NFL season kickoff last Thursday drew the highest ratings for the event in six years, with viewership up 20% versus 2020's opener. Strong tune-in for NBC's broadcast of the showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers accompanied a markedly more vibrant in-person presence as stadiums opened to capacity for the first time since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The pro football league beating even some of its pre-pandemic figures could help quell concerns that the appetite for live sports isn't what it once was (the Olympics, which were held in Tokyo and also hosted by NBC, saw ratings down 42% compared to the last summer games). A renewed sense of positivity has extended to the sports marketing space as brands enter the fall period battle-scarred after more than a year of dealing with a pandemic, but also better equipped to handle road bumps from the virus — though the highly contagious delta variant poses a looming threat that will require nimbleness to navigate.
"The optimism right now is leaps and bounds ahead of last year," said Molly Arbogast, founder and chief executive of POV Sports Marketing.
Part of the resurgent confidence from sports marketers stems from ironing out kinks on the operational side of the business. Contract negotiations with rights holders and networks around incorporating COVID-19 clauses, value propositions and make-goods are less harried and complex than they were when the virus was a relatively new disruption prone to upending plans overnight.
"We're in a much better place because we're prepared for it," said Matthew Grandis, chief commercial officer at CSM Sport & Entertainment. "We've been forced to get better because of this and we're forced to think a bit differently, too."
On the fan engagement end, simply having people back in the stands is a game-changer. Packed stadiums and tailgates, while an upsetting spectacle for many, bring revitalized energy to viewing occasions and herald the return of experiential tactics waylaid last year. Ad spending has been on the mend in 2021, and that pent-up demand will collide with destination live events that draw millions of eyeballs and thousands of people in seats.
"We've heard a lot from the perspective of consumers yearning for experiences, but I think marketers as well who have been held back now have the itch to engage and perhaps some pent-up budget as well," said Joe Zajac, senior vice president of brand marketing at Excel Sports Management.
Activity around returning to pre-pandemic behaviors is further supported by a more diverse category mix for leagues like the NFL. The pro football organization is making bigger moves around sports betting and earlier this year named Diageo its first official liquor sponsor, with a multiyear pact that encompasses in-person fan activations as well as broadcast, digital and social content. The deal commences with the 2022 season.
Across the industry, COVID-19 still casts a long shadow, and it's entirely possible that plateauing vaccination rates and climbing cases could slow some of this momentum as the colder months creep up. But in the short term, staying quiet for another season increasingly means sports marketers will miss out on a powerful media engine that's moving full steam ahead and has clearly recaptured some vital consumer energy.
"There's certainly, rightfully a lot of stress in terms of striking the right note with creative and the fact that there may be some initiatives that are planned and funded, but maybe don't end up getting fully implemented," Zajac said. "At the same time, consumers are making purchase decisions. In that regard, electing in this environment to defer or to sit on the sidelines seems, to me, the greater risk."
Experiential rebounds, with new considerations
One needn't look far to see sports marketers jumping at the chance to engage people with experiences again. For college football season, Buffalo Wild Wings partnered with Converge Technology Solutions and IBM Watson on an artificial intelligence tool in sports bars that measures crowd noise and the tonality of fan reactions. The chain is additionally hosting wing-eating challenges in some markets. American Express around the U.S. Open set up an installation in Flushing, Queens, that let people book a court to play tennis on and eat and drink in an open-air environment. Similar activations could be coming down the pike as the NFL goes into high gear.
"It's probably been a long time since there's been anybody who has looked at [experiential] as 100% of their strategy — I think everybody's diversified — but the fact that the window is open has people ready to plow ahead," Zajac said.
American Express and Buffalo Wild Wings demonstrate how experiential marketers can take a more cautious approach, with the former focusing on an outdoor experience that asks for reservations ahead of time and the latter leaning into technology to complement in-person elements. Broadly, brand strategists must also consider contingency plans in the case that fresh COVID-19 restrictions are imposed.
"In states that are under-vaccinated, it's a little concerning and that's where we need to see how these markets are responding two to three weeks following these large-scale events," Arbogast said. "We just have to be ready to pivot into a digital/social experience in the event that that tool is taken away from us due to any local health guidelines or any league mandates."
"Consumers are really striving for these more tactile, IRL experiences, but you want to be safe."
