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Great Catch - The Football Market

By Kenneth Hein

The NFL and its corporate partners are big-time users of promotional products. Here's how to score in the football market.

A quick stroll through one vacation home in Florida reveals bath towels embroidered with a familiar blue star. The bed sheets and shower curtains also carry this crest. As do a bevy of beverage insulators, pens and even decks of playing cards. They all bear the Dallas Cowboys' logo. Yes, anyone invited to team owner Jerry Jones' home away from home isn't likely to forget where his passion lies. "People come to the house and everyone leaves with something," says Scott Canfield, owner of DCI Promotions (asi/173695) in Dallas, which produces branded merchandise for not only fan promotions but Jones himself.

The fact that the National Football League's most famous owner is so smitten with logoed merchandise underscores just how popular such items are with pigskin fans from all walks of life.

"Among our fan base, particularly our avid fan base, the NFL is a lifestyle brand. They are extremely passionate about the game and their favorite teams. It's a badge," says Peter Murray, vice president of partnership marketing and corporate sales for the National Football League (NFL), which begins its season this month.

That's why offering premiums bearing a team logo, be it the world champion New England Patriots or lowly San Francisco 49ers, carries a weight far surpassing that of many other types of branded items.

Illustrating this fact is this impressive statistic: Fans spent $3.4 billion of their own hard-earned cash on NFL-branded merchandise last year, according to License! magazine.

Perhaps the less-is-more nature of the league contributes to the fervor. There are only eight regular season home games; compare this to Major League Baseball (81 home games) and the National Basketball Association (41). As a result the NFL is always tops in the TV ratings, and promotional items are rarely needed to drive NFL ticket sales - unlike at a Tuesday-night NBA game when the last-place team rolls into town.

Instead, items are used to get fans excited during key "promotional equity windows" like the NFL draft, training camp and the season's kickoff.

Season-ticket holders are often rewarded for their loyalty with special merchandise when they purchase their seats, and many teams offer freebies for fans once they show up for the game.

The Green Bay Packers, for example, dole out a free giveaway at every home game. "Basically what we're trying to accomplish is to make fans feel like part of the game-day experience," says Shea Greil, marketing coordinator for the Packers. "In many cases we look to have something interactive, in-stadium for the fans."

The 73,000 "Cheeseheads" - that's football lingo for Packers fans who fill the perpetually sold-out Lambeau Field - have received everything from pom-poms to rally towels to flags that they proudly display on their cars. "We're always looking for something they can carry away and show their affinity for the Packers," Greil says.

Expand The Market
The criteria for selecting an in-stadium item are fairly obvious. The item can't be used as a weapon, can't be easily thrown onto the field and can't be a noisemaker.

It should carry high-perceived value yet possess an inexpensive price tag for bulk buys. And, perhaps most importantly, it should be something unique that fans will clamor for. After all, they can just run to their local sports retailer to buy a cap or shirt.

"We choose products based on our [corporate] partners' needs and the fit for them," says Marc Riccio, vice president of corporate sales and marketing for the New York Jets. "Plus, we look for perceived value and individuality of the products - Is it unique? Does it enhance the brand? - and ease of distribution."

Typically, co-branded merchandise given away at the games, training camp and other special events carry the logo of a corporate sponsor. The Jets, for example, have relationships with Delta, Dunkin' Donuts, Modell's, North Fork Bank, P.C. Richard and Son, State Farm Insurance, Toyota and others.

"It's an opportunity for a marketer to impact a large number of people at one particular time. The team produces the item. A sponsor will have a financial investment in the production of the item in exchange for having their logo on it," says Steve Auletta, president of Radiate Sports Group, Charlotte, NC, a strategic planning firm for companies ranging from McDonald's to Miller Brewing Company.

The corporate spending doesn't stop there. The NFL brand is so strong that PepsiCo spent a reported $1 billion to associate its brands with the sport through 2011. Pepsi, Gatorade, Tropicana and Frito-Lay brands have the rights to all NFL trademarks as well as the use of the 32 NFL team marks for its marketing promotions.

