- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

The NFL lacks for very little these days, but subtlety can be counted among its shortcomings.

America’s most dominant sports league will open its 2003 regular season tonight with a glitzy concert extravaganza on the Mall before an expected crowd of nearly 300,000.

The $10 million event, backed by another $35million worth of marketing muscle, will showcase Aerosmith, Britney Spears and Aretha Franklin, pay tribute to U.S. military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and herald in near-bombastic fashion the return of the true national pastime.

The event, shown live on ABC (WJLA, Channel7), will occur before the Washington Redskins-New York Jets game at FedEx Field.

Not surprisingly, the league’s internal goals with its “NFL Kickoff Live” are similarly widespread and ambitious. Even though the NFL enjoys unrivaled strength among U.S. sports fans, the league is still trying to broaden its overall brand awareness, win new fans among women, children and teenagers, and keep TV ratings from suffering the marked erosion afflicting nearly every other major sport.

Last year’s debut installment of “NFL Kickoff Live,” a concert in New York’s Times Square before 500,000 people, helped boost the league’s opening week TV ratings 11 percent compared to the opening slate of games in 2001. And that one-week bump in TV ratings provided the primary fuel for a 5.5 percent improvement in average per-game viewership for the season.

“Our hard-core fans know our season is starting, and lot of general fans know our season is starting,” said John Collins, NFL senior vice president of marketing and sales. “But we want to create an additional layer of awareness to our product and hit a much broader demographic.

“We want to start our season as big as we end it [with the Super Bowl]. The NFL is a premier entertainment brand, and not just about sports. We can and want to serve a lot of different interests and this [concert] is certainly a big part of that,” Collins said.

Also performing at tonight’s concert will be R&B star Mary J. Blige and rock band Good Charlotte, the latter from Waldorf, Md. The concert additionally serves as the finale of a four-day football festival on the Mall which has included interactive games, autograph signings by NFL legends, youth football clinics and charity events.

“This brings together sports, music and entertainment in a way few other events can,” said Katie Lacey, vice president of cola marketing for PepsiCo. Pepsi Vanilla is the lead sponsor for the NFL event.

The NFL’s arrival to the Mall, however, is not without its ardent critics. The event features widespread signage on the Mall of Pepsi Vanilla, as well as signs and banners of several other NFL corporate sponsors.

Corporate sponsorship has occurred at many other events on the Mall but never to such magnitude, local activists say. Jumbotrons set up on the Mall to show the Redskins-Jets game will have the commercials airing during the ABC broadcast, also a first for the Mall.

“This is just one of a series of events degrading this hallowed space,” said Judy Scott Feldman, chairman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. “We’re not against football or gathering together. But this is just a big commercial for the NFL and its sponsors, and it really sets a dangerous precedent in the use of this space. This just brings up the urgent need to have a much broader discussion as to what the true parameters for the use of the Mall ought to be.”

Collins and other NFL officials defended their actions, highlighting the lack of admission charges for any of the events as well as the planned tribute to the military that will involve 25,000 servicemen. The NFL event received permits, approvals and planning assistance from a wide variety of local and federal agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Defense and Interior, the District government and the National Park Service. The NFL also will replace damaged sod on the Mall after tonight’s concert.

“This rivals the Grammys or a Super Bowl halftime show, and it’s completely free,” Collins said.

Scattered thunderstorms are forecast, but the event will go on as planned unless the lightning is severe.

While the entire scope of “NFL Kickoff Live” is not quite as large as the Super Bowl, it does highlight an ongoing priority of the NFL to showcase every major event on its calendar to a broad, mainstream audience. Those efforts also encompass each week of the playoffs and Thanksgiving, which in recent years has received unprecedented marketing attention from the league.

Collins said the league is working on several models to expand the season-opening event, including having a main festival in one NFL city and smaller, satellite events in the 31 other markets. Teams around the league also likely will begin a formal bidding process to play host to the event, just as they currently do for Super Bowls.

“It’s a little early to talk definitively about what’s going to happen with this,” Collins said. “But we’ve already gotten indications of interest from other teams around the league. It’s something we’re going to continue to refine and build.”

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