The NFL is ramping up for the 2009 season, and that means making marketing adjustments for the economy, Twitter and, as vp-fan strategy and marketing for the NFL Peter O'Reilly reveals, a lot of essential business not on the sports pages.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor, NYSportsJournalism.com
(Posted August 26, 2009)
Brett Favre, Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, Madden NFL 10, ad sales for Super Bowl XLIV; and Emilio and Gloria Estefan; Venus and Serena Williams and Marc Anthony becoming minority owners of the Miami Dolphins. It's late summer and the NFL news isn't limited to the sports pages. Are you ready for Monday Night Football, fantasy football, Kickoff Weekend, the International Series, the 50th Anniversary of the eight original teams in the American Football League, the Pro Bowl now a week before the Super Bowl and the big enchilada event in Miami on Feb. 7? Peter O'Reilly, vice president of fan strategy and marketing for the NFL spoke with www.NYSportsJournalism.com about the league, the economy, Procter & Gamble, the United Foottball League and Twitter.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What have been the biggest marketing challenges and changes you've seen because of the economy?
Peter O'Reilly: Obviously, we've been affected by the economy, as have our partners, fans and everyone else. It has been a suppressed business environment. But as we go into the new season, we see a lot of sponsors and advertisers activating around the return of the NFL. It's such a strong brand on TV, and from that perspective it works for our partners to attach their advertising and promotional campaigns for the year and for advertisers to come to it. Especially given this economy, there seems to be a bit of relief that we are back to NFL football. Certainly we have been facing challenges and our partners have been facing challenges, but we and they are very optimistic as we start the season.
NYSJ: Have you seen any upside to the situation, such as the NFL and partners having to be more creative with their budgets or seeking new and unique ways to reach fans and consumers?
O'Reilly: Yes. Internally we've been smarter about it, saying we've got to pull together all of our league communications and be as efficient as we possibly can be with everything we are doing. One of the drivers was to pull all of our marketing, promotional, media, retail and other initiatives into one campaign. (In June, the NFL signed Grey, New York, as lead agency replacing BBDO, New York.) We wanted to be sure that all of our messaging was aligned and tied together. It is all joined [under the new tagline] across all platforms is, "You want the NFL? Go to the NFL." We've gotten smarter as we've hunkered down and asked how we can drive our business this year. You'll see how on TV we are driving the core parts of our business with the game tune-ins. Our NFL media properties such as NFL Network and NFL.com, NFL Shop and our PSA communications are now under that one campaign. Also on the positive side, we are seeing partners who continue to push and try to find ways to organically connect with the NFL.
NYSJ: What has been the initial reaction to the campaign?
O'Reilly: We're definitely pleased with it. The spot we rolled out during the pre-season has done well and has tied together and helped to focus attention on [aspects such as] NFL.com and NFL fantasy football. And as we lead up to NFL Opening Kickoff it will not just be the NFL and our media that will be running spots but also our broadcast partners. NBC and CBS have taken the spot and tweaked it to talk about their kickoff programming. So it becomes more powerful because it's not just the NFL but two of our major broadcast partners tying together with a similar look and feel driving communications to fans. So we feel great about the campaign so far. And we'll feel even better as we get more pre-season and early season footage in the can to showcase game action in [new spots]. It's a campaign that people are starting to recognize, and we will look at data for advertising performance as that becomes available.
NYSJ: Is the NFL's deal with Procter & Gamble an example of where league marketing and sponsorship alliances might be heading?
O'Reilly: P&G is a good example of a partner that clearly is a company that is so methodical and regimented in how they approach partnerships and test everything before going to market with something they know resonates with their consumers. They are targeting the gatekeepers, who in many cases are moms or women. So we've seen in building our partnership with them their strategy in how they can use the NFL as a vehicle to drive their business at retail. And while in the past you might not initially have thought of P&G as being an NFL partner, given their gatekeeper and mom target demo, they and other partners are having to look at and examine their ROI in terms of how they can work with NFL. You'll see very strong promotional and advertising platforms from them, tied in with our own communications, to make the connection [with gatekeepers and women] even sharper.
NYSJ: The P&G deal includes some products associated with men - Gillette, Old Spice - but some that traditionally are not - Febreze, Tide, Gain, Charmin among them. With this and the expansion of women's apparel and the launch of maternity wear, the NFL seems keen on bending traditional fan gender stereotypes.
O'Reilly: We have had a strong female fan base for a long time. It's about 40-45% of our fan base now and it continues to grow. (Editor's note: Nielsen Media, New York, reported that during Super Bowl XLII in 2008, 37.7% of the 97.7 million TV viewers were women over the age of 18 and that the number rose 2% during Super Bowl XLIII this year.) But now we are seeing partners recognize that they can very visibly tap into that. The Reebok NFL maternity line will launch [next year with marketing support starring Elisabeth Hasselbeck]. P&G and others recognize that the [female] fan base has been there and is strong, and more partners will put those marketing efforts more front-and-center. But it's not just at retail. The NFL has been very active in raising funds and awareness in the fight against breast cancer because so many players, coaches, team owners, fans and families have been affected by the disease. So again this year there will be a great deal of activation in October during Breast Cancer Awareness month. The leagues and teams will be behind it in a very visible way and we will tie the message across our partners
NYSJ: Twitter has become more of a marketing and communications tool, so how has that affected marketing? (Editor's Note: The NFL does not allow players or coaches to use cell phones or other hand-held devices in the bench area during games. However, more players are tweeting at other times. The NFL itself has is at Twitter.com/nfl with more than 925,000 followers, and among the NFL front office commissioner Roger Goodell is NFLCommish with more than 20,000 followers and league spokesman Brian McCarthy is NFLPRGuy, with more than 6,300 followers.)
