What Grey Cup Hangover?
The concept of the "championship hangover" is not new to the sporting world. Can last year’s title winners gear up for a long regular season after the emotional high of a championship? It is a question asked by the fans and media alike each and every year across all major sports. However, to date, the examination of this idea has been limited to the on-field performance of athletes and teams. We feel compelled to ask this same question of brands and properties alike; how does one inject creativity and passion into partnerships year after year, particularly after the "high" of major milestones or events.
At the Canadian Football League, in the wake of the 100th Grey Cup celebration in 2012, sponsorship professionals wondered whether the league would be able to sustain the hype generated by the landmark event. The CFL had a number of multi-year partnerships with Tier-1 sponsors that lead up to (and expired after) the 100th Grey Cup. Brands, at their own will, and at the encouragement of the league, were clearly attempting to leverage the equity of what would be the single largest event in the league’s history. The hype and promotion for the event included a cross-country 74-day train tour and a 10-day Grey Cup festival in Toronto. After the Federal government pitched in $5 million to assist with Grey Cup events, and Justin Bieber graced the stage for the half-time show, it was clear that the level of programming offered to fans and corporate sponsors in 2012 was at an elite level – whether or not the league would be able to sustain that level of "star-power" promotion for future events in markets outside Toronto was becoming an increasingly valid question.
The fact that the home-team Toronto Argonauts would go on to win a championship in front of the hometown crowd was the ultimate triumph for a league looking to improve its standing amongst GTA fans in championship-starved Toronto. The Toronto win was leveraged into record TV audiences and accelerated 2013 season ticket sales for the Argos. For the CFL, 2012 was a perfect storm.
Though, in the midst of very public success, behind closed-doors, difficult conversations were taking place. As the CFL community gathered in Toronto for a celebration of the sport, it became known that long-term supporters like RONA and Molson were winding down their commitments. Additionally, the League's TV contract with TSN was up for renewal. In the eyes of MKTG, the recipe for a potential "boardroom championship hangover" seemed to be in place. MKTG's reservations did not stem from our lack of faith in the CFL as an attractive property for brands; the league is an important national symbol that has consistently offered sponsors a tremendous opportunity to connect with Canadians. Rather, our questions were bourne from our experience, in which we typically see significant gaps following the exit of major sponsors before a category will be filled (driven by fear of associated awareness and goodwill that the incumbent has built up).
However, just like a perennial contender on the field, the CFL leveraged their taste of victory into forward-looking momentum. Instead of feeling the burn from the departure of sponsors, the league targeted a stocked pipeline of interested brands. The League brought on Dr. Oetker and Canadian Pacific, Sun Life expanded their activation with a national CSR-themed campaign, Lowe’s filled the home-improvement category for 2013, and Great Western Brewery replaced Molson as the official beer of the CFL – activating with an official 2013 Grey Cup branded beer product that will see some of its proceeds go towards supporting grassroots football. Overall, the CFL responded by taking a strategic approach to filling categories by finding specific brands where the partnership would be rooted in activations that would have positive impact on both the sponsors and the League. Ultimately these activation rich deals will drive great value for the League beyond financial investment by sustaining their brand presence in the market and by showcasing the CFL brand as a strong property to other sponsors.
One year later, on the verge of the 2013 CFL playoffs, the state of the league remains strong. The new TV deal signed in March between the CFL and TSN/RSD is worth more than $30 million per season, double that of the previous deal. Furthermore, the 2013 CFL Season has seen TV ratings increase nearly 10% from last year. While the perception of many is that the NFL will always be the top-billing for Canadian football fans, this past Thanksgiving weekend, the most watched football on TV came from north of the border.
Most Watched Football Games in Canada on Thanksgiving Weekend (According to BBM Canada overnight ratings):
1. CFL, Argos at Ticats, Monday, TSN: 956,000
2. CFL, Eskimos at Riders, Saturday, TSN: 778,000
3. NFL, 1 p.m. games, Sunday, CTV: 712,000