Other official NFL sponsors include: Burger King, Campbell's Chunky Soup, Canon, Coors, FedEx, IBM, Levitra, Masterfoods, MBNA, Motorola, Procter & Gamble's Prilosec, Southwest Airlines and others.

"To align their brands with the NFL brand allows them to create a strong connection with our extremely passionate fan base. That's ultimately the key benefit," said the NFL's Murray.

Of course, this also expands the market that distributors can call on. It's not just the 32 NFL teams that buy promotional products, but also the hundreds of companies that sponsor the league and its individual franchises. As a matter of fact Pepsi conducted a study a little more than a year ago asking its retailers what kind of promotions they wanted to see. Authentic NFL promotions ranked a close second to movie tie-ins. "Our customers, our bottlers and our consumers have all said they want NFL programming," says Darrell Johnson, senior marketing manager at Pepsi-Cola North America in Purchase, NY.

The past two years Pepsi has run apparel-based promotions where consumers can redeem codes printed under the cap at a Web site for prizes. Last year it was called "Tops for tees" and the year before "Caps for caps."

"We have the right to deal directly with licensed vendors so we can provide the high-quality authentic merchandise people love," Johnson says. "They feel they get a lot of value out of engaging with our promotions."

Like the teams themselves, the corporate sponsors are always looking for creative ways to leverage these deals through the use of co-branded merchandise. Bank of America regularly outfits its employees in the state of Texas with logoed Cowboys shirts on Fridays when there's an upcoming Sunday game.

Similarly, Lincoln Financial has created a bank that looks like a locker with Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb and kicker David Akers leaning on it. The product "carries the relevant message of being financially responsible," says Marlyse Fant, senior account executive, corporate sales for the Eagles.

In-stadium, an NFL team's marketing staff often tries to theme the products to give fans at the game the feeling that they're getting an item that is one of a kind. Last season for Veteran's Day weekend, the Arizona Cardinals gave away Pat Tillman rubber bracelets, in memory of the fallen defenseman who was killed in Iraq.

This season the Green Bay Packers will give out a "top secret" premium to commemorate the retirement of deceased linebacker Reggie White's jersey. "The retirement of Reggie White's number (92) is huge. That day is about the game, the Packer organization and the person. You want from the minute fans walk in to give them that experience. You hope they're like 'Wow, this is an important day,'" Greil says.

Last season the Packers gave away Hawaiian leis, in conjunction with Northwest Airlines, to remind fans to vote for the Pro Bowl, which takes place in Hawaii. Fans who voted could also enter a sweepstakes for a chance to win a trip to the islands. This year the Eagles have a game on Christmas day so they are considering giving away Santa hats or something similarly festive.

The Cowboys are looking at foam fingers, a Pepsi-branded 12-pack cooler and "Fanbanas" - a 6" x 12" recoiling sign, says Canfield.

Follow Fan Interests
It isn't just about the game experience though. Teams often reward season ticket holders with useful promotional products. The Cardinals, who are playing at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium while their new, air-conditioned digs are being constructed for next season, are concerned with keeping sales up.

This year the team is giving out seat cushions with the new team logo on them since Sun Devil Stadium has aluminum bleachers. Visors and T-shirts will also be given away to folks who sign up for the "mini-plan." "Fans appreciate it, especially with a team like ours, which has had a checkered history," says Marty Jones, promotions coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals. "It's nice to let season-ticket holders know we appreciate them coming back every year and staying loyal."

Jones warns against getting too carried away, though. For the 2002-2003 season, the Cardinals gave away a free Reebok replica jersey (which retails for $65) with the purchase of two seats. "It was a mistake. The next year everyone was like 'Where are the jerseys?'"

Such advice is generally shared freely among teams within the league. "We look to other marketplaces to see what has or hasn't been a success," says Riccio of the Jets. "There's a high level of professional courtesy. We share information because we're not really competing. What's good for one NFL team is potentially good for others."

