By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
When Coach Joe Gibbs holds his regular news conference at Redskins Park each week, he's joined on the podium by some silent partners. As Gibbs talks, an imposing video wall behind him comes alive, setting in motion a parade of revolving corporate logos.
Like a mini-Times Square electronic billboard, the video wall beams Budweiser's bright-blue symbol for a few seconds, then replaces it with a similar display for Toyota, followed by plugs for Siemens, Redskins.com TV, Bud Light and FedEx Field.
The state-of-the-art system -- dubbed a Digital VideoDrop by the guy who dreamed it up, team owner Daniel Snyder -- enables the Redskins to cash in on some previously unsponsored territory: the news conference. These days, there's always something else besides the news, or at least behind the newsmakers, when the media gather. No self-respecting news conference is complete without some kind of pre-positioned display garnished with ads, Web site addresses or other messages designed to crowd into the spotlight meant for someone else.
Politicians, government officials, business executives and entertainment celebrities all play versions of the background game. As a candidate in 2000, George W. Bush began using standing, static backdrops featuring brief, repeated phrases. Now such slogans appear semi-regularly behind the president during his speeches, offering subtle reinforcement for his various policy proposals. "Winning the War on Terror," read one this year. "Comprehensive Immigration Reform," said another. Last year, it was "Saving Social Security" (and the controversial post-Iraq-combat banner, "Mission Accomplished," before that).
Whether corporate or political, the idea is to leave no media opportunity unexploited. Backdrop messages piggyback on the attention a news subject attracts, insinuating themselves into TV clips or news photographs of a speech or media event.
Ad backdrops have become so common that they even appear in ads. In a new series of commercials, Coors Light features former football coaches Bill Walsh and Dick Vermeil at fake news conferences. Walsh and Vermeil address the media horde in front of ad backdrops -- plastered with Coors Light logos, of course.
To some eyes, backdrops are part of the inexorable march of commercialism in sports.
"Team owners are trying to monetize every square meter of space," says Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit group that works to heighten awareness of excessive commercialism. Ruskin ticks off a list of practices familiar to sports fans: "virtual" ads that appear behind home plate during baseball telecasts; rotating ads beneath the scorer's table during basketball games; corporate logos painted on the field during college bowl games and embedded in the ice at hockey games; and ad-spattered NASCAR vehicles. Next season, he notes, ads will appear on the jerseys of Major League Soccer players. Some colleges have even taken to putting sponsor logos on the end-zone nets that are hoisted when a team attempts an extra point or field goal.
Enough, says Ruskin -- who thinks that most consumers agree with him. He cites a 2004 survey by the Yankelovich research firm, in which 65 percent of respondents said they felt "bombarded" by too much marketing and advertising for sponsors of all kinds.
Although perhaps more subtle than most forms of branding, backdrop ads still come with potential risks for sponsors. After all, news conferences -- unlike strictly regulated sporting events -- can head in unpredictable directions. Some marketers probably wouldn't want to be associated with the kinds of testy exchanges that can break out between interview subjects and reporters at media events. And some advertisers would like to be scarce when an athlete or star's erratic behavior is at issue. (At a news conference last month, for example, Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens denied reports that he tried to commit suicide. Owens spoke about his near-overdose of pain medication while seated incongruously in front of a background of Dr Pepper logos.)
The Redskins' VideoDrop may be the biggest advance in backdrop advertising since team owners began hanging cloth banners behind the media rostrum. The team uses it during all of its news conferences at Redskins Park and FedEx Field, and sets it up inside rival stadiums when the team is on the road.
The key advantage of the rotating display, of course, is that it enables Snyder to collect fees not from just one news conference sponsor, but from several. (The team's spokesman, Karl Swanson, declined to say how much the system has generated since the Redskins began using it full time during the 2003 season.)
Swanson said the team used to have ad banners at its news conferences, but they became wrinkled and dirty with constant use and were constantly being replaced. So, Swanson says, Snyder had a brainstorm: Why not display the same logos on oversize video monitors and get rid of the banners altogether?
The VideoDrop system isn't complicated -- just a couple of very large TV sets linked to a laptop computer loaded with a set of images. The system enables the Redskins to add new sponsors within minutes, instead of waiting days or weeks for new banners. And sponsors can be quickly dropped, if there are news conference topics they'd rather not be associated with.
"It's paid for itself many times over," Swanson says. "We don't have to keep calling 'Signs R Us' all the time anymore."
Becky Wallace, the executive editor of Team Marketing Report, a sports-business publication, calls the system "a great thing for the team, and a great thing for the sponsor." But she's not sure how great it is for the news media, and possibly fans at home. "From a camera guy's perspective," she says, "having [advertising] in the frame might not be the shot you want. It might be distracting."
Despite plans to market the system to other teams, the Redskins remain the only franchise in the NFL that uses it, said Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman.
But that could change, Wallace predicts. The reason?
"Teams are running out of things to sell for sponsorship," she says. "The Redskins have found a way to add an additional element. [Teams] have sold the billboards in the stadiums, the TV spots, the scoreboard [displays]. There are a lot of companies that teams would like to work with, but can't because there aren't many good opportunities left.
"The only thing left is to start branding the urinal cakes in the bathrooms."