Arena football kicks off

'We have seven regular season home games,' Rob Godfrey says. 'Seven terrible car wrecks where people will stop and look.'...

‘We have seven regular season home games,’ Rob Godfrey says. ‘Seven terrible car wrecks where people will stop and look.’

And so dawns a bold new era in Canadian sports marketing.

As president and CEO of Toronto’s new Arena Football League (AFL) franchise, the Phantoms, Godfrey faces a formidable task – namely, marketing a brand new team in a league that most Toronto sports fans had barely heard of before Oct. 17.

That was the day a local group of investors headed by Rogers Communications – which also holds a majority stake in the Toronto Blue Jays – announced that they had acquired the New England Sea Wolves of the AFL, and were relocating the franchise to Toronto.

The Phantoms will kick off their season in April at the Air Canada Centre, home to the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs and NBA Toronto Raptors.

Part of the marketing challenge will be educating the public about the nuances of arena football – which, unlike the traditional stadium version of the game is played indoors on a 50-yard playing field, with rink boards replacing out of bounds lines.

The first step, though, is simply getting attention, something Godfrey intends to do by playing up the violent intensity of the sport. Hence the ‘car wreck’ metaphor.

‘I think sometimes people will find our marketing campaign shocking, and the occasional person might find it offensive,’ says the 27-year-old son of Jays president and CEO Paul Godfrey. ‘But it’s something that people will talk about. And that’s our goal.’

An initial round of print ads, created by Toronto-based MacLaren McCann, broke Nov. 4. Radio spots are expected to begin airing before December, and TV advertising will follow in the New Year.

Not surprisingly, the birth of the Phantoms has raised all sorts of marketing questions. For a guide to the issues, check out page 11.

The great gridiron debate

Will Toronto’s new Arena Football League franchise score a marketing touchdown, or get sacked? Here’s how the arguments stack up.

Can the Phantoms compete in a crowded sports market?

OFFENCE

The AFL season begins in April. In Canada, that’s about the time your average male shuts down certain key areas of the brain and settles in for the NHL playoffs. Factor in the Blue Jays, who start their own season in April, and the Raptors, who could be playoff-bound themselves at that time, and it becomes obvious that the Phantoms will have a hard time cutting through the sports clutter.

‘Anytime you bring a new sport to a market like this during the hockey season and the basketball season, just to share a voice is going to be a big question mark,’ says Pete McAskile, CEO and creative director of Toronto-based sports marketing firm Second Dimension International.

DEFENCE

Phantoms president and CEO Rob Godfrey, who grew up in Toronto, claims an intimate understanding of the city’s sports market, and believes that in-your-face advertising and promotions will generate the necessary interest. If it takes mud-wrestling at half-time to get people out to the games, then that’s what they’ll do, he says.

Michael Gouinlock, president of Toronto-based sponsorship marketing agency The GEM Group, says that the Phantoms – like the city’s successful pro lacrosse franchise, the Toronto Rock – do enjoy at least one advantage. The cost of Blue Jays, Leafs and Raptors tickets is putting those games increasingly out of reach. ‘I think there is an opportunity to come in and [offer] mid-level pricing that makes [arena football] affordable and entertaining to families.’

What about the Argos?

OFFENCE

Toronto already has one struggling pro football franchise – the CFL’s sad-sack Toronto Argonauts. Does it really need another?

If the Phantoms make the AFL playoffs, their season could overlap with that of the Argos by as much as six weeks. CFL president Jeff Giles says the two franchises will be going head-to-head for gate receipts, sponsorship dollars and season ticket orders.

DEFENCE

Relax, Godfrey says. The way he sees it, the Greater Toronto Area, with its population of five million-plus, is a town big enough for both teams.

The Phantoms, he adds, are eager to co-operate with their CFL counterparts any way they can. For example, they’ve offered to avoid scheduling home games when the Argos are playing at SkyDome. ‘We believe that what’s good for football will be good for the CFL and be good for the Arena Football League as well.’

Can the Phantoms put enough bums in seats?

OFFENCE

Godfrey predicts that games will be selling out by the end of the team’s second season. This may be a tad optimistic, given that average attendance at AFL games in the U.S. last year was 10,700 – well short of the Air Canada Centre’s capacity. And while the Phantoms will offer a relatively affordable night out, it won’t be the cheapest ticket in town: Prices will start at $12, but the average will be $26, and the best seats will go for $42.

DEFENCE

According to Gouinlock, everything will come down to the strength of the team’s marketing efforts. If they understand their market, invest serious resources and promote themselves intelligently, the fan base will grow.

‘A lot of teams will spend on [player] salaries…[but] they don’t really understand what their consumer is looking for. They spend a lot of marketing dollars, but they don’t spend them very efficiently.’

Are there enough sponsors to go around?

OFFENCE

The 15-year-old AFL and the brand new Phantoms are unknown quantities to a lot of Canadian advertisers, so it’s going to take a good deal of work to nail down sponsorship deals.

The picture could also be complicated by the sponsorship agreements that the Air Canada Centre has in place. Those deals – if they include exclusive-rights or first-right-of-refusal clauses, as many do – could limit the contracts that the Phantoms can sign, Godfrey says. Molson, for example, controls pouring rights at the ACC, which means that the only beer sponsors the Phantoms could secure are Molson brands.

DEFENCE

Gouinlock says there are plenty of potential sponsors out there. And as a lower-priced property than the Leafs or the Raptors, the Phantoms might be able to attract some companies that don’t traditionally do much sponsorship.

‘There are some good opportunities…for new players to get in, create relationships and be perceived as part of something hot.’

Still, the big key will be drawing fans. If the Phantoms can put spectators in the seats, sponsors will follow.

Who’ll tune in?

OFFENCE

If majority owner Rogers fulfills its plan to acquire a sports specialty channel – likely CTV’s SportsNet – the Phantoms will glean extensive TV exposure. But there’s no guarantee that it will happen. Which leaves the team where? On community cable? Whatever happens, the franchise can’t expect significant broadcast revenues in the short term, Gouinlock says. It will take time to build a following. The important thing is to use the opportunity to expose the game to as wide an audience as possible.

DEFENCE

Godfrey is confident the Phantoms will prove a hit on TV. Arena football, with its compact 50-yard playing field, is custom-made for TV. In the U.S., ESPN airs games weekly, and ABC carries the league championship. (Last year’s title contest drew 1.5 million people.)