He notes the stakes are a little higher for the Jets because they not only share a stadium with the New York Giants, but also "you have to be good and different to stand out in New York, just because of the volume of activity in the marketplace."

Items that the league as a whole seem to have taken a shine to: bobbleheads, rubber bracelets and commemorative coins and sticker books. "Bobbleheads have really good staying power," Riccio says. "We're going into our third year of doing it, and last year was stronger than ever. The response ratios continue to be strong."

Last year the Eagles took advantage of the fact that they had a new stadium to create a bobblehead likeness of quarterback Donovan McNabb. The premium, which was used as a self-liquidator at Sunoco stations in the area, had McNabb standing in Lincoln Financial Field. "We figure out whether the item we're selecting is unique enough and [ask] has it been done. We need something that will give it a hook," Fant says. "With the bobblehead, it's hard to be different. It was a good thing we moved into a new building."

Alliance Marketing Partners in Conshohocken, PA, created the premium. CEO James Robinson says "the idea is to make something that's not readily available. We create proprietary products that you can't turn around and buy at a Wal-Mart for $6.99."

Commemorative coins are the hottest product right now, according to Robinson. Beginning this fall the Eagles have a program where fans tear a coupon from a local newspaper and then go to participating retailers and pay $2.99 for each coin. "These programs have been working. However a year or two from now, you won't see them working as well. Once you have one Terrell Owens coin you won't want another," he says.

The Jets have a similar sticker program with the New York Post. The Packers gave away a commemorative coin for the rededication of Lambeau Field on September 7, 2003, as did the Eagles for the opening of their stadium, adding a collectible ticket lanyard.

Rubber bracelets have become an almost unavoidable product offering. It's for this reason that teams in the league have varied feelings about their effectiveness.

"They're so hot, we're not doing it," says Greil of the Packers. "The bracelets have been big. We're not participating with that as far as a game day giveaway. That's kind of blown up."

Riccio disagrees. "We're always concerned that sometimes we do programs six months too late, but bracelets continue to be impactful. Kids and adults still love them. We're doing a big push during training camp."

Training camp offers teams the chance to reward fans in a more grassroots way. For example, Jets fans can just drive up to Hofstra University to catch a glimpse of their heroes. There the team is distributing temporary tattoos. Other teams' efforts, for instance the Dallas Cowboys', get a little more intricate. Canfield designed a summer fun kit for some lucky VIPs. They get a Cowboys cooler, Frisbee and sunglasses.

Of course, for any occasion all of the decision-makers are looking for the next big thing. "We work with a number of different vendors. I get so many phone calls a day. What I tell vendors who want to work with the Packers is we're looking for something creative and new, and if they give me that then I'll go back to them," Greil says.

"Overall everyone still searches for that silver bullet promotional item that will be the next big thing. In reality there's no way to predict it," Riccio says. "What that magic premium is is always something we struggle with. There's no way to predict whether it will be a smash hit or not."

Indeed marketers should choose wisely, says Simon Sinek, president of Sinek Partners, a strategic consulting group based in New York. "Giving away merchandise with a team's logo on it practically guarantees it will be used or displayed by a fan. But a word of caution: Marketers should not see this as justifications that their promotions are good. Poor quality products will get thrown out or left at the back of a cupboard like any other bad product."

Radiate Sports Group's Auletta feels technology hasn't been properly tapped. "[Suppliers] need to figure out how to use existing technology to forge giveaways in-stadium. They need to make something unique and affordable enough to do for the masses. That would be interesting."

Items like flash drives with pictures, video and music and inexpensive handheld video games, among others, have been underutilized.

One challenge, of course, is the fact that the premium can't be too good. Take the Eagles, for example, who were the top team in merchandise sales for the 2004 season. "We try to be selective, since people buy so much Eagles merchandise," Fant says. "We don't want to dilute the various items on the market. We don't want to overwhelm people.

COPYRIGHT © 2005 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Kenneth Hein is senior editor for the marketing newsweekly Brandweek.

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