The 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl added a trio of national sponsors to its partner arsenal, already more than 40 brands deep, doubling its highest level of sponsorship and proving the value of national broadcast exposure—even (and especially) during a pandemic.
Sports and entertainment collectibles company Panini America, the exclusive trading card manufacturer of the NFL, NFLPA and college football, came on board in October, three months before menswear brand Swet Tailor and The Vitamin Shoppe’s True Athlete supplement company joined in January, just days before kickoff in Mobile, Ala.
As the only college all-star game still being played this year (the East-West Shrine Bowl canceled due to COVID-19, and the NFLPA’s Collegiate Bowl took a virtual approach), the Senior Bowl is in a strong position from a business perspective. Airing its practices and Jan. 30 game live on national television, it provides partners with visibility in front of the sport’s top prospects, league executives and decision-makers from all 32 NFL clubs as well as fans and viewers—something its counterparts could not offer.
The virtual version of the Collegiate Bowl, for example, had support from sponsors EA and Fanatics, but the pair are far outnumbered by the expansive portfolio of returning and new partners that the Senior Bowl has managed to assemble this year.
“Our practices are still going to be broadcast on ESPN and the NFL Network every day, game day will be on the NFL Network, so having field-level signage was huge—things that are visible from TV,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said in a phone interview. “There are LED ribbons around the stadium and the jumbotron, and we’re going to continue to boost things that way, but the biggest thing we could deliver on for national brands was the field-level signage.”
The game catered to each new sponsor’s unique needs in their individual arrangements: The Senior Bowl’s exclusive, multiyear marketing deal with Panini creates the game’s first official trading cards for each invited NFL prospect and includes on-site, digital and social activations.
Swet Tailor, the game’s first official off-field apparel sponsor, locked up the new category with its own exclusive deal, which it will use to introduce its High & Mighty line of big and tall extended sizing to prospects, league and team personnel ahead of April’s NFL Draft.
The menswear company has made other inroads into the football world through several of its athlete investors—among them are current and former NFL players Mark Sanchez, Josh Norman, Josh Rosen and Ryan Kerrigan—but this is its first official college football sponsorship. With its target audience in the game’s participants and its fans, Swet Tailor is getting valuable on-field and on-air exposure from the Senior Bowl (at a lower price point than, say, the national championship game).
True Athlete will provide products to Senior Bowl players at mealtimes, working with the game as it adjusts to COVID-19-mandated changes, including individual grab-and-go meals instead of normal communal dining.
Returning national and local partners similarly adapted. The Senior Bowl, for example, adjusted its arrangement with longtime financial partner MorganStanley to transition the company’s typical game-week programming to a virtual offering, while maintaining its in-venue visibility. Reese’s retained its title rights, and Nike continues to serve as the Senior Bowl’s on-field apparel partner, rounding out the game’s national sponsors. The goal moving forward, Nagy says, is to continue the growth seen this year.
“There is a uniqueness to this event, and sponsorship is an area where we still have a lot of growth upside,” Nagy said. “The goal moving forward is to continue connecting with those big national brands, which sometimes isn’t easy to do operating out of a city the size of Mobile. We’re not in New York or not in L.A., but the pandemic has shown us even more that you don’t have to be. It’s a great event. Sponsors that we have had on board always come back—the access to the players, to the NFL guys is unmatched.”
The Senior Bowl’s full portfolio also includes 35 local sponsors who have continued to show tremendous support, despite the disappearance of their normal activation opportunities. Over the last several years, the Senior Bowl has built out a week of events leading up to the game that integrate the local community—from businesses to residents and fans. This year, due to COVID, all of those events were canceled. Only practices and the game itself remain.
Local partners include small businesses as well as regional representatives of bigger brands—the local Coca-Cola and Miller Lite distributors, and BlueCross BlueShield of Alabama, for example. All of those sponsors will get exposure in front of the 6,300 fans that purchased tickets, 25% capacity at South Alabama’s Hancock Whitney Stadium.
“Our local sponsors have really stepped up and supported us in a year where we’ve had to strip away all the events that we’d usually do with them,” Nagy explained. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but the main goal was to get these players here, get the NFL here, and have our practices and a game. And still, our local sponsor support has been big time.”