New CFL ad campaign targets women and millennials

The TV spot for the CFL’s new marketing campaign opens with a shot of a pre-teen girl walking with her headphones on and pausing near a pickup football game.

When the boys on the field spot her, they invite her to play and after a momentary hesitation she joins them on the field.

Soon after they hand her the ball she breaks away for a touchdown, proving she belongs and setting the tone for how the league plans to sell itself in 2017.

Last month, the Star got an exclusive first look at the TV spot and campaign, set to launch Sunday in the three-week lead-up to training camp.

The team behind the campaign explained that its tagline — “Bring It In” — is a virtuous double entendre.

On the field, it’s the phrase coaches and captains often shout to summon players to a huddle.

In the marketplace, it’s a call for inclusiveness, cutting across demographic lines to invite prospective fans to experience the CFL.

The league collaborated with ad firm Bensimon Byrne, the company behind Justin Trudeau’s campaign ads before the 2015 federal election. And with Canada’s 150th anniversary looming, the league and its creative partner hoped to emphasize values they view as Canadian.

“It’s a play on the … inclusiveness the league has always showed. The diversity, the acceptance,” says David Rosenberg, partner and chief creative officer at Bensimon Byrne. “We’ve taken football vernacular and enlarged the meaning.”

The new marketing push comes amid instability at the executive level.

In mid-April, the league announced commissioner Jeffrey Orridge would step down in June after just over two years on the job. Neither the league nor Orridge, the first black commissioner of a major North American sports league, would elaborate on the reasons for his departure. But a news release made clear Orridge and the CFL board had differing visions for the league’s future.

Still, with its emphasis on diversity and inclusion, the new campaign appears to extend Orridge’s commitment to cultivating non-traditional audiences. Under his leadership, the league signed its first openly gay player, former U.S. college star Michael Sam, while Orridge became the first CFL commissioner to march in Toronto’s Pride Parade.

Similar efforts to attract millennials and women appear to have paid off.

According to brand analytics firm IMI International, the number of 18- to 34-year-olds identifying as CFL fans grew by more than 3 per cent last year, the fastest growth rate in that demographic among Canada’s pro sports leagues.

Meanwhile, CFL TV ratings rose 3.5 per cent overall in 2016, and 8 per cent among 18- to 49-year-olds compared with the previous year, according to the league, which also reports a 7 per cent increase in viewership among women.

“Those needles have really moved since the relaunch of the campaign,” says Neal Covant, VP of consumer insights at IMI International.

The commercial isn’t meant to be political, says Christina Litz, the CFL’s senior VP of marketing and content. But she acknowledged the political climate in the U.S., where Donald Trump traded on racial and religious animus on the way to winning the presidential election, provides context for the league’s decision to market its diversity.

“We still have common values in this country,” Litz says. “Certain things … define us against our neighbours to the south and against the rest of the world.”

Except that Trump-style populism doesn’t stop at the border. After the U.S. election, Conservative MP and leadership candidate Kellie Leitch called Trump’s win “an exciting message that needs to be delivered in Canada.”

Meanwhile, when ESPN laid off reporters last week, conservative commentators argued the company’s alleged liberal politics and commitment to on-air diversity alienated viewers and squeezed revenue. Subsequent analysis has shown ESPN’s subscriber base has eroded as customers continue to dump their cable packages, a trend unrelated to politics.

Covant says CFL fan support is similarly unthreatened by the league actively engaging a more diverse audience.

“It hasn’t had a negative effect at all,” he says. “The diehards still love you. What they’re doing is bringing in new fans: the younger audience and the female audience.”