NFL And Cirque du Soleil: An Unlikely Experiential Marketing Team

The NFL playoffs are in full swing, which means millions of fans are sitting down in front of their televisions, harbored at local sports bars, or showcasing their team loyalty with logoed hats, jerseys and gloves as they brave the elements to watch their team live on the field.  The stakes are high, the Super Bowl is near – and the excitement couldn’t be more real.

Or could it?

That’s the goal of the “NFL Experience Times Square,” an all-new endeavor that blends storytelling, technology, and theatrics to create an experiential marketing experience aimed at connecting and engaging audiences with the NFL like never before. The project, created as a joint effort between the NFL and unlikely partner Cirque du Soleil, opened its doors in the heart of New York City in early December 2017. It is the first project of its kind for either party, and a journey that is truly unique.

“If there are 100 million NFL fans out there, only around 5% or so have ever been to a game,” NFL Experience President Danny Boockvar said. “So this gives the NFL a chance to give that 95%, the 95 million other people out there, a chance to be a part of the game.”

An immersive experience

Storytelling is at the heart of the NFL Experience – a multi-floor journey that explores football from fandom to the field.

Upon arriving, visitors are taken to the fourth floor, where they enter a mock NFL “Hall of Fame.” Glass cases line the walls, showcasing prized memorabilia of teams throughout the decades – old helmets, cheerleader’s uniforms, black and white photographs of champions’ past – representing teams from across the nation. Touchscreen panels let visitors get a closer look at their favorite teams, with interactive timelines, quotes and photo tour of their home stadium.

Visitors are then led into a small, but comfortable theater for the main event – a 4D movie that takes fans onto the field for a completely immersive experience. Screens line the walls and ceiling for a 360-degree view of the NFL season. Footballs fly across the ceiling as fans scream on the sidelines, the seats shake with every tackle, rattle with every fumble, and hum along with roaring applause. Winter months brings snow from the ceiling, and practice gives you a first-person view of what life is like inside the helmet.

“What Cirque du Soleil did, in conjunction with NFL films, is layered in Cirque’s special effect techniques, and the ability to amplify the sounds, the smells, the snow – it’s a sensory blitz that’s so important to the sport of football,” Boockvar said. “Putting this together took months and months of coordination between media and technology.”

Storytelling through tech

After the film, visitors are invited to become players themselves. Visitors “practice” on tackle dummies and test their skills on the high jump before “suiting up.” Using AR technology, visitors can “dress up” in the NFL uniform of their choice, and see what they look like holding a football out on the field.

“We’re about stepping into the game, and what better way to do that than by stepping into the uniform?” Boockvar said. “We worked hard to digitally map the suits to fit your body.”

Once visitors have suited up, they have a chance to learn and execute a play on the field in a semi-VR setting. Instead of wearing a headset, visitors step inside a helmet, where they get a first-person view of the field.

“We didn’t want to go with the traditional VR experience,” Boockvar said. “We wanted to create something more personal and authentic that felt like you were truly a player on the field.”

With a few more rounds of practice, visitors are then transported onto the field for post-Super Bowl victory celebrations.

“On the fourth floor, you enter as a fan, on the third floor you become a player – and when you leave, you leave a champion,” Boockvar said.

Creating community through experience 

Opening up this type of project in the heart of one of NYC’s biggest tourist destinations was no accident either. This strategic placement allows the NFL to capture the attention of both national and international visitors, as the organization looks to grow its viewership overseas.  

“To expose international tourists, domestic and local, avid and casual fans to the NFL in a way that most of us can’t get on the couch in front of the TV,” Boockvar said. “For Cirque du Soleil, it’s a chance to build a business around something experiential alongside one of the biggest businesses in the world – the NFL.

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