It was the day before the 2015 NFL draft in Chicago, and last-minute preparations were nearly complete for the announcement of a monster marketing deal: Hyundai Motor America's multiyear, multimillion-dollar sponsorship of the nation's most popular sports league.
Banners with the Hyundai and NFL logos were being unfurled. Contracts were being overnighted for final signatures. Dozens of Hyundai Tucson and Santa Fe crossovers were on-site for the April event, each with a special gold wrap to commemorate the 50th Super Bowl coming up in February 2016. Dave Zuchowski, then Hyundai Motor America's CEO, was on a plane to Chicago for the announcement.
For the NFL — still smarting from sponsor unease over its handling of domestic violence cases against its players — it was a crucial, big-dollar vote of corporate confidence, a replacement for General Motors, which dropped its sponsorship of the league after a nearly 15-year run. For Hyundai, it was a marketing coup: The NFL was the jewel of sports sponsorship, one the automaker had coveted for years because of the validation such a partnership could bring to a challenger brand.
Then came a devastating call from South Korea. Hyundai Motor Co., the parent company, was calling off the deal.
No sponsorship was announced the next day. The gold-wrapped Hyundais were put away. Roger Goodell, the NFL's formidable commissioner, was furious. And those who had worked on the deal for months for Hyundai Motor America were stunned.
The two sides resurrected a deal two months later, but the ripple effects of that bobbled kickoff are still being felt today, insiders say, as Hyundai wrestles with the added cost of the sponsorship it secured, while it strains to sustain sales growth in a truck-dominated marketplace.