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MKTG Insights: Sponsorship Opportunity of the NFL in Toronto

MKTG Insights: Sponsorship Opportunity of the NFL in Toronto

With speculation surrounding the potential sale of the Buffalo Bills, Toronto is once again at the heart of the NFL franchise relocation conversation. The sponsorship landscape in a given marketplace is a crucial element in assessing the viability of city in hosting a new team. For sponsors, an NFL team in Toronto means the rise of new ownable territory. With that comes new opportunities for hosting and hospitality, major naming rights deals in the case of new stadium builds, implications for the CFL and its partners, and most of all, a chance for smart sponsors to come up for air and evaluate what a new major property will mean for their portfolio and category competitors. Whether or not the Buffalo Bills should relocate to Toronto (or elsewhere) is a question for the NFL and the team’s next owner. However, a question remains for sponsors: are you prepared to assess the strategic implications of the NFL’s potential entry into Canada? MKTG breaks down some key points of consideration that the sponsorship industry should watch for:

A New Naming Rights Opportunity:

As the 4th largest market in North America, Toronto unquestionably has the economic capacity (fans, corporate support, etc.) to become the home of an NFL team. Smaller markets like Miami and Philadelphia support all 4 major sports teams successfully. Further, Toronto’s proximity to other major markets and status as a premier tourist destination would help in ticket sales. That being said, there are obstacles in the way of infrastructure. The Rogers Centre does not meet the NFL’s minimum stadium requirements of a 65,000 capacity building. A Toronto franchise will require a new building – and with a potential new state-of-the-art facility in the GTA, a crown jewel naming rights opportunity will emerge for sponsors.

Naming rights opportunities represent a rare opportunity for brands to become a staple in the community and an enabler of economic growth in a region. In the past 24 months, Canada has seen major naming rights deals come to fruition: Canadian Tire Centre and TD Place in Ottawa, Rogers Place in Edmonton, and Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton. A new facility in Toronto that could potentially house both an NFL team, and likely some other high-profile tenants, would be a strategic play for a brand looking to either bolster its position in the GTA market or buy an asset highly associated with brand awareness.

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Insights from the NFL’s Beta Test in Canada:

After lagging attendance and a neutral atmosphere at the Rogers Centre for the “Bills-in-Toronto” series led to postponement for the 2014 NFL regular season, critics   were quick to question Toronto’s viability as a market. However, the partnership’s hiccups should not be an indictment of Toronto. Rather, it should provide some insight into the fandom of NFL fans in Canada.

Close proximity between Toronto and Buffalo has fueled misconception that the Bills are the team of choice by Canadians. However, the data tells a different story. According to polls conducted by NFL Canada in 2012, the Buffalo Bills are the 9th most popular NFL team in Canada and the 3rd most popular team amongst GTA residents behind the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots. As a major Americanized market, Toronto has sophisticated NFL fans who are already deeply entrenched in the sport and cheer for other teams. Further, many NFL avids living in the GTA would’ve been predisposed to the Bills experience in Buffalo. The Toronto version of the experience may have paled in comparison.

The  ”Bills-in-Toronto” series is not a fair litmus test to assesses the viability of the NFL in Canada. The reality is that the Bills lack both intense fan avidity or historical / community importance in Toronto. In the long-term, the NFL’s greatest chance at garnering Torontonian support may be through expansion. While the passing of Bills’ owner Ralph Wilson has cast the spotlight on the Bills for now, a new team – branded for local tastes and preferences – may be more successful at converting fans.

 Implications for CFL sponsors:

For some people, the NFL’s entry into Canada will be viewed as the “Americanisation of Canadian heritage”. In these instances, the contextual value of a CFL sponsorship could theoretically increase. An NFL team in Canada would likely inspire waves of passion across most CFL team fan-bases to support and protect a league that they believe is rooted in the fabric of Canadian society.  By speaking to Canadiana, the CFL can protect and grow its brand.

For the franchise most likely to be impacted by a Toronto NFL team – the Argonauts – the outlook isn’t necessarily bleak. Firstly, the presence of NFL football may introduce many non-football fans to the product who otherwise wouldn’t be drawn to the Argos, particularly a grassroots movement that inspires more youth football programs. Secondly, there may be great opportunities for property cross-promotion through joint community efforts and ticket bundling packages that can drive incremental revenue for the Argos. For the NFL in Canada to succeed without facing Anti-American sentiment, the NFL and CFL must join each other at the table.

NFL Sponsorship Best Practices:

Breaking through as an NFL sponsor requires a different approach than the CFL. There are very few opportunities to have direct brand integration on the playing field or sideline brand exposure. The NFL has strictly prohibited logo placements on jerseys, fields, field boards, etc., and has emphasized maintaining a “pure” playing surface – not unlike the Olympics. While no sponsors in any league can – in isolation – hang their hat on in-arena logo placement and expect success, this truth is amplifiedin the NFL due to a lack of in-arena assets.

Brands win by having smart activation strategies (often at the product level), leveraging athlete endorsers as brand spokespeople, and by bringing engaging creative campaigns to market.

Betting on a Future Generation:

Sponsors who associate with an expansion franchise or a relocated team must enter the relationship with a long-term outlook. In expansion or relocated team markets, there are often deep legacies of fandom with alternative teams. To suggest that NFL fans living in Toronto will instantly drop their team of choice to cheer for a local team is presumptuous. Should the NFL come to Toronto, the league, team, and its brand partners will be betting on a future generation of fans who grow up supporting one franchise. For example, the Ottawa Senators, who joined the NHL in 1992, still face pressure from an Ottawa market that is entrenched with strong fan support from surrounding markets (Toronto and Montreal).

The NFL is a unique property who dominates the US market and has now set its sights on the world. It will offer brands something unique: a chance to build and be part of a movement. Should the NFL’s compass guide it North to Canada, sponsors must prepare themselves for a shifted landscape.

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