O'Reilly: I don't Twitter yet, I'm more of a follower in that aspect. Clearly we have embraced it very much from the PR side and even at the executive level. As to how we are looking at it, it's another way to communicate with our fans. We've always had great one-on-one, day-to-day communication opportunities but this takes it to another level. It allows us to get word out quickly and allows us to make people aware of what's going on inside the NFL. It ties into our campaign, telling fans that they should go to the NFL if they want information being pushed out about the NFL from people in the league. It definitely is changing what we are doing and what we are doing with our partners. Marketing communications is ever-changing, and we definitely are at the forefront.
NYSJ: The NFL Opening Kickoff has a distinct marketing flavor in that the league is honoring the 50th season of the eight original American Football League teams (the AFL actually began play in 1960). How is that working into marketing and promotional efforts?
O'Reilly: It will be a major initiative throughout the year. We've worked closely with Reebok [which has created Legacy jerseys and other apparel] and other partners going back 18 months to build a platform and celebrate the anniversary. During the Hall of Fame game in August [between original AFL franchises the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, which began as the Houston Oilers] we recognized the AFL in a major way. The Monday Night Football doubleheader during Kickoff Weekend [Sept. 14 on ESPN] will showcase four original AFL franchises (Buffalo vs. the former Boston and now New England Patriots and the former Los Angeles and now San Diego Chargers vs. the Oakland Raiders). So you will see a lot of interesting activation not just during Kickoff Weekend but throughout the year, and a lot of activation in local markets of the original AFL teams.
NYSJ: This season will see the fourth game in the annual International Series, and the third consecutive game at London's Wembley Stadium, on Oct. 25 (on CBS) between New England and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. What has the league learned from past games and what new marketing support might we see?
O'Reilly: Tickets for [the 2009] sold even faster than for the past two games at Wembley, so we are seeing that it definitely is a high-profile, highly anticipated game. We are certainly refining our activation, adding more interactive elements in a lot of cool ways. And we are building marketing not just around the teams but around the NFL itself and the International Series. So that even if [New England and Tampa Bay] are not your favorite teams people there will want to be part of the rapidly growing fan base in the UK that follows the NFL and wants to be part of the experience. There will be more news about sponsors as we get closer to the game, but there are more sponsors that want to be involved and there will be more activation from sponsors.The International Series also gives us the ability to test things such as field-level signage, which we've done the past two years. Our office in the UK is working toward making this a year-round platform that is sustainable.
NYSJ: A number of current and former NFL players have been involved in reality shows: Terrell Owens, Michael Irvin, Ben Roethlisberger on Shaq Vs., among others. Do you watch them?
O'Reilly: They NFL is not connected with them, but they certainly are interesting. The one I really follow is Hard Knocks on HBO (which is produced by HBO and NFL Films). This year it is following the Cincinnati Bengals through their training camp and pre-season. It takes a real look behind the scenes and shows the reality of a team coming together. It is incredibly compelling. That platform allows you to become attached to some of the unsung players who are struggling to make the team. It's real. But going back to the question, the way we look at it is that the NFL is reality. We have been approached with different reality show concepts, but at the end of the day the drama and unexpected qualities [offered by reality shows] don't compare to NFL games.
NYSJ: Is the NFL affected or influenced one way or the other by what appears to be the demise of the Arena Football League and the launch in October of the United Football League?
O'Reilly: We are not directly involved with either. But any excitement and growth around the game of football would be good if done in the right way. It's exciting to watch as they begin and it will be interesting to see what changes the UFL makes and how they market the game. We will be watching. If there is a lot of interest around [the UFL] that's a positive thing for football. Clearly we watch and try to learn and understand on different levels, different budgets and different goals what other leagues and other partners are doing. But for the most part we have enough to keep us busy around here in trying to figure out how to grow our game and not be status quo at all, but elevate all of our platforms. The Pro Bowl this year will be a week before the Super Bowl and it will kick off the Super Bowl festivities in South Florida. So it will be interesting to see how it does in the ratings. We also will continue to look at ways to elevate and expand the NFL Draft, which is moving to a three-day, prime time format next year and is continuing to grow as a major fan engagement platform for the league.
NYSJ: The NFL has had series of situations over the past few months, including the return of Brett Favre, but some much more serious, such as Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress and Donte' Stallworth. How has Commissioner Goodell dealt with these from a marketing point of view?
O'Reilly: That's a bad position to put me in. (Laughs.) But I don't look at it from a marketing perspective. I look at it from an NFL perspective. And I see that the Commissioner has sent a consistent and clear message. Certainly what he tries to do, as we try to do from a marketing perspective, is about the game and the power of the NFL shield and the power of the brand that all of us protect and seek to grow. He has done everything to the highest standards, and from a marketing perspective I don't think you could ask for more.