Spotlight: The NFL & Advertising

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There’s been a lot of water cooler chat lately about the changes the NFL is contemplating for the 2017-18 football season.

In many marketing circles, a favorite topic of conversation has been what’s in this restructuring for marketers. After all, there are a few ways that the NFL’s proposed modifications to its advertising format could benefit us, but it’s not all coming up roses. It will be interesting and important to see how this all plays out, given that the NFL has the largest audience of any major league sport and the Superbowl still draws the largest live audience of any TV programming.

Changes Coming to Advertising with the NFL

If you’re not in the NFL loop, last season fans made it clear that the league was going to have to try a lot harder to attract and retain viewership.

Many cord-cutters didn’t have access to games and even those people who did tuned in less and less. Complaints of too many interruptions were lodged by fans, and the NFL is responding. New ad formats are being tried, including a double box during broadcast time, to create more marketing spots without interrupting game play.

By and large, however, the issue of “double-ups” is where the NFL wants to focus its attention for now. According to the NFL’s own research, situations where commercial breaks happen immediately before and after a kickoff occur 27 percent of the time. These double-ups become necessary when a network falls behind on their allotment of commercial breaks, which are regulated as part of their deals with the NFL. Networks are supposed to have five commercial breaks during the first quarter, six in the second and five each in the third and fourth quarters. If the network fails to maintain advertising pacing, more commercial breaks are added to later quarters.

The proposed changes will take the 21 required commercial breaks down to just 16, with four in each quarter. Instead of simply slashing so much ad space, the NFL intends to add an additional 30-second commercial to each break. Their research showed that fans are far more concerned with the number of game interruptions than the length of those interruptions. It’s an interesting approach, to be sure.

In addition to the longer, less frequent commercial breaks, the NFL has agreed to sell Amazon non-exclusive streaming rights to its package of 10 Thursday night games during the 2017-18 season. Amazon intends to include those games as a perk for Prime members and will have a few ad slots of its own to sell if it chooses. Currently, the eCommerce giant says it’ll most likely use those slots to market its own products, but the next NFL season doesn’t kick off until September, so that could become another marketing avenue.

What This Means for Marketers

There are two big takeaways from this news for marketers.

First, we should all seriously consider if marketing with the NFL makes the most sense for our brands. Squeezing the advertising space down into just 16 commercial breaks means that it’s likely that your ads are going to be more costly than ever before and that they’ll have to be more impactful to make a decent impression. We know that NFL marketing can be highly effective, but it’s not the best vehicle for everything.

Second, if your brand can compete with live NFL play, you should inquire about the test formats from last season. The split screen ad spots, in particular, may be less expensive and more available while marketers test those waters. The NFL claims these will only appear during lulls in game play, and since they’re not disruptive, fans have so far found them far more palatable than the traditional commercial break format. That’s not a guarantee these spots be automatically noticeable or useful, however.

Tips for Advertising with the NFL

If you’re going to advertise with the NFL, you’ll want to use those ad dollars wisely. After all, being part of the first year of a major format change can be a risky notion. Although you’ll still have access to the same audience as before, these fine people are both shrinking as a group and demanding fewer game interruptions.

Consider these tips if you do choose to move forward with this type of marketing:

1. Really evaluate your audience. Does your audience exist only during NFL and other sport league games? Can you find these same people collected anywhere else? As advertising costs climb and eyes on screen drop, you may find yourself with a shrinking ROI on NFL marketing. Certainly, keep advertising with the NFL if it’s working for you, but if your market exists elsewhere, like on social media or during MLB games, it may pay to mix it up a little and spread your dollars around.

2. Design better ads. Trite as it sounds, your NFL advertisements will now be squeezed in against even more marketers. You have no way to know if you’ll be placed against a direct competitor or even alternate commercial breaks with one. With so many spots being run in the same place for an audience that is growing accustomed to single 15- or 30-second pre-roll messages, your marketing has to be eye-catching or you may be lost in the crowd.

3. Track those ads. Your metrics will make a huge difference this NFL season, I suspect. Build a way into your advertisements that allows you to track them, so that you’ll be better able to directly see their effect. Remember that many viewers will also be second screeners, so working with a sophisticated analytics and attribution platform that can monitor the online and offline sources of your website traffic can be both informative and valuable. Be sure to study your data carefully and compare it to last year to determine if you’re really getting a good return on your advertising dollars.

Increasingly, many marketers will ask themselves whether events like NFL games are the best use of ad spend, especially for smaller companies. Not only is the price climbing, but also the competition is fierce and this arena may simply not be in the budget for small businesses to try to stand toe-to-to with the CocaColas of the world. There may be better platforms through which these companies can reach their target demographics. On the other hand, live sporting events are among the least recorded/DVR’d events, so most viewers will be unable to skip watching your ads live. Add to that the fact that the NFL umbrella allows anyone to reach a huge market of passionate people, which could make it worth the extra trouble and expense.
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