Last year, the NFL debuted one of the more ambitious ads in its history. Celebrating the 100th year of the league, the outstanding two-minute ad, set at a banquet that goes haywire, featured a raft of current players, legends, cultural icons and the next generation, including young female football phenom Sam Gordon.
The ad, created by 72andSunny, was unlike anything the league had done before. And it caught the attention of football fans around the world, deservedly landing at or near the top of many best ads of the Super Bowl lists.
With such a standout effort, could the league top itself this year?
While details of the two-minute spot, which will run before kickoff on Sunday, are being kept close to the vest, Tim Ellis, the NFL’s CMO, provided a glimpse into the spirit of what the league hopes to accomplish.
“Last year, we really focused on the joy of the game,” Ellis said. “Throughout all of our marketing communications, we created a tapestry of football legends, current superstars and strong females. The ad also blended young and old, injected youth culture, and was pure adrenaline and fun. This year, it’s all going to be about that next generation of stars, so we’re going to pass the torch.”
The teaser provided by the NFL provides some clues about the ad, which includes deep nods to fans and the league’s markets. It also continues a “helmets off” strategy that Ellis adopted last year, putting more focus on the athletes off the field.
The story arc, according to Ellis, involves one young athlete, YouTube sensation Bunchie Young, taking an epic journey across America that culminates in a special moment in Miami. Along the way, Young meets NFL legends, current stars and important figures in youth culture. The latter-day Forrest Gump theme also sees Young play tackle and flag football with 32 other kids (who were winners of a league-wide contest) that participate in the sport across America.
Some current and former players include Joe Montana, Steve Young, Ray Lewis, Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley. In addition, key female athletes including Toni Harris (the first woman to receive a college football scholarship and featured in Toyota’s Super Bowl ad last year) and Carli Lloyd (the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team star who famously kicked a 55-yard field goal at the Philadelphia Eagles training camp) make cameos. Professional skateboarder Nyjah Huston also makes an appearance, further integrating other pastimes into the sport.
Teed up as both a bookend and sequel to last year’s ad, the creative concept isn’t what the league had initially approved with 72andSunny. That ad would have been popular and engaging, Ellis noted, but it felt closer to the same idea as last year.
“We took a piece of juggernaut creative, put it aside and, lo and behold, we came up with something that is much better and makes more sense because it’s grounded in youth and our new generation of players and fans,” he said.
“We started the year with a two-minute kickoff of the league’s 100 years, and we’re closing it by going even bigger,” added Glenn Cole, 72andSunny founder and creative chair.
The 2019 ad was a logistical high-wire act. Organizing dozens to people to descend upon a Los Angeles studio proved to be a real challenge. Going into several markets was an even more ambitious approach. But according to Cole, the result was a unique and made for a different vibe between the players and fans.
“It was still logistically crazy, but it felt like the players were in their own element being in their cities and with their fans,” he said. “There was a real swagger and pride that we get to enjoy, scene after scene, in the ad’s two minutes.”
Star power aside, Cole believes Young will have loads of new fans based on his performance.
“He’s an incredible young athlete, but he’s super charismatic and charming,” he said. “He is humble, was very respectful of all of the players, young and old, and has an insatiable curiosity. When you’re telling a story like this, it can feel like you’re imposing a kid in this setting against famous people who have done huge things in their football careers. But the big surprise was that it was not forced. Bunchie is the most interesting, magnetic story in one filled with them.”
Even with the focus on youth, like last year, the goal was to create something that generations could share and discuss together. Considered touches like including the Ray Charles classic “What’d I Say” brings older audiences into the experience and is an opportunity to open up a dialogue around the sport’s heritage.
“Last year, younger audiences didn’t know about the Immaculate Reception or who Jim Brown was,” Ellis noted. “But they did know who [esports star] Ninja and Saquon Barkley were. That stimulated conversation among the older and younger generations. We [did] that to bring people together to create a common bond about football.”
Since Ellis took over as the NFL’s CMO in 2018, the league has explored all kinds of interesting territory with its talent on and off the field. Additionally, the NFL appears to not be shying away from some tough territory as well.
During the NFL’s conference championship games, the league ran a spot (also by 72andSunny) addressing the issue of police shootings of black men. The ad, starring former wide receiver Anquan Boldin, focuses on the story of his cousin, Corey Jones, who was shot and killed in Florida in 2015. This same ad will run during the Super Bowl.
A year and a half into Ellis’ tenure, however, the strategy around bringing more fans into the fold by speaking to a multigenerational, more expansive demographic and bolder storytelling appears to be bearing fruit.
“We’ve reached the highest fan base ever for the NFL,” he said. “We have 187.3 million fans, and that’s been driven by an increase in Gen Z—which was in decline for several years. Additionally, our gender balance has reached historic highs: 47% of our audience is now female, which is really exciting.”