Automakers are ready to take the field for one of the most uncertain National Football League seasons ever.
In normal times, the biggest question mark for the NFL, which kicks off Thursday, Sept. 10, would be about who's going to take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February. But the coronavirus pandemic threatens to disrupt the league and the games that have long been a key cog in many automakers' marketing strategies.
Major League Baseball already has had to postpone games because of COVID-19 outbreaks among teams.
The NFL, which drew $4.3 billion in advertising dollars last season, could face the same problem, said Kevin Krim, CEO of analytics firm EDO Inc.
" 'Sunday Night Football,' 'Monday Night Football' and 'Thursday Night Football' are all incredibly valuable franchises," Krim said. "If suddenly there's an outbreak the morning of one of those games, they're not going to be able to play. There is this risk that some of these games could just not happen."
Conversely, Krim believes the NFL could take on even greater importance this year for advertisers because there could be fewer appealing options in the fall.
Sports leagues weren't the only entities that had to toss out their normal schedules when the pandemic hit. Because TV shows were forced to halt production, many won't have new seasons ready to air anytime soon.
If the NFL season moves ahead without hiccups, Krim thinks automakers and other advertisers might up their spending to take advantage of it.
"But if it gets disrupted," he said, "I think there's a chance they spend significantly less and they find other places to put it, or they just save the money."
As the pandemic lingers, Hyundai is moving ahead with its NFL game plan.
Hyundai, once a league sponsor that carried the designation of official car and SUV of the NFL, is entering its third season as the presenting sponsor of the pregame show for NBC's "Sunday Night Football."
The Sunday production, Hyundai said, has been the most watched TV broadcast for nine consecutive seasons, attracting 20 million viewers a week.
The Korean automaker will use that time to spotlight its three-row Palisade. One piece of Hyundai's Sunday night plan will be "Tailback Tailgate," a content series that will air before three games. Hyundai said former NFL running backs will tailgate from the back of the Palisade Calligraphy Edition, "where they will discuss that week's game over iconic cuisine from the home city that week."
The Sunday sponsorship includes branding elements such as logo animations, in-studio signage and logo placements on the broadcast's countdown clock.
The brand also is continuing its local automotive sponsorship of the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Houston Texans that benefit dealer groups in those areas.
"NFL is a critical part of the mix in the fourth quarter [of the year], so we are all hoping the season will go on as planned," Hyundai said in a statement to Automotive News. "Given all the challenges with other sports this season, we are being cautiously optimistic."
Toyota Motor North America has maintained its halftime sponsorships for the Thursday and Sunday night broadcasts, which is the same approach as last year.
Vinay Shahani, the automaker's vice president of integrated marketing operations, said Toyota is relying on strategic ad placements during NFL broadcasts to reach its diverse customer base "during this unprecedented time."
"We are optimistic that the precautions implemented by the league will result in a successful season for the NFL and its sponsors," Shahani said in a statement.
Ed Williams, vice president of growth and strategy at Kantar, expects auto brands to take a more measured approach to NFL spending this season.
"It probably won't be at the levels that were seen previously," Williams said, "but I still think there's going to be some strong participation."