The National Football League not only creates big stars on the gridiron but also in the corporate world. And despite off-the-field turmoil in the past few seasons, the NFL remains the ultimate marketing machine.
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Chinese PC-maker Lenovo is a case study. The company has gone from virtual unknown to a household name in the US in the three years since becoming an NFL sponsor. Lenovo also increased its US market share by 20% on its way to becoming the world’s biggest PC maker.
Here's why Lenovo chose the NFL to expand its footprint in the U.S.:
A SportsBusiness Journal survey of its readers, completed after a series of domestic abuse scandals involving NFL players broke, found the NFL is still the property corporate sponsors would most want to identify with—and by a wide margin (63% of respondents compared to 39% for both Major League Baseball and the NBA which tied for second).
And despite the higher cost to sponsor the NFL, the pro football league also took top honors in SBJ’s survey as the sports property that provides the best value for sponsorship rights, edging MLB.
Why is partnering with the NFL such a big deal? Consider the perks: Lenovo is using the NFL’s unparalleled platform of 185 million fans to reach young consumers on TV, online, and anywhere they consume content. Plus Lenovo is sponsoring NFL.com’s fantasy football contest with a trip to the Pro Bowl for the top two finishers.
“There’s no one else in this country that gives you the reach and scale the NFL can offer,” explains David Rabin, executive director of marketing at Lenovo, describing the value of the company’s NFL partnership.
Terms of the partnership deal have not been disclosed, but Rabin calls the NFL “the king of marketing”—high praise when compared to Lenovo’s other world class sports marketing deals with Formula One racing, the Olympics, and the National Basketball Association.
Lenovo has also managed to immerse itself in the die-hard realm of fantasy football by sponsoring a digital mockumentary series, “Tough Season”, that is produced by The Onion. They have also hired luminaries as spokesmen including retired quarterback Doug Flutie, current Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck, and wide receivers Wes Welker from Denver and A.J. Green from Cincinnati.
Millions of fans check their fantasy stats ad nauseum, fervently plotting their strategies, checking lineups for injury updates and insider information as well as scores during the week. And they can’t access that data on NFL.com without seeing the Lenovo name and logo.
While Lenovo’s Rabin stopped short of saying the partnership has hit paydirt, he says it has scored points for sure and the company “likes the trajectory”. Since beginning the NFL partnership in 2012, Lenovo claims it has seen a 24% increase in NFL fan awareness of its brand and a 42% increase among fantasy football players.
Overall, Lenovo says during this time frame brand awareness in the US was up by more than half while brand consideration surged by 79%.
Professor John Sweeney, director of the Sports Communication Program at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says he is not surprised by Lenovo’s brand awareness improvement given its NFL partnership.
“The beauty of these (NFL) sponsorships is the number of places where the name can be repeated, shown -- it’s stunning when they total up the number of impressions… All of a sudden, you are familiar with Lenovo whereas it was an exotic Chinese computer company a few years ago,” Sweeney says, adding, “If awareness of the brand--so people are comfortable with it--is your strategy, sports can be very useful and successful.”
Marketing experts say it doesn’t hurt that the Super Bowl is practically a national holiday and that NFL games are the last “tent pole events” on TV. Some say the games are TiVo-proof (since fans primarily want to watch the games live).
Sports marketing pros that have worked with the NFL say the league is well aware of its own marketing expertise when it comes to striking deals and extracts a premium for promotion.
But the NFL does offer sponsors exclusive and unique activations.
Renie Anderson, Senior VP of sponsorship & partnership management with the NFL, says, “Depending on the consumer (demographic) they’re focused on, we make sure we provide more than logos and marks, but offer unique opportunities and experiences for fans who are current and future customers. We don’t want companies bumping up against a rival or other partners; we want to make sure Lenovo owns their activation, but they can work with other partners if it makes sense.”
Not only does the NFL have the most fans, it has arguably been more successful than rival sports leagues in keeping followers engaged even after the Super Bowl winners hoist the Lombardi Trophy each February.
The league offers its partners first dibs on new innovations, which have impressed Lenovo’s Rabin: “If you look at how the league has turned a five-month season into a year-round calendar of events with the combine and the draft, new enhancements with (new digital network) NFL Now, social media, broadcasting Thursday night football on CBS for part of the season, they find ways to reach their audience.”
Despite its woes away from the field, the NFL has remained a buy for advertisers trying to reach the league’s massive, live audience.
The NFL reported December 4 that TV viewership this season was averaging 18.0 million viewers, up from 16.8 million through the same point in 2013.
Sports marketing and football watchers are keeping an eye out to see if this is as good as it gets for the NFL. Skeptics have been calling for the NFL’s popularity to peak for years, and given the off-the-field abuse scandals this year as well as the concussion and health questions raised in recent years by current and former players, casual observers may be surprised to see that the league has never been more popular by some metrics.
UNC’s Sweeney is not ready to call a top to the NFL’s popularity, but he does see some serious challenges for the league: “They were caught flat-footed last summer (by the abuse scandals) and we will see how they manage this. Concussions are as serious an issue (as off-field abuse) and they’re going to have to manage that.”
Throw in the labor strife from 2011 and New York University Professor Robert Boland, who teaches sports management courses, says the negative news flow is worth tracking, “This is three years of very bumpy rides (for advertisers). None of these issues by themselves are the undoing of the league—it keeps getting more popular--but you do have to watch (for fallout from the scandals).”
In other words, advertisers may want to consider that past performance is no guarantee of future returns. And while Lenovo has yet to officially extend its NFL partnership, the PC maker’s Rabin gives the league a ringing endorsement. The marketing exec says without hesitation that he would “absolutely” recommend other companies to work with the NFL, adding, “I have no concerns about the future of this league.”