Traditionally, official sponsors such as Coors Light and Visa have faced aggressive ambush marketing tactics from their key competitors. Both Budweiser and MasterCard have historically been strong advertisers on NFL broadcasts, particularly around Super Bowl time. MasterCard has even used Peyton Manning in its advertising, further strengthening its connection to the game.
Over the past few years, new ways of interacting with the sport -- through mobile devices, online and, most importantly, through fantasy football -- have become another challenge for football advertisers, including NFL sponsors.
Fantasy football players currently represent some 30 million highly involved fans, a number that is growing at an annual rate of around 20%. These fans average nine hours per week watching football and managing their fantasy teams online. Fantasy football has also strengthened fans' involvement with the sport, with 55% of fantasy players claiming that they watch more sports since they started playing. The average fantasy football player is attractive to advertisers: He skews male, is in a higher income bracket than the average fan, and uses the Internet more extensively for research and shopping -- and for playing fantasy football.
So the question is: What are NFL sponsors doing for fantasy football players? Surprisingly, the answer varies greatly from one sponsor to the next.
Some sponsors have embraced the new challenge. Verizon, this year's new official mobile carrier of the NFL, offers NFL Mobile in exclusivity, including capabilities to play fantasy football. The incumbent mobile carrier of the NFL, Sprint, has its own fantasy football offering, including an improved Sprint Football Live mobile app. Sprint also advertises on many of the top fantasy football websites, including Yahoo and FFToday.
McDonald's seems to have used its status as NFL sponsor to get the "presented by McDonald's" endorsement on NFL's fantasy football website. For Coors Light, fantasy football has become a priority. The brand has embraced fantasy football strongly, in deals with fantasy football platforms and blogs such as WaterCooler, Yardbarker, and the Fantasy Sports Ventures network last year, in addition to its advertising on the NFL website.
Finally, Papa John's, the official pizza sponsor of the NFL, is using a sweepstakes approach. Specifically, Papa John's is organizing a "Fantasy to Reality" contest to determine the "best" fantasy football league, giving fans an opportunity to win tickets to the 2011 NFL season draft. Papa John's also organized an "NFL Fantasy Draft" where the winner received pizza delivered by former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter on Sept. 9 -- the start of the regular NFL season.
Other NFL sponsors such as Gillette, Old Spice, Pepsi, FedEx or Bank of America, appear to be doing little or no targeting of fantasy football players at this point.
What explains this difference in involvement on behalf of NFL sponsors? One can think of a few reasons why fantasy football marketing can seem difficult and risky:
So what can sports marketers learn from NFL sponsors' involvement in fantasy football? First and foremost, fantasy sports are not limited to football. Currently, 85% of fantasy sports players focus on the NFL, but there is no reason why the fantasy sports concept will not become more widespread in other sports; therefore, the potential for growth is significant.
Second, fantasy sports players tend to be the most involved fans, and their passion for the sport increases as they play. This could mean a growing, more captive audience for sports marketers.
Finally, if you don't get involved, somebody else will. You may have to get used to dealing with social media and fragmented campaigns -- but, then again, that is already the general trend in consumer marketing.