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Marketing and Sponsorship: A-B InBev, Verizon among biggest activators as NFL draft sponsors finally come out to play in Vegas

By Terry Lefton

In case you had any doubt about the post-pandemic impulse to emerge from the rabbit holes, here’s some conclusive evidence: The NFL will be entertaining a record 1,200 guests at the draft in Las Vegas this week. The Vegas location means more sponsors than ever will be using the draft for customer entertainment. Crowd expectations are in the hundreds of thousands.

“It’s another coming-out party for us,” said Tracie Rodburg, NFL senior vice president of sponsorship management.

The draft was originally slated for Vegas in 2020, but that was derailed by COVID. Now it’s the part of a three-card monte that sees Vegas hosting the last Pro Bowl, this draft and the Super Bowl in 2024.  

Among the biggest activators will be Anheuser-Busch InBev, carrying the unprecedented designation of draft presenting sponsor. A supporting promotion has A-B InBev offering $15 million to any fan correctly predicting all 32 first-round picks in its “Pick the Perfect Draft’’ contest. TV, digital and social media will support. Even Vegas oddsmakers will have a hard time calculating the odds of success there. Like other sponsors, A-B InBev will be staging its own 200-person corporate party at the draft, and will be presenting sponsor of a concert series.

Verizon, presenting sponsor of NFL Network’s draft coverage, is staging a “5G Challenge” at Draft Experience, in which fans must find their way out of rooms using 5G smart home technology.

P&G’s Gillette brand is sponsoring the draft red carpet and will have a “style lounge” to prep and primp draftees and families. New creative is from Cisco, delineating how its technology supports the draft; along with new social/digital content from Sleep Number featuring five draftees and the importance of sleep. Marriott’s Courtyard brand is presenting sponsor of ESPN’s coverage. 

The draft will have two separate footprints: The red carpet and stage will be at the Bellagio fountain, and the draft stage and Draft Experience fan fest is next to Caesars Forum

Legends is handling merch sales and will have four retail trailers on site. Visa is presenting sponsor of the NFL shop(s) on-site. Six sponsors have rights to call picks live on stage on Day 3.  

Bud Light is the official draft presenting sponsor as part of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s big activation in Las Vegas.

PLUS ÇA CHANGE: Also planned as part of the draft weekend festivities is what the NFL is terming an “Executive Partner Summit” on Thursday morning, with 400 execs from various NFL rights holders, including sponsors, licensees, and media concerns. Speakers will include Commissioner Roger Goodell and CRO Renie Anderson, with topics ranging from the metaverse and blockchain, to legal sports wagering and emerging media.

Sponsors gathering will soon learn from the buzz around “Draftapalooza” that two of the biggest outstanding NFL corporate sponsors have agreed to renewal terms. In the case of Pepsi, an NFL corporate patron since 2011, we’re told it’s an eight-year extension, minus Super Bowl Halftime Show rights, which it held since 2012. Marriott, which has held the league’s official hotel rights since 2011, is also back in the fold, with an agreement we hear has expanded international rights. In both cases, the deals are somewhere between “terms agreed”  and passing legal muster. Frankly, the bigger news would have been if either party didn’t renew. 

As for the pricey halftime show rights, we continue to hear that Verizon has substantial interest, as it looks to recast itself from its telco heritage into more of a tech/content distribution company and reap the returns those sorts of companies receive from Wall Street. Other industry sources tell us there’s some interest from Verizon in having its brand on NFL headsets, where Bose was for the past eight seasons. Verizon is already into the NFL for a ton as one of its biggest sponsors. We don’t believe that Verizon needs the branding that are the headsets’ primary marketing benefit, and some clubs (think Dallas, which has AT&T’s name on its stadium) simply wouldn’t allow it. Still, if it’s one or the other, try weighing a seasonlong marketing platform with what would hopefully be proprietary content from coaches’ headsets, versus a 12-minute halftime show — even if it’s the most-watched portion of the most-watched TV show of any year. Still others suggested that halftime could be split between two non-competing brands, noting Pepsi and Verizon shared some rights during the most recent Super Bowl.

Or will we see both of those principal NFL marketing assets sold to Verizon, which, while already paying steep fees to the NFL, reported 2021 revenue of $133.6 billion?  

STAR POWER: In a year when linemen on both sides of the ball are the most coveted draft picks, a consensus top pick has not emerged. As far as commercial appeal, top QBs available are the University of Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett and Malik Willis of Liberty. Other players with commercial appeal, according to The Marketing Arm, include Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson, University of Cincinnati CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, University of Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, and Ohio State WR Garrett Wilson.  

“Unlike most years, there’s no consensus No. 1, which should add some buzz on draft day,” said Will Ober, TMA director, celebrity and influencer, sports. “The other thing I’ll be looking at is more sponsors feeling comfortable now about on-the-ground activation, and what that balance will be between experiential and digital/social, which grew enormously during the pandemic.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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