The 121st annual Army-Navy game will take place Saturday at Michie Stadium, just the fourth time—and first since 1943—that the historic matchup will be held at West Point. The decision to move the 2020 edition of America’s Game from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia to the military academy in New York’s Hudson Valley, with no fans in attendance save for Cadets and Midshipmen, has forced corporate partners—like USAA, the presenting sponsor of the Army-Navy Game—to revamp their approach to sponsorship activation.
USAA vice president of brand management Eric Engquist explained that pandemic-induced safety measures have led his company to focus on how they can “replicate what otherwise would have been a face-to-face event marketing strategy and move [the various engagement opportunities] to virtual channels, to provide value for people who can’t be present at the event.” But the long-term nature of the USAA sponsorship (the company has been the Army-Navy Game’s title sponsor since 2009) has also enabled the insurance, banking and financial services provider to look ahead and tie some of its promotional efforts to next year’s game, when fans are expected to once again be a part of the festivities.
Scout Sports & Entertainment managing partner Michael Neuman believes it is a smart approach. “There is simply no replacement for the live experience,” said Neuman, who also teaches at Columbia University as an adjunct professor. “There are some events where pageantry is off the charts, and [that includes] the annual Army-Navy game. If you are a brand marketer with access to annual hallmark events, it makes perfect sense to leverage IP, execute consumer-driven promotions and offer the ‘payout’ at a future event.”
Our Take: To be clear, USAA isn’t “just jumping ahead to 2021 and cashing out this year,” as Engquist put it. The company will be measuring post-game sponsorship awareness, brand opinion and consideration for USAA services and products as it always does. “And we still want to engage fans,” the USAA executive assured.
But sponsorship activation is largely about “creating goosebumps,” and Engquist acknowledges it’s hard to create—never mind measure—those types of experiences and memories in a digital environment. That’s why the company decided to award grand prize winners of the ongoing Army-Navy House promotion (ArmyNavyHouse.com) tickets to attend the 2021 game in person.
Had fans been permitted to attend the 2020 game, the Army-Navy House sweepstakes would have gifted the grand prize winners the chance to take in this weekend’s game. But one could argue USAA’s decision to tie a 2020 promotion to next year’s game was the right one all along. The 2021 game is expected to be an “extra special” event, as it will be played in New York City (technically, East Rutherford) and commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. There is also less buzz than usual surrounding this year’s game, which because of the pandemic is being played opposite dozens of other games (Army-Navy typically enjoys its own December weekend).
“Memories don’t fade when you have tangible evidence to bring you back [to the event],” Engquist said. To that end, USAA plans to select 1,000 fans of each academy to win a commemorative ticket. The hope is that, down the line, the stub reminds the winners of the unique circumstances surrounding the 2020 game, creating the goosebumps that ultimately lead to a meaningful connection for the company.
USAA’s shift to virtual engagement is almost certainly here to stay. Surely, if fans are permitted to attend the 2021 game, the company will be there to “provide face-to-face event sponsorship and great live experiences,” Engquist said. But “when you’re thinking about the inordinate amount of investment being made into [a sports property like Army-Navy],” he added, it makes sense to leverage digital channels. Face-to-face and experiential aspects of brand activations reach a relatively small demographic. By sharing the experiences virtually, a brand can significantly expand its audience.
Considering the “consumer is growing in their ability and willingness to engage in virtual environments, even if [the country returns to normalcy] we will continue to see virtual sponsorship activation as an add-on and expansion of [a brand’s] reach,” Engquist said. USAA’s efforts to expand the audience in 2020 should pay dividends for the Army-Navy game in 2021. With the game moving to the New York metropolitan area next year (it’s typically held in Philadelphia or Baltimore), it will be marketing to—and looking to attract—a new set of fans.
Neuman agreed that virtual events will coexist alongside live experiences in 2021 and beyond. “Fans are now reprogrammed, and the industry has learned that virtual creates scale and cost advantages that live doesn’t offer,” he said. “According to a recent study we executed, 70% of fans who participated in a virtual event during COVID-19 are very likely to continue engaging virtually even after live events come back.”