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Marketing will take a different form as the NFL returns in the middle of the pandemic

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Frito-Lay’s “Twas the Night Before Kickoff” spot.

ESPN puts it this way in describing its back-to-football-season ad that features fans and players lip syncing to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now:”

“Everyone, everywhere is so unbelievably, indescribably, power-ballad-singingly ready for some football.”

It’s certainly singing true for major marketers and sponsors of the NFL. In a year where sports and major live events have been canceled, delayed or otherwise disrupted, marketers have had fewer opportunities to catch the eyeballs of consumers all watching the same thing at the same time. Thursday evening will bring the league’s return in a game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans.  

But with fewer or no fans in seats at the stadiums, major marketers are getting creative when it comes to reaching fans that may be at home on the couch instead of interacting with a brand at a game. Others are shifting investment into the areas that make the most sense given the new reality. 

What many of them will agree on: Sports fans are ready. 

“America is looking, I think, for a sense of normalcy,” said Rachel Ferdinando, North America chief marketing officer at Frito-Lay, which echoes the sentiment in a new “Twas the Night Before Kickoff” spot. “The country’s really yearning to come together over these kinds of big sporting events…  We think that feeling is going to be so much more dialed up this year, if you look particularly at TV viewership of the return of other live sports.” 

But marketers are hoping they can turn certain obstacles into opportunities. 

“I really think it’s a moment of opportunity,” said David Abrutyn, a partner at sports investment and management company Bruin Sports Capital. Despite the realities of today, he said, “One fact remains true: The NFL as a marketing platform is as good as it gets.” 

“The marketing platform is still there,” he said. “Now, it’s incumbent on the marketing community to creatively find ways to connect with audiences.” 

Fan experiences out of the stadium 

Major marketers in the days ahead will be trying out ways of making football fans feel part of the action even while quarantined at home. PepsiCo’s “Tailgate in a Box” will provide fans that win a sweepstakes with items like outdoor projectors and custom cornhole sets. Bud Light Seltzer is doing a “Showtime Cam” for “players to celebrate major moments throughout the games with their fans” and give Twitter users the chance to be featured. Frito-Lay will give away motion-activated Tostitos bags that play different team chants when chips are poured into a bowl. 

“Those types of online-yet-also-providing-experience activations are things you will see break through more this year than perhaps in years past,” Abrutyn said. “There is a little bit of digital fatigue, I think, from people working at home … they’re going to want to embrace some of those rituals that are part of the NFL experience.” 

Tostitos is also trying to bring that to fans with its Tostitos “FanTrack” bags, but also with recipes and other content, said Frito-Lay’s Ferdinando.

“With not being able to go to the stadiums, it looks quite different for fans,” she said. “… We thought about that concept of how do we really try and bring in more of a stadium experience to the fan at home?” 

Shaking up and speeding up   

Football viewers will see players wearing face shields from Oakley, which is also a sideline partner, meaning coaches and officials also wear the products. Oakley’s senior VP Justin Andrews said it’s adding more teams and players and has invested more in the partnership this year “because we believe the opportunity is the same, if not bigger than it has been in the past.”  

“We’ve … seen how the sports in America continue with or without fans, we said whether there’s fans or not, we still believe there is an incredible opportunity,” Andrews said. “What we may see is, with more people being at home, the viewership of the NFL may go up substantially. So being an on-field partner, that could be a great thing.”

For some of the other elements of a normal sponsorship year like signage and hospitality, the company said it’s shifting some of that toward digital. 

“We just have to completely pivot from a world that may be in-stadium into a much more digital world,” Andrews said. 

Meanwhile, longtime NFL sponsor and “official 5G partner” Verizon will have connectivity take a front seat. The company announced Wednesday a way for consumers to “co-view” NFL games on the Yahoo Sports app, promising an “interactive way to watch games together with up to four friends/family” as watch parties and game visits are tougher as people try to limit in-person contact.  

“When you think about Verizon as a technology company, a lot of our talks and conversations have been both from how do we advance and augment the fan experience, but then also Verizon as a business solutions provider, how do we also work with those venues to figure out how do you get fans safely back in?” said John Nitti, chief media officer at Verizon. 

That includes some solutions which were already in motion but have been accelerated by the pandemic. 

“If you go back to pre-Covid and what we did down in Miami [at the Super Bowl], we had “5G Stadium,” that showed what 5G was going to do to enhance the fan experience, which involved a lot of these things that have now been accelerated to become reality of now, out of need,” Nitti said. That includes “wayfinding” tools like helping users find the closest concession stands.

“All of those things have accelerated,” Nitti said. “So it’s not that it’s different, it’s just in a more advanced and accelerated timeline, because of the situation that we’re in.” 

Plan B, C and D

The benefit of marketing to the NFL is that companies have been given some extra time as opposed to other sports that have had their seasons shortened or delayed.

“If you go back to April, no one really knew … I think we know a lot more now than anyone knew six months ago,” Oakley’s Andrews said. “We actually know that sports can work.”

Frito-Lay’s Ferdinando said the company has worked closely with the league for contingency planning.

“We’ve seen live sporting viewership surge during this time, but network partners have been extremely supportive in helping us manage through the disruption of Covid and uncertainty around live events,” Ferdinando said. “So we anticipate the same experience here, but if games are postponed or shifted, you know, we’ll work with them to shift associated ad inventory accordingly.” 

Sponsor TurboTax will have even longer to work with its plans: The company heavily focuses efforts in January and February ahead of the tax season and doesn’t do a ton of regular season or in-game, in-stadium activations, said Cathleen Ryan, VP of Marketing for Intuit’s Consumer Group. 

“We’re still in the early stages of evaluating how we’re going to activate,” Ryan said. “There’s a lot of awesome ideas on the table, we just haven’t moved forward with any of them yet. We have the benefit of time.” 

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