SIX KEY LEARNINGS FOR NFL SPONSORS IN 2021, INCLUDING THE VALUE OF TV-VIEWABLE SIGNAGESponsorship, NFL
By: Norris Scott, SVP, Futures Sport + Entertainment, and Parisa Howard, VP, Octagon
As the NFL prepares to turn the page on a new league year, with multi-billion-dollar media rights deals secured and a closer-to-normal NFL Draft in its sights, there are some key insights from last season’s unique sponsor offerings still to be analyzed.
Prior to this past season, the NFL had long been the outlier among major sports leagues by not providing prominent TV-viewable sponsor signage assets during game broadcasts. The unexpected reality of fanless stadiums throughout much of the 2020 season seemed to adjust the league's thinking and give the NFL its first real taste of this new sponsorship opportunity.
Many sports properties have existing TV-viewable signage assets that drive significant value for sponsors. This inventory has evolved in recent years with location, simplicity of branding, and audience metrics all being key ingredients in driving value. For decades, Octagon and its sister agencies, including Futures Sport and Entertainment, have consulted more than 100 rights holders and brands globally on best practices for maximizing their sponsorship portfolio, including viewable signage and branding.
Until recently, NFL stadiums had remained relatively “clean” -- largely free of prominent TV-viewable sponsor signage and branding -- except for the few sideline league partners, including Gatorade, Microsoft, Bose, and Oakley.
As the unprecedented 2020 season took shape, the league began thinking creatively about how to provide sponsor value and offset the expected $100 Million in pandemic-related losses due to canceled ticket sales, and the inability to fulfill key sponsor assets in-stadium. The creative solution was to embrace branded tarp signage in stadiums around the league.
Although out-of-the-box for the NFL, the idea achieved two important objectives for the league, the teams, and the players. Not only did it provide a new way to add sponsor value, but covering the first eight rows of seats in stadiums also allowed for the increased separation between fans and players to help adhere to the health and safety standards the NFLPA had requested.
Sponsors saw the new inventory as a unique opportunity, snatching up tarp signage inventory and securing 380 seat-cover deals confirmed across the NFL in Week 1 and 2.
But not all tarp signage was created equal. After working with many NFL teams and brands over the course of the 2020 season, Octagon and Futures uncovered six key factors that most impacted the exposure and value brands received from the new tarp signage inventory:
- Brand logo size and complexity: This wasn’t a surprise to anyone in the industry, but NFL tarp signage underscored the point that the simpler and bolder the brand logo is on the signage, the better the exposure results. Some tarps just feet away from each other saw dramatic differences, sometimes 3x more exposure, based on brand clarity alone.
- Tarp placement within the stadium: Some teams learned quickly that the brands that they had placed on tarps on the non-camera-facing side of the stadium were rarely on-screen. These poorly placed locations delivered few impressions and earned low media equivalent values. The timely analysis provided teams the information needed to pivot more tarp signage placements to be on the camera-facing side of the stadium, ensuring more favorable results for sponsors. Naturally, stadium construction was a factor, as it impacted how close the brands were to the field. The topography in some stadiums also restricted exposure for branded seat covers.
- Glare: Particularly during afternoon games, and depending on stadium orientation at night, the sun or lighting glare could significantly affect signage visibility. Brands that had bold, simple branding tended to see better results. White text on dark backgrounds also fared better in strong-glare situations. One team we monitored had zero glare for all eight of its home games because of high-contrast white logos on dark backgrounds in a closed stadium with controlled lighting, which provided more clarity and incremental value for sponsors.
- Broadcast coverage: It was obvious within minutes of the season-opening game broadcast from GEHA Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, that broadcasters were covering the game differently than in prior years -- either because of limited capacity or because of the signage. Extra point attempts were shot facing the field rather than from behind the line of scrimmage, and the sideline camera appeared to shoot tighter to the field than games monitored during the 2019 season. The use of the SkyCam also had a significant impact on exposure. Broadcasts using SkyCam generated 91% more exposure for tarps and 85% more exposure on average for permanent signage than traditional NFL broadcasts. The position of the SkyCam behind the line of scrimmage drove significant amounts of exposure for endzone and corner assets as well.
- Winning Games: Team performance played a vital role in driving value for clubs as well. Higher interest teams drove more value due to favorable broadcast schedules. While exposure helps generate value, the multiplier of having a primetime broadcast versus a regional 1 p.m. telecast is significant. On average, primetime broadcasts generated nearly 4x the value of regional 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. broadcasts throughout the 2020 season.
- Regular season static monochromatic tarps vs. Super Bowl LED signage: The sports business community was eager to see if the NFL’s adapted approach to tarp signage for the Super Bowl would result in even better results for brands -- and it delivered. The league valued its new Super Bowl LED signage inventory at $1.5 million to $2 million and had early success offloading inventory from league sponsors Verizon and Pepsi, as well as Super Bowl broadcaster ViacomCBS. The Super Bowl LED signage allowed for more logo color variation and was more dynamic, yet still relatively unobtrusive for the viewer. Rather than have multiple brands on the signs at the same time, the Super Bowl featured entire-stadium single brand takeovers. This delivered considerable value to the brands throughout Super Bowl.
The natural follow-up question is: where does the NFL go from here?
Despite the changes in coverage by broadcasters and varying opinions on the values the tarps delivered, the results weren't all bad. On the high end, some teams saw seat covers reach over $1 Million in value in a single primetime game during the regular season, and nearly $2.5 Million for a single location in the Conference Championship. As we take these findings and look ahead to the 2021 season, it will be interesting to see if the NFL allows more flexibility on creative TV-viewable inventory, since last season proved it can be unobtrusive for fans and extremely valuable.
Traditional semi-TV-viewable signage like tunnel banners and upper-level signs have existed for team sponsors for some time. But the opportunity for the NFL and teams to create new, more visible branding opportunities for sponsors may be too enticing for the NFL and their teams to pass up based on the success found in 2020.
How much will the NFL align itself with other major leagues and embrace TV-visible assets to drive value for league and team sponsors? We can add that to the list of unknowns that we’ll wait to find out as we march closer to the 2021 NFL season.