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Bears Pass On Casino Advertising, Stressing 'Values'

Crain's Chicago Business, August 21, 2012

While some NFL teams will feature casino advertising on stadium signage for the first time this year under a new league policy, the Chicago Bears won't be one of them.

The Bears are "choosing not to participate" in doing ad deals with casinos, said the team's vice president of sales and marketing, Chris Hibbs, who called it a decision based on "values."

"From a business partner perspective, we're lucky to have a 'less is more' philosophy where our focus is on top, blue chip brands that are highly associated with us," he said. "Adding to that, an entity in gambling doesn't feel like a fit to me, and I would surmise that some of our blue chip brands would feel the same way."

There's no shortage of potential partners that could leap at the chance to sponsor the team, with the Horseshoe Casino in Northwest Indiana and recently opened Rivers Casino in Des Plaines both involved in large-scale campaigns around the Chicago area.

With its decision, the team is potentially leaving $2 million on the table annually by keeping its distance from the gambling hotspots, though the Bears could easily attract other ad revenue from sponsors looking to associate with its classic brand, according to Chicago-based sports marketing agency IEG.

"I'm sure there is a good group of teams out there scraping for every dollar," Mr. Hibbs said. "But it's a pretty good position to be in to say our values trump the revenue."

He makes a good point, especially from the standpoint of keeping its current stable of corporate partners happy, said Jim Andrews, senior vice president at IEG, which helped the team create its current "Hall of Fame" sponsorship partner program.

"When you start to get out of 'blue chip' territory and make deals with second-tier brands or categories that are not what we think of as 'blue chip,' like banking, automotive and telecommunications, you are diminishing your own brand," Mr. Andrews said.

Still, the Bears are one of a handful of teams in the NFL that miss out on several million dollars each year because they can't sell naming rights to Soldier Field, forcing them to be a little more creative in how they drum up extra revenue.

For now, it will be interesting to see how many teams embrace casinos now that the league has opened up the category.

The San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals had deals with Indian tribes that operate casinos in their markets, which they've been able to advertise only by promoting the names of the tribes (which are also the names of the casinos).

Those "loophole" deals are worth between $800,000 and $1 million each year, according to IEG.

The new casino ad rules are just a two-year trial effort by the league, and there are restrictions — signage can only be in the upper bowls of the stadium to avoid most television cameras and 5 percent of the value of each team's ad deal must go to the NFL's anti-gambling program for its employees.

The funny thing is, gambling plays a significant role in the NFL's popularity, from the average fantasy football geek to the high-stakes addict.

The Super Bowl alone draws as much as $100 million in wagers each year, according to the Nevada Gaming Commission, with nearly $1 billion in bets throughout the season (and that's just here in the U.S.).

It makes for an interesting discussion about the balance of branding and the bottom line.