Game Plan: Marketers Eye Hot Dates In 2010

One of the major reasons that marketers have become more apprehensive about using athletes as endorsers has been accentuated by the current situation involving Tiger Woods, and over the past year controversies involving such stars as Michael Phelps and Manny Ramirez. But companies know that, barring extreme implosions, major sports events are generally controversy-proof and are magnets not only for core fans but for casual and even fringe sports consumers. 2010 is loaded with such gold events as the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics and the World Cup. Here are 10 of the most engaging, recession-proof sports dates of the year:

Jan. 1: An attentive New Year's Day audience gets to snack on five college football bowl games, led by the Rose Bowl presented by Citi in Pasadena, Calif., as well as the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Capital One Bowl, Outback Bowl and the Konica Minolta Bowl. The NHL also has carved out a chunk of marketing and consumer interest on New Year's Day with the Bridgestone Winter Classic, an annual outdoor event which next will be played at Boston's Fenway Park. The Winter Classic, airing on NBC, has gone from an oddity in 2008 to a marketing mecca with several weeks of activation supporting the game. It takes on even more importance for the league this season because there will be no All-Star Game due to the Winter Olympics. The NHL is considering a second annual Winter Classic and already has a short-list of cities that could host the next event(s) in 2011.

Feb. 7: Super Bowl XLIV, Miami. Even in a challenged economy, this is the gold standard of one-day sports events. Some NFL partners began activation for the game in September; CBS's ad slots are nearly full even at a going rate of $2.5-$3 million for a 30-second commercial. The advertising side of the Super Bowl has spawned its own legion of followers, giving companies recently leery of spending marketing dollars such as auto manufacturers and others reason to do so.

Feb. 12-28: Winter Olympics, Vancouver. Marketers love the event because the variety of sports attracts many casual and fringe sports fans and also because female consumers are the primary viewers. The International Olympic Committee's worldwide partners spend heavily behind the Games: Coca-Cola, Acer, Altos Origin, GE, McDonald's, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung and Visa. The opening and closing ceremonies will attract the largest viewing audiences during NBC's coverage. Good news for sponsors: The location gives NBC the opportunity to telecast most of the events live (as opposed to dealing with the time difference at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing and the 2006 Winter Games in Italy).

Feb. 14: NBA All-Star Game and Daytona 500. The NBA is playing on the big stage of Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, which could pull in 100,000 fans in addition to being a strong ratings driver for TNT. The Sprite Slam Dunk event the night before at American Airlines Center could garner bigger numbers than usual for TNT as LeBron James may be among the participants. NASCAR has built the Daytona (Fla.) 500 into its own Super Bowl, with marketers activating weeks in advance and planning to unveil campaigns during the broadcast on Fox. Honorary mention: On Feb. 6, Danica Patrick is scheduled to make her stock car debut in the ARCA/ReMax Slick Mist 200 race at Daytona, which will be supported by her sponsors (including GoDaddy, Izod, AirTran and Peak) and others in an event that will attract national attention; the race is also being used as a tune up for her NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series later in the month.

April 3-5: NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis. The Final Four is the culmination of three weeks of basketball during which casual fans of college hoops become die-hard loyalists, thanks in large part to the national obsession with building brackets and the associated "friendly" wagering. CBS, in the midst of an 11-year deal with the NCAA valued at $6 billion, has continued to expand access to the games via Internet and VOD options, giving national and local marketers many opportunities to connect with consumers. The NCAA is considering expanding the number of college teams from 65 to 96 and adding another week of games and marketing to the tournament.

• Thoroughbred Triple Crown: May 1 Kentucky Derby, May 15 Preakness, June 5 Belmont Stakes. Another event in which marketers see a significant upswing in the number of casual fans who pay attention, especially if a long-shot horse wins the Kentucky Derby, and even more so if one horse wins the Derby and the Preakness. No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, but 11 horses since then have won the first two events only to lose at Belmont, keeping the interest high among sponsors and consumers.

• FIFA World Cup June 11-July 11, South Africa. Like the Summer and Winter Olympics, this comes only once every four years. For many marketers and fans around the world, this is the Olympics and Super Bowl multiplied many times over. The U.S. National Team has raised its level of play over the past decade. That offers domestic-based companies the opportunity to activate and reach a significant audience not already loyal to an international team, who likely will follow the tournament to its conclusion. Analysts said topping $1 billion in marketing and activation by companies around the world is not out of the question.

June 17-20: U.S. Open Golf Championship, Pebble Beach, Calif. The 110th U.S. Open will be especially compelling because it may or may not include Tiger Woods, who has taken an indefinite leave from golf but could gear up for a return to this big stage. Even if he is not playing, companies love to put their marketing and sponsorship dollars on the U.S. Open green.

July 13: MLB All-Star Game, Angel Stadium of Anaheim, Calif. The game itself remains a stellar marketing staple of the baseball season, but is also accompanied by such sponsor-laden events as the State Farm Home Run Derby (July 12) and the MLB All-Star Red Carpet Show presented by Chevy. The 2009 game in St. Louis attracted a total audience of 33.6 million viewers to Fox, the most for an MLB All-Star Game telecast since 1999. Baseball partners will begin activating behind the game soon after the season starts to connect with both core and casual fans.

Aug. 31-Sept. 13: U.S. Open Tennis, New York. The rise of young U.S. player Melanie Oudin in 2009 put her name on the lips of core and casual tennis fans who already knew of such high-profile and marketable players as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams. That's good news for lead sponsors including IBM, Lexus, Olympus and American Express in their quest to reach fans on-site (last year's event set a record attendance of 721,059) as well as via TV coverage on ESPN, Tennis Channel and CBS.

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