Vice president of marketing, Pepsi
Some marketers are still taking a wait-and-see approach even as they gear up larger sports marketing plays. Pepsi, a longstanding NFL sponsor, in August premiered its latest "Made For Football Watching" campaign with ads that encourage fans to stay home and binge games. The effort accompanied a collaboration with fashion designer Dapper Dan that included luxury lounge gear, including a branded lounger and hoodie, crafted with at-home viewing in mind.
"I'm cautiously optimistic about the future for experiential," said Todd Kaplan, vice president of marketing at Pepsi. "I use that word because I think consumers are really striving for these more tactile, [in real life] experiences, but you want to be safe. Not everybody's on the same page with being in a packed stadium or wearing a mask. We're definitely continuing to watch the space."
Elephant in the room
Another question hangs over the degree to which brands will be willing to address COVID-19 in their marketing. Several NFL campaigns last year made reference — sometimes overt, sometimes vague — to the pandemic, while other marketers went as far as to repurpose their media budgets to incentivize people to get vaccinated against the virus. But a level of fatigue has settled in among both consumers and marketers when it comes to constantly circling back to a health crisis that's stretched on for over a year and does not have a clear finish line in sight.
"Brands are moving away from weaving that into their copy narrative," Arbogast said of solemn pandemic messaging. "Brands want to get back to being brands and focusing on their mission. If their mission is authentically connected with a vaccine or with a healthcare message, I think you see that narrative continue."
"Showing a home-viewing situation isn't necessarily just a fallback or the safe option. It's also accurate, relatable and authentic."
Senior vice president of brand marketing, Excel Sports Management
Arbogast pointed to Pepsi's campaign, which features "Billions" actor David Costabile giving a rousing, locker room-style speech about staying at home to watch TV, as an example of tackling the realities of pandemic life without making ads actually about the pandemic. The tongue-in-cheek creative nods to the fact that there are other activities to do with loosened restrictions versus last fall, such as going out to brunch, but suggests that true football fans put those options aside to treat game day with a ritualistic sacredness.
"There's this innate tension of, 'football's here,' and people just want to watch RedZone all day," Kaplan said. "The other side is, responsibly, you're now getting pulled out of your house to do things. You're not stuck in your house. We think the idea of unapologetically enjoying yourself and how you watch football is the point of view that our brand has."
Similarly, while full stadiums offer benefits for activating in-person, showing the huddled masses in ads is a trickier tightrope to walk. Images of thousands of people gathered together can be triggering as the virus rages on, meaning more marketers may take the Pepsi route of centering on smaller, intimate gatherings that are fairly common regardless of COVID-19.
"The truth of the matter is that the mass majority of fans consumed the NFL at home pre-pandemic and continue to do so today," Zajac said. "Showing a home-viewing situation isn't necessarily just a fallback or the safe option. It's also accurate, relatable and authentic."
New playing field
On top of the messaging shift, the mix of marketers showing up for the NFL will look different in the near term. The league's loosening of rules around liquor advertising — a trend that started in 2017 — will make another leap forward with Diageo as an official sponsor, a title that grants the maker of Captain Morgan, Smirnoff and Crown Royale a larger platform around events like the Fan of the Year contest and NFL International Series in London.
Sports betting is also top of mind for the industry. The league in late August struck agreements with four new operators — Fox Bet, BetMGM, PointsBet and WynnBET — making them eligible to purchase in-game commercial units and other media inventory. The spate of deals built on partnerships signed with Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings and FanDuel in April, the organization's first official sportsbook tie-ups.
"It's going to be a huge platform for the NFL this season," Zajac said of sports betting. "There are going to be a wide variety of brands who are willing and able to engage consumers in that context."
A less buzzy but potentially lucrative category to watch will be business-to-business tech companies aiming to build out more robust consumer-facing marketing strategies. Heavy hitters like Amazon, which this year secured the exclusive rights to broadcast Thursday Night Football starting with the 2022 season via Prime Video, have steadily developed a foothold in sports marketing, but experts see smaller firms in areas like cloud computing, artificial intelligence and software as a service upping their media spend.
"You're going to hear more and more companies getting engaged in sport as a great marketing tool for their broader sales development," CSM's Grandis said. "It's been happening at a high level with some of the biggest technology companies — the Microsofts, the IBMs, the Googles of the world — but now you're going to see more."