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The National Football League: Sponsorships During the Off-Season

AJ Maestas's picture

The National Football League may have the longest off-season of any major professional sports league in North America, but you wouldn't know it by watching SportsCenter. Always at the forefront of the sports news cycle, the NFL has events planned throughout the off-season to remain top-of-mind to sports fans, a strategy that has the added benefit of providing exposure to sponsors in traditionally non-football months like March and April. The recently completed NFL Combine might be the most striking example, as an event previously tailored only for executives now serves as a dynamic platform for Under Armour to reach both fans and players.

As the combine’s presenting sponsor last month, Under Armour could be seen throughout Lucas Oil Stadium, which meant exposure on television – by our estimation, nearly $500,000 in value based solely on live coverage from NFL Network and NFL Mobile – and exposure through highlights on other networks, news outlets and websites, as well as fans on site. The NFL is contemplating opening the combine to the public and selling tickets in the future, so this year the league handed out a few hundred tickets to fans and sponsors for two of the four days. As soon as anyone walked into the stadium, they couldn't help but notice Under Armour everywhere.

In addition to signage around the stadium and logos on the field, Under Armour launched a new line of clothing in conjunction with the combine. Every participant was wearing the new Under Armour gear from head to toe, which provided the apparel company with an opportunity to build brand loyalty among the next crop of incoming NFL players. In order to capitalize on this opportunity, Under Armour set up a branded players’ lounge that allowed participants and Under Armour executives to mingle. The players were able to provide feedback on the products, which had the dual benefit of assisting in future product development and giving the players a feeling of importance and influence with the brand. Of course, Under Armour knows that athletes influence consumers, therefore this was a great way to leverage the company’s dominant access during the event.

What makes this sponsorship especially important for Under Armour is the fact that it has such limited visibility on NFL Sundays. Nike has the NFL contract for uniforms, meaning Under Armour is only visible on shoes and gloves during games. The combine, however, is a four-day window where Under Armour can own NFL coverage and not only garner impressions, but try to convert awareness into purchases. Within the stadium, fans have the ability to buy products immediately after watching them in action. These on-site retail locations allow Under Armour to strike on the impulses of consumers as quickly as possible, with the hope that these initial purchases will lead to additional revenue in the future. If attendance increases in the future – and most expect the NFL to start selling large quantities of tickets should it choose to – the impact of on-site retail will grow.

While Under Armour’s presence at the combine may seem like an indirect form of ambush marketing on Nike’s relationship with the NFL, Adidas performed actual ambush marketing on Under Armour at this year’s combine. The German-based brand, which does not have a deal with the NFL to allow any of its products on the field during the season, offered a contract to the player that ran the fastest 40-yard dash. Adidas advertised this offer in the local newspapers in Indianapolis, and used those advertisements to also promote its new line of football equipment. To see this form of marketing around the combine of all things is yet another sign of the event’s growing reach and potential influence.

Oddly enough, sponsors don’t appear to be doing as much around a more traditional event, the NFL Draft. Several league sponsors such as FedEx and Pepsi have promotions or sweepstakes with airfare and tickets to the draft as a prize. But in most cases, the marketing effort is simply asking people to enter online and there’s little else involved.

That being said, Bud Light has become the presenting sponsor of the second round of the draft, which allows it to offer a bit more within its prize packages. For this April’s draft, Bud Light will give 32 fans, one for each team, the opportunity to present their team’s draft pick at the podium, a memorable twist to the generic trip offered by most sponsors. Verizon is offering a similar giveaway, but only one fan will present their team’s pick. Verizon will also be streaming the league’s draft broadcast on its mobile app, NFL Mobile, which is only available on Verizon devices.

Presumably, more activation plans will be revealed as the draft draws nearer, and hopefully they will be more creative than the giveaways mentioned above. After all, the draft draws 25 million viewers combined from its coverage of the first round on ESPN and NFL Network, which is comparable to a Sunday Night Football broadcast. It might be difficult to get the presence that Under Armour has at the combine, but clearly sponsors have an opportunity for solid exposure and value. That has become the case during nearly every month thanks to the NFL’s off-season schedule.

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