising revenue. 

There is nothing that compares to the NFL in terms of its size and scale of audience it attracts. The top three broadcasts of 2019 were NFL games, with the Super Bowl leading with almost 100 million viewers.

The NFL’s own campaigns range from the broadly promotional, such as the NFL’s annual spots for NFL Shop branded gear, to forthcoming campaigns that will be more player-driven and support voting in the election and social activism, much like the Inspire Change Super Bowl ad that examined how police brutality affected one player’s family.

The NFL Shop spots, Make the Game Yours, by 72andSunny, celebrate the home audiences, who are depicted supporting one another as they support their favorite teams. For the first time this year, this annual NFL Shop campaign includes a spot in Spanish to run on ESPN Deportes.

“With the gear, it’s like, ‘We are in this together,’” said the NFL’s Steiner. He described an upcoming voting rights campaign where players will encourage people to be heard, along with additional promotional work that will air players’ support for social movements.  

“Players, almost too many players to name, wanted their voices to be heard,” said Steiner, adding it had been usually more of a challenge to round up players during the busy pre-season for league marketing work. “The demand from players was off the charts. This is not a time to be below the radar.”

Bonding at home is a theme underpinning Deutsch’s campaign for Lowe’s, in which two players, Christian McCaffrey and Lamar Jackson, serve as captains of a 32-player team that will eventually visit each NFL city to support fan families. Advertising is breaking this week showing fan families as they prepare their homes for hunkering down during the season.

Verizon Media is engaging home viewers with two technology enhancements: Watch Together, which allows distant friends to co-view games together over the Yahoo Sports App, and Yahoo Sports PlayAR, an augmented-reality-enhanced game center for near real-time stats and replays. 

Last week, ESPN unveiled a spot that riffed on the Celine Dion song, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” to melodramatic effect to show those home-based fans getting ready for some football. 

Snickers is rewarding a different player who shows he’s the Hungriest Player of the Week with a chain and will share the video with fans on social media.

The Snickers campaign will culminate with a Hungriest Player of the Year Award, which, given the trend toward celebrating home-based fans in advertising, could go to the at-home viewers themselves.

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