Miami Dolphins sales and marketing vp Bob Reif sacrificed prime seats at a once-in-a-lifetime event to secure one of the biggest deals of his career, the 10-year, $20 million naming rights deal Fruit of the Loom's Pro Player licensed apparel brand cut two and a half years ago with the stadium hosting Sunday's Super Bowl.
"We were pretty close to finishing, I was taking my wife to the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics" said Reif, "and [Pro Player president Doug] Kelly kept saying that I was going to miss my plane, because we started at 7 and didn't finish until late. He didn't believe me at first when I said I wasn't going, but, since he gave me the tickets, I guess he forgave me. I don't know if my wife has.
That pair of unused tickets still sits on Reif's desk For face value, not to mention $20 million over 10 years, Pro Player got some badly needed visibility in the very crowded licensed sports apparel market. The deal came in August 1996, as Fruit was consolidating its licensing efforts under the Pro Player brand. Two and-a-half years later, it seems to be paying off. According to Pro Player's internal research, unaided brand awareness prior to the entitlement was almost invisible; following the August '96 deal, it was measured at 8%. When Major League Baseball's Florida Marlins, who also call Pro Player home, won the World Series in 1997, awareness hit 20%. Now it's around 17% and Kelly is anticipating levels approaching 40% after the Super Bowl XXXIII broadcast this Sunday.
For its $20 million, aside from the name itself, Pro Player got the usual compliment of stadium signage, rotating ads, Jumbotron ads at all games and mentions on tickets and in Dolphins print ads. It has blanketed stadium employees and Super Bowl host committee volunteers with its apparel. Pro Player has also used the stadium as a venue for internal meetings and for key account presentations. For example, while negotiating an NHL deal last year, a number of key NHL execs were on the sidelines for a Dolphins victory.
As important as brand recognition was Kelly's desire to gain influence within the NFL. He felt he needed that sway to secure an NFL sidelines license and the unmatched TV exposure it provides. NFL licensing sources say that the deal included incentives to the Huizenga organization, due upon the delivery of a Pro Line license; Kelly says the only thing covered in the contract is a clause ensuring that Pro Player will renew the deal if it gets a Pro Line license. "But I haven't seen a presentation yet that makes economic sense," he said.
"Given what's been going on in the licensing business," he said, "I don't know if we'd still be around if we didn't do this deal."
Pro Player didn't go into the deal with an entitlement in mind. The Dolphins had just signed the sought-after Jimmy Johnson as head coach and Kelly's thinking was that Johnson as an endorser, along with a local Dolphins sponsorship, might be a nice fit. Having been thwarted in several attempts to obtain a top level Pro Line license from the NFL, going to a team was a way for Pro Player to gain credibility and influence within the league.
"We wanted to shake up the NFL a little bit and prove to them that we were going to be a factor in this business," said Kelly. "We felt we were going to have to do things from kind of a maverick approach."
The unprecedented nature of an entitlement deal with an apparel company also appealed to those on the other side of the table. American Airlines, which eventually bought entitlement to the future home of the NBA Miami Heat, had a similar deal on the table as early as March '96. One of the sticking points was the name of the stadium. "We thought that as a sports apparel company, they were a better fit," said Reif. "They were more in the sports business."
Pro Player considered aligning itself with a number of NFL owners, but ultimately went with Wayne Huizenga, who owned the NHL's Florida Panthers, the Marlins, the Dolphins and the Dolphins' home stadium. Having the Dolphins and Marlins as tenants in the re-christened Pro Player Stadium assured year-round exposure, through a minimum of 89 total Dolphins and Marlins home dates, plus exhibitions and possible playoff games. Also in the package was the Orange Bowl game, collegiate football's championship contest in '98. Awarded to Pro Player Stadium since the entitlement deal was Sunday's Super Bowl, negotiated around the same time as the Pro Player entitlement.
Pro Player has leveraged the association by using Huizenga's players and the stadium itself in advertising and on hang tags. It has complemented the naming-rights deal by signing additional sponsorships with almost every sports property in Huizenga's stable: the Dolphins, the Panthers, the Marlins, the now-defunct CBA Florida Beach Dogs, along with TV buys on the Front Row TV network, which televises the Panthers and Martins, and endorsement deals (since lapsed) with former Panther John Vanbiesbrouck and former Marlin Moises Alou. Even the Dolphins cheerleaders were signed to a sponsorship deal, as was the National Car Rental Center, which opened as the new Panthers' home arena this season. That's a lot of dollars on top of the original commitment to the stadium, but in terms of leveraging an entitlement deal through marketing, Pro Player has leveraged its entitlement as well as, if not better, than any other marketer.