Why NFL sponsors are reevaluating their relationship with the league

    Football remains a big draw on cable TV, even as cord cutting becomes more popular, and the National Football League ranks as the most profitable sports league in the world. Yet, despite these strengths, a remarkable number of the NFL’s long-standing sponsorships and advertising deals have either ended or otherwise changed so far in 2022. 

    Over a hundred years old, the NFL is a stalwart of sports marketing. However, in recent years it has faced a number of challenges, including scandals on numerous fronts and pandemic-induced complications that lead to declines in viewership. Still, at the start of 2022, it looked like the NFL could be headed for a banner year, with Super Bowl LVI averaging 112.3 million viewers — the big game’s largest audience in five years.

    But the good times were short-lived. Over the course of just a few weeks in Q2 2022, Pizza Hut ended its relationship with the league after only a few years, with Little Caesars sweeping in to take its place. Anheuser-Busch InBev said it will remain the official beer and hard seltzer sponsor of the NFL, but will no longer retain its Super Bowl alcohol advertising monopoly, allowing for competitors such as Molson Coors to advertise during the game for the first time in 33 years. The development comes one year after Diageo was made the official spirits sponsor of the NFL, the first time Anheuser-Busch had shared NFL alcohol sponsorship with another company. Additionally, Pepsi stepped away from sponsoring the Super Bowl Half Time show after ten years, but will remain a close partner with the league.

    “The movement of NFL sponsorships this year was definitely noticeable,” said Gretchen Walsh, chief client officer, McKinney, in an email to Marketing Dive. “It is likely brands with supply chain issues and/or COVID impact took a hard look at the value and the effectiveness of executing their legacy sponsorships.”

    Beyond issues like supply chain and the pandemic, other factors impacting the perceived value of NFL sponsorships likely include viewer fragmentation and a larger cultural shift.

    Value of a dollar

    While Super Bowl LVI was the most viewed game since the New England Patriots won against the Atlanta Falcons in 2017 (which pulled in 113.7 million viewers), viewership among 18 to 49 year olds has been falling steadily since 2011. That year, 52.5 million people between the ages of 18 and 49 watched the Super Bowl, but by 2021, the number had fallen to 34.3 million.

    The Super Bowl’s shrinking viewership could be interpreted to mean that football is losing popularity among the young. However, between 2017 and 2020, Sunday night viewership among this key demographic has remained relatively stable at 7.9 million, dipping to 6.4 million in 2020. The drop could be due to how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted sports, with many sports having their seasons at the same time, meaning more live sport options were available.

    But viewer fragmentation has endured as an issue even as league seasons have returned to normal. Consumers simply have more options than they did in the past and big live sporting events are not always the cultural unifier they once were. And, with highlights and real-time updates at the fingertips of consumers, they don’t even have to tune into the game to feel involved or caught up.

    How football games are structured may also be lending itself to viewer fragmentation. While the average football game lasts 3 hours and 12 minutes, the ball is only in play for an average of 11 minutes and the average play is only 4 seconds. On average, 20 commercial breaks are taken and over 100 ads shown, which may lead to viewers frequently checking their phones if not engaged.

    All of which points to the need for a diverse media strategy for advertising success. For its part, Anheuser-Busch said it is exploring how to extend its impact beyond the football season. 

    “In line with this evolution in our strategic approach, beginning in 2023 Anheuser-Busch will shift its advertising approach at the Super Bowl and will not pursue alcohol category advertising exclusivity in the national broadcast,” said Spencer Gordon, vice president of consumer connections at Anheuser-Busch in an email statement to Marketing Dive. “This shift allows us to rebalance our media investments in key moments all year, both during football season and during the summer selling season, therefore fueling our ambition to lead future growth.”


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