US Senator Politicizes National Guard-NFL Team Sports Marketing

Controversy has arisen about marketing sponsorship programs between NFL teams and the National Guard/Department of Defense.

US Senator Jeff Flake (R – Arizona) singled out the New York Jets in an April 30th press release, declaring  an “egregious and unnecessary waste of taxpayer dollars by the New Jersey Army National Guard (NJARNG).”

It’s part of his #PorkChops series highlighting what he perceives to be government waste.  The story was reported locally in New Jersey on May 8th (Christopher Baxter and Jonathan D. Salant of NJ Advance Media for NJ.com).


Let’s explain what happened and then assess.

Credit: NJ National Guard.

Credit: NJ National Guard.

The New Jersey National Guard (NJARNG) paid for a marketing sponsorship with the New York Jets the past four seasons (2011 to 2014).  The components were relatively standard fare for sports sponsorships.

Key features included:

  • Allow 10 NJARNG Soldiers to attend the Jets’ Annual Kickoff Lunch in New York City.  At the luncheon, the Soldiers will have the opportunity to meet and take pictures with various members of the Jets organization for promotional use for recruiting and retention purposes for the NJ Army National Guard.
  • In-stadium branding on monitors; Facebook social media promotion.
  • Allow NJARNG to participate in the Jets Hometown Huddle charity event in which Jets players and coaches will work side by side with the Soldiers to build or refurbish a community asset. i.e., build a new playground, rehab an existing park, etc. for promotional use for recruiting and retention purposes for the NJ Army National Guard.
  • 24 Game Access Passes.
  • Use of Atlantic Health Jets Training Center for up to 100 attendees to conduct formal meeting or event.
  • A videoboard feature – Hometown Hero.  For each of their 8 home game, the Jets will recognize 1-2 NJARNG Soldiers as Home Town Heroes.  Their picture will be displayed on the videoboard, their name will be announced over the loud-speaker, and they will be allowed to watch the game, along with 3 friends or family members, from the Coaches Club.

Total payments from the Department of Defense and the New Jersey National Guard to the Jets over four years were $377,000.

What’s so controversial, you may be wondering?

After all, we’re used to seeing a variety of marketing communications geared to promote recruitment for the various branches of the armed forces and to keep brand awareness strong (no complaints for The Few, The Proud, The Marines, I don’t think).

When we cut to the chase – shock and awe – politics are driving this controversy!


Let’s sort it out.

To begin, Flake’s press release is sensationalized, incomplete and out of context.

Credit: Senator Jeff Flake press release.

Credit: Senator Jeff Flake press release.

First, Senator Flake neglected to place the Jets sponsorship in the context of a larger, nationwide sports marketing effort by the Department of Defense:

“Overall, the Defense Department has paid 14 NFL teams $5.4 million during that time [2011 – 2014], of which $5.3 million was paid by the National Guard to 11 teams under similar contracts.”

Second, the Department of Defense has every right to use marketing tactics, including sports team sponsorship, for recruitment and retention.  It’s a smart way to reach their target audience and get the message out about the wonderful opportunities that serving in our country’s military can provide.

The National Guard believes it works:

“We have found that spending in sports to help us recruit in our 18-24 demographic works out for us.”  (National Guard spokesman – ESPN.com interview with Darren Rovell,)

Upon inspection, the aspect of the Jets sponsorship that really irks the Arizona senator is the Hometown Hero:

“Those of us go to sporting events and see them honoring the heroes.  You get a good feeling in your heart.  Then to find out they’re doing it because they’re compensated for it, it leaves you underwhelmed.  It seems a little unseemly.”  (Interview with Baxter and Salant).

Now, this part of the sponsorship is fair game for debate.

I know exactly what the Hometown Hero feature is because I attend Jets football games.  It’s a great moment – very patriotic.  I stand.  Everyone stands and applauds.  Sometimes there are USA! USA! chants.  It’s a well-deserved recognition for the soldiers.

Until I read the newspaper article, I thought the Jets were honoring the soldiers organically.  I doubt any fans would have thought it was part of a paid sponsorship.  That’s the problem for Senator Flake.  Per Baxter and Salant:

“Flake said there was nothing wrong with the Guard using football games to recruit soldiers.  The problem, he said, was spending taxpayer money on a program that, on its face, appeared to be a generous gesture by a football team.”


Okay, let’s review the total sponsorship from the perspective of the stakeholders.

If you’re the New Jersey National Guard, you feel pretty good about the sponsorship.  It has a range of tactics designed to help achieve your marketing objectives.  The strategy and execution are solid.  You should be able to review your recruitment and retention metrics and assess whether the investment is positive.  A spokesman explains:

“Promoting and increasing the public’s understanding and appreciation of military service in the New Jersey Army National Guard increases the propensity for service in our ranks and garners public support for our Hometown Team.” (Baxter and Salant)

If you’re the New York Jets, you understand that your business is the entertainment business.  If you do it well, other companies and organizations will pay to get the benefits of associating with your brand.  Creating and selling such marketing programs is well-accepted around the world.  You should rightly feel good about a continuing, four-year partnership with a paying sponsor – it must be beneficial for both parties.

Now, do the Jets also derive some polish for their own brand as result of being perceived to honor the military?  For sure.  Could they have been more transparent about the transaction?  I suppose, but cannot give an immediate, clunk-free way to communicate that the Hometown Hero honors are part of comprehensive, sports marketing sponsorship.

For example, it’s not as easy as the “paid advertisement” disclaimer you’ll see in a newspaper or magazine (although, theoretically, they could put such a statement on the video board).

The Jets National Guard sponsorship has expired, and a team spokesman said in any future deals the Jets would “make it abundantly clear that a sponsorship relationship exists.” (ESPN.com interview)

So, maybe next time we’ll hear this from the public address announcer, but is it really necessary?

Ladies and Gentlemen, please turn your attention to the end zone.  As part of the National Guard’s paid sponsorship with the New York Jets to help recruit and retain service members, today we’d like to honor . . .

If you’re a fan in the stands, at the end of the day, I think the key is that the military member is being sincerely honored.  Period.


 

Now, after the fact, knowing the honor is part of a paid sponsorship does diminish some of the good feeling the team derived from being patriotically generous.  If Hometown Hero were the only component of the sponsorship, it would be highly problematic.  But it’s not.

The fact is that it’s just one element of an integrated marketing sponsorship whose average cost is $94,000 per year.

A US Senator presented it out-of-context to make a political point, not to solve a problem, or to strengthen military recruitment, retention and overall armed forces brand-building.  For me as a fan, and a citizen, the bottom line is this: Senator Flake, we have more pressing issues that require the attention of the US Senate.

The Senator disagrees.  Yesterday, he sent a letter to the US Secretary of Defense and the head of the National Guard to obtain total Department of Defense NFL sponsorship spending since 2009.  He also wants to know the associated return on investment (ESPN.com).  Stay tuned for more national media coverage of the Senator.

If there’s really a public interest need to drill-down here, then let the Armed Services Committee review the totality of marketing and communications expenditures pertaining to military recruitment and retention.  Oh, wait.  Senator Flake isn’t a member. Hmm.


NY Jets Logo

Credit: New York Jets.

By the way, what Senator Flake didn’t note about the Jets in his mostly self-serving press release is this, reported by Baxter and Salant:

“The Jets recently made a $1 million contribution to Building for America’s Bravest, a non-profit that builds smart homes for catastrophically injured service members returning home, and annually host appreciation days for the military and first responders.”

Harvey Chimoff is a marketing and business team leader who drives performance in consumer products and manufacturing companies.

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