Rewriting the playbook each week: Brands get ready for an unprecedented NFL season

Just like the players on the field, marketers will have to use their own agility to respond thoughtfully to COVID-19 and social justice protests.

The world champion Kansas City Chiefs line up for their opening game. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
The world champion Kansas City Chiefs line up for their opening game. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

They may not have combine results or Madden NFL 21 ratings, but marketers will be testing their awareness, speed and ability to adapt throughout this NFL season. 

Professional football is kicking off in empty or near-empty stadiums with major historical events threatening to knock the games themselves from the headlines. First, there’s the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced the NFL to make dramatic changes to its operations, such as canceling its slate of pre-season games. 

The NFL and its brand partners are also keenly aware of players’ desire to demonstrate in the cause of social justice, calling attention to systemic racism in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the more recent police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Like coaches, brands have a thick playbook for responding to events. Yet in 2020, marketers will have to constantly rewrite their own strategies for reacting to incidents from positive COVID-19 tests to socially divisive protests. That environment will require agility above all else, say sports marketing experts. 

Patrick Wixted, SVP of Ketchum Sports, notes that marketers have always prepared contingency plans for a season, but they’ve doubled down since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. This year, they’re weighing everything from making activations digital to pausing or canceling them in case of an COVID emergency. With social justice issues, brands must be responsive to the concerns of the players they work with, letting them take the lead on what messages they want to emphasize to the public. 

“You have to listen and be flexible and ready to shift and change at a moment’s notice. The only thing that’s consistent is inconsistency right now,” Wixted says. “In the marketplace, everything is happening so fast, and you have to be ready for everything.”

Chris Console, SVP of BCW Sports, embraces the team leader analogy to explain how marketers may have to scramble to respond to current events if the game plan doesn’t last from kickoff weekend through the regular season, playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl.

“Collectively, we as marketers and communicators are in a unique role. It’s almost like having to be the quarterback when we go to the line of scrimmage. We almost have to be able to call an audible because things are changing so much,” he explains. “Brands are trying to build excitement, but knowing that where we are in week one may look very different in week seven or week eight.”

Until kickoff, marketers and fans will be imagining what an NFL game will look like in a new environment. State regulations are compelling the league to play in front of, at most, a few thousand fans in some locations, a far cry from the tens of thousands that usually pack venues on Sundays and Monday and Thursday nights. The empty space will create some opportunities for brands with thousands of empty seats, and for broadcasters to employ new camera angles, tighter shots and enhanced sound effects. Marketers, meanwhile, are dreaming up ways to reach fans on their couches or at outdoor, socially distanced watch parties, instead of in a box seat or a crowded bar. 

Instead of spending on in-stadium activations, brands are leaning on enhanced digital, communications and social media tactics to get in front of fans in their own homes, as well as paid media. 

“Content has been a critical component as brands try to maintain their connection to the sport, such as the use of players to capture content such as behind-the-scenes looks or meet and greets,” says Arnold Wright, EVP of marketing and consulting at Octagon. “It has also put added focus on advertising, in game for those that can afford it, which can get mass reach. That will be at a premium this year.”

The new normal has also prompted brands to figure out what “homegating” looks like, says Wixted. 

“It’s much more about what we do digitally. What do we do to extend the viewing process? he says. “What do we do with a normal ad buy but to engage fans digitally and enhance watching experiences at home, from fans’ favorite snack foods to getting everyone game-day ready with less of a focus on attending?”

How will marketers do that? “I think in a way, there is more reliance on comms through digital and social experiences like never before,” says BCW’s Console. “Brands will have to have a flavor of creativity to separate themselves from the pack.”

Some experts are bullish that the NFL, and sponsors and brand partners, can follow the NBA and Major League Baseball and deliver unique experiences to fans by leaning on technology. 

“With other sports, we’ve seen real creative and innovative solutions. Tech is having their day in terms of how they’re able to enhance at home fan experience,” says Mary Scott, president of DJE Holdings’ United Entertainment Group. “Change and challenge often provide an incredible opportunity for innovations and solutions, and it can be interesting to see how that plays out and what sticks.”

One technology brand that is working to enhance the at-home viewing experience is NFL partner Microsoft, whose tablets are used by players during games to dissect defenses or find a faster path to the quarterback. The company is using its Teams video chat and collaboration platform to create a wall of endzone screens full of fans cheering from home, according to CNBC

Fans watching on TV will also have a clear view of what's expected to be a season of players demanding social justice and an end to institutional racism, four years after Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality. 

But are NFL viewers ready for players to take Kaepernick’s protest team- or league-wide? Research from Octagon found that fans are more prepared than the general public, especially younger supporters. Seventy-one percent of fans say athletes should use their clout to encourage social change, versus 54% of older fans. Likewise, a majority of younger fans, ages 18 to 34, are supportive of Black Lives Matter messaging on player uniforms versus 29% of older supporters, according to the agency’s survey of 1,200 people. 

Taylor account director Sade Ayodele says the NFL has done a good job “trying to course correct” since Kaepernick played in the Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers but found himself without a job offer after his protest. She says that she will be watching how the league, brands and consumers respond to player activism. 

“Personally, I’m a fan, but as a Black woman and Black marketer, I would be remiss in not saying that [the NFL has] faltered in speaking to issues that impact communities I’m a part of,” Ayodele says. “Marketers who are associated with the NFL have to take the risk and be willing to lock hands to usher the NFL into a future that is more diverse and equitable for all.” 

Wright notes that the military-affiliated USAA is continuing to work with the league. And experts predict the NFL’s opening weekend will see blowout TV viewership numbers, despite Thursday night’s matchup pitting the world champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans scheduled against an NBA playoff game.

Ayodele advises keeping an eye on those numbers to see how well the NFL will navigate an issue sure to cause anger among some fans. 

“The NFL’s core fanbase is not as liberal as the NBA, but it’s not as conservative as NASCAR,” she says. “It’s somewhere in the middle, and ratings will be a key indicator of how [protests are] received and how the NFL will be able to push through this tension.” 

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