Lenovo's NFL Fantasy PlayAugust 30, 2013: 11:07 AM ET
The Chinese computer maker is betting big on the NFL—and fantasy football—to help it win in PCs in the U.S.
By Craig Giammona
FORTUNE— Amid the grim news in the PC business, Chinese computer maker Lenovo (LNGVF) has been the rare standout with something to celebrate, last quarter edging out Hewlett Packard as the world's top seller of personal computers. The $34 billion company is still behind in the U.S., though, where it lags better-known names like Dell (DELL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Apple (AAPL). Eager to build cachet for its brand here, Lenovo has hitched its wagon to the ever-growing economic power of fantasy football.
Lenovo is entering the second season of a three-year marketing partnership with the NFL. But this year it's enhancing its relationship with an attachment to the NFL.com fantasy football game, a broad campaign that features a series of web videos with NFL stars, a series of comedic web videos on The Onion, and a contest that will allow a fantasy general manager to help pick players for this year's Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
"It's just a logical intersection between the way consumers engage our products and football," said Kevin Berman, Lenovo's North American advertising chief.
Amid an 11.4% decline in global PC sales in the quarter that ended June 30, Lenovo beat the industry trend, with sales dipping just 1.4% compared to the same period a year ago. The firm was buoyed by a 19.6% jump in U.S. sales, but still ranks fourth among PC sellers here, according to research firm International Data Corporation. Many Americans don't know Lenovo, a big barrier as the company looks to increase tablet sales and launch a smartphone here in a bid to take market share from competitors like Apple and Samsung.
"What they're really trying to do is make noise and connect to a big audience," said Mike Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University's Goizueta Business School (CK). "In terms of audience, it doesn't get much bigger."
The NFL is an economic behemoth, generating nearly $10 billion in revenue in 2012. Last year, even the middling Cleveland Browns sold for $1 billion, while the league's most valuable franchise, the Dallas Cowboys, is worth more than $2 billion.
And in an increasingly fractured media environment, the NFL is one of the last bastions of appointment television in the country. NFL games dominate television ratings: the top eight rated telecasts in 2012 were related to professional football, according to Nielsen. This unmatched marketing heft is why companies are so eager to jump on board with the NFL, despite negative press from the ongoing debate over concussions and the legal troubles of some of the league's star players. Fantasy football, now played by an estimated 30 million Americans, has only added to the NFL's clout, particularly when it comes to marketers seeking out consumers in the key 18 to 35-year-old demographic.
"I think the NFL is the most proven sports sponsorship in America in terms of its ability to change the trajectory of a consumer brand," says Rick Burton, a professor of Sports Management at Syracuse University.
This is not the first time Lenovo has used a high-profile marketing campaign to get its name out in the U.S. It previously had a marketing deal with the National Basketball Association, and continues to rely on Kobe Bryant to sell smartphones in Asia. Berman declined to comment on rumors that the company is close to signing Ashton Kutcher as a pitchman.
The association with NFL, and specifically fantasy football, will continue to help Lenovo increase its brand visibility in the U.S. But whether or not that translates to sales growth is another question, analysts said. "I guess it can't hurt them, but they do spend more than others on these deals," Alberto Moel, a Hong-Kong based analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. said in an email. "Whether the NFL is a good partner depends on what the objective is. Do they want to get their name out there? Probably a good way to get you noticed. Does it help sell more computers? Not that sure."
PC sales accounted for 77% of Lenovo's revenue in the recent quarter, down 83% from a year ago. But the company now sells more tablets (1.5 million) and smartphones (11.3) than PCs (12.6 million). The PC market is facing headwinds as customers increasingly turn to mobile devices. And while Lenovo's NFL deal doesn't cover smartphones or tablets (Microsoft has a deal with the league that could put tablets in the hands of coaches on NFL sidelines as soon as 2014), the specifics of the partnership may be less important than the marketing splash of having the company name associated with America's true pastime.
As part of the deal, Lenovo partnered with The Onion to create a series of comedic fantasy football web videos that feature NFL stars like Andrew Luck and Larry Fitzgerald. And they're sponsoring a "Coach of the Year" contest that will use results from NFL.com's fantasy football league, now one of the top four fantasy platforms, to determine the top web football guru. The winner will help pick one of the teams for this year's Pro Bowl. (This year, the NFL is moving away from its traditional NFC vs. AFC format in lieu of a "playground" pick-up model).
If the NFL has a weak spot in its portfolio, in fact, it's the Pro Bowl, the league's annual all-star game. Football just doesn't resonate at half-speed, without the raw intensity and violent collisions that define the NFL's appeal to fans. But even so, roughly 12.5 million people watched the 2013 edition. That's a weak number for professional football, but one that would be celebrated by pretty much any other show or televised event. (The recent premiere of the final season of Breaking Bad drew 5.9 million viewers; The World Series, baseball's pinnacle event, averaged 12.7 million viewers in 2012.)
The NFL is about as American as sports gets. Whether it can turn Lenovo into America's PC is something the Chinese computer maker will soon find out.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that NFL athlete Robert Griffin III participated in a Lenovo series in partnership with The Onion this year. Griffin participated in a similar series for Lenovo last year that did not involve The Onion.