- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

Thanksgiving traditionally is a day to gather with family and friends, eat turkey, give thanks and watch football. For the National Football League, it also is a day to sell retro jerseys, promote sponsors and prime the television-ratings pump for the postseason.
America's most popular sports league is conducting a multimillion-dollar, weeklong marketing blitz to ensure that it does not leave any business on the Thanksgiving table, so to speak.
The NFL is running an extensive series of promotional clips and print and online ads touting the league's Thanksgiving history and charitable endeavors, part of an all-out assault to get fans to watch games, buy merchandise, support the league's corporate sponsors and to promote the postseason. The cost of the campaign runs into eight figures, officials said.
Players on each of the four teams playing today the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots will wear retro uniforms to remind fans of past eras and glories in each franchise. The uniforms also are not-too-subtle reminders that jerseys from the NFL Gridiron Classic collection are available for purchase, part of a merchandising machine that brings the league almost $3 billion each year in sales.
"Thanksgiving has become a significant calendar initiative for us, much like the Super Bowl, the playoffs and now the opening weekend of the season," said Ty Stewart, a senior marketing manager with the NFL. "For some casual fans, these are the first games they'll see this season. Thanksgiving has always been a big tradition for the NFL, but it really hasn't been fully maximized.
"Now we're getting to a point where we're seeing the full weight of the league's promotional muscle."
The league's goals for this holiday are ambitious: It is trying to improve a business that already is succeeding. Overall television viewership is up nearly 10 percent from last year, and last year's Thanksgiving games each drew an average audience of more than 11 million U.S. households two strong measures in a wobbly economy.
In fact, the NFL easily beats all other major sports leagues by every key economic measure.
The NFL's average television ratings during the regular season surpass those drawn by the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball for the final round of the playoffs. Its merchandise sales, sponsorship and attendance as a percentage of stadium capacity are unchallenged. A national poll found that pro football once again is America's favorite spectator sport, trumping No. 2 baseball by a 2-1 margin.
Still, NFL officials see room for improvement, and the Thanksgiving blitz is a key part of that effort.
The NFL began its increased emphasis on Thanksgiving last year, in part to give the country a more celebratory holiday event after the September 11 terrorist attacks. But this season, the marketing is much broader, involves much more money and lasts the entire holiday weekend.
"This is still really the beginning of Thanksgiving as a major event for us," Mr. Stewart said. "I can easily see next year every team wearing the retro uniforms that weekend, and the overall promotion being even more prevalent. We can definitely improve awareness. We can definitely improve our ratings."
The networks also are getting involved in mounting the holiday hype.
Fox Sports, which is broadcasting the latest installment of the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry, will air an interview between Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former coach Jimmy Johnson. Mr. Johnson, now a Fox analyst, and Mr. Jones won two Super Bowls together in the early 1990s. However, they had not had a substantive conversation since they parted ways in explosive fashion more than eight years ago until the interview was taped last week.
"Sometimes a show for us is just a show, but for Thanksgiving we think we've got something really special put together," said Scott Ackerson, Fox Sports executive producer. "I don't get excited about much these days, but I'm definitely pumped about this. It's a very big day for us. We're definitely looking for a [ratings] bump."
Presenting the retro uniforms, part of what is dubbed the NFL Gridiron Classic collection, is a calculated attempt to tap into sales of vintage sports memorabilia and apparel. For the past year, easily the hottest section of sports merchandising has been sales of throwback or retro uniforms.

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