Behind the NFL’s Super Bowl ad—and its strategy to expand the brand

 

Immediately following Usher’s rousing halftime performance at Super Bowl LVIII, the millions of viewers who were tuned in were transported to Accra, Ghana, for two-and-a-half minutes. The NFL’s “Born to Play” spot begins in the bedroom of a young Ghanaian boy named Kwesi (played by Eldad Osime), who dreams of playing football and stays up late to watch Super Bowl LVIII. His bedroom is adorned with posters of NFL players from Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes to New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley. 

It’s clear his parents aren’t as supportive of his “fantasies”—as his mother refers to it. The next morning as Kwesi heads to school, we see him run through a crowded market in Accra as he plays an imaginary game of football with NFL superstars like Barkley, Justin Jefferson, Cameron Jordan, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. It ends with Kwesi at the NFL Africa Camp meeting two-time Super Bowl champion, Osi Umenyiora, who tells the boy, “It doesn’t matter where you’re born as long as you’re born to play.” 

According to a USA Today’s Ad Meter poll, which asks 160,000 respondents to vote on their favorite Super Bowl commercials, “Born to Play” ranked fifth of the 59 spots shown during this year’s game, proving a strong resonance with viewers. 

How “Born to Play” came together

The ad highlights the NFL’s International Pathway Program, which launched in 2017 to recruit athletes from around the world. According to the NFL, there are currently 127 players in the league from the program. Tim Ellis, chief marketing officer of the NFL, says the ad was intended to highlight the NFL’s increasingly global reach. (Five NFL games were played in the U.K. and Germany this past season. Next season it will have its first game in Brazil. And this year’s Super Bowl was the first Univision telecast to reach Spanish-language audiences.) 

The NFL also wanted a spot that would exemplify unity, something Ellis says “the country needs right now.”

“No one thinks immediately that the NFL would do something so human, so tender,” Ellis tells Fast Company. “It makes the brand more approachable, and more interesting, and more human.”

The NFL worked with global creative advertising agency, 72andSunny, to put the commercial, directed by Andrew Dosunmu, together, from coming up with the plot, to filming on location, to the casting of Kwesi.

According to Ellis, they came up with a few different directions—including a spot set in Denmark—before finally deciding on Ghana. It was the first country where the NFL’s International Pathway Program launched in Africa, before expanding to Kenya and South Africa the following year. 

When it came time to cast Kwesi, Ellis says it was important to find someone who would inspire young people around the world. 

“He had to be somebody who was really relatable, but also somebody who had the hope and optimism and spark,” Ellis tells Fast Company. “Somebody who just had those characteristics that would inspire both people young and old.”

Glenn Cole, cofounder of 72andSunny, explained how the commercial’s storyline was inspired by a speech Osi Umenyiora—a former defensive end for the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons who was instrumental in the founding of the first NFL Africa Camp—previously gave to the young men at the camp, so they tried to cast a character who could be a young version of him. 

“[Osime and Umenyiora] had a real connection the whole time they were together,” Cole said. “It was almost like Osi with his younger self, and his younger self wishing he could grow up to be like this person. I think that’s also when we made the decision that this is not just an ending to a story. This is the story. Osi and Kwesi’s relationship is the story.”

Damaune Journey, global chief growth officer at 72andSunny, says it’s a kind of story and representation that’s often missing from ads. 

“At the end of the day, many in the Black community and the broader African diaspora see themselves on TV playing the sport,” Journey told Fast Company. “But they don’t necessarily see their story told through the advertising.”

The expanding NFL brand

Ellis said the Born to Play spot is a culmination of the work the NFL has done over the past five and a half years to emphasize diversity and inclusion. In 2021, the NFL launched the “Football is for everyone” campaign in partnership with the Trevor Project, while last year’s Super Bowl LVII spot “Run With It” highlighted women in flag football.

The league also debuted the NFL Heritage Program this season in which hundreds of football players and coaches represented their heritage and cultural background by wearing a flag on the back of their helmet that represents what country they’re from for two weeks out of the year.

“We wanted to focus on being a more multicultural league and have a more welcoming voice to everyone,” says Ellis. 

There are nine minority head coaches lined up to lead NFL teams next season, even as the Rooney Rule, a policy founded in 2003 to promote diversity among leadership in the league, has come under recent attack by anti-DEI groups

This year, the league also built on its strategy to reach more women, which was certainly boosted by Taylor Swift’s presenceSports Media Watch research shows that the biggest year-over-year gain in this year’s Super Bowl viewership was among women ages 18-34-year-olds, 3.87 million of whom watched across CBS and Univision, up 24% from last year. “When the romance [with Travis Kelce] started, that fueled what was already happening with the growth of our female fan base,” Ellis noted.

“The [Super Bowl] was so incredible, as you saw, it came down to the wire, but we also like to transcend the game, and that means capturing things that we do to uplift the communities, to see how we inspire positive change to include everybody,” Marissa Solis, SVP global brand and consumer marketing of the NFL, tells Fast Company. “I think all of those things happened this season, which is why we have the highest viewership ever and the highest perception numbers we’ve ever had.”

Going forward, the theme of unity will continue to be an important focus for the NFL brand. 

“We have a level of momentum right now in the NFL,” Ellis added. “And we’re going to just continue to drive energy and continue that momentum.”