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Hasbro taps college athletes, and Nerfball, to build clout with Gen Z

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Hasbro is investing in college athletes — something the toy and game behemoth is able to do given the name, image and likeness (NIL) policy change in recent years — to gain traction among Gen Z sports fans. At the same time, the company is looking to garner interest among potential sponsors for the next edition of its new sporting event, Nerfball: Battle in the Bubble tournament.

Nerf wants to engage its audience with the brand’s product line, the Nerf Stryfe X, and take the opportunity to broaden its reach by creating a competitive sport that introduces fans to structured ways of playing with Nerf blasters and balls. Rather than partnering with big name influencers to accomplish this, Nerf sought out college athletes who would fit its competition, the first of which took place in Florida on Sept. 22.

“It was about launching a sport,” said Teresa Pearson, vp of global franchise strategy at Nerf. “Marketing was a component of that, but we wanted to make sure that this wasn’t [just] a marketing activation and that we were launching a real sport. We [wanted to make sure] we were putting the effort into it and we were spending the money needed and we were bringing in the right talent to showcase it.”

Nerf intentionally kept details about the competition under wraps after announcing it last year, according to Pearson, who added that the brand wanted to spark speculation among fans on platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Reddit to create an air of excitement and anticipation. Nerf chose to keep everything ambiguous until the official reveal on Sept. 27 via its TikTok account, with the goal of enhancing the competition’s surprise factor with its audience.

Nerf ultimately wants to host a yearly tournament rather than a singular exhibition, hopefully starting in 2024, and the brand is actively searching for potential sponsors to enhance the tournament’s promotion. This year, Nerf deliberately chose to promote its competition organically, abstaining from sponsorship involvement in this first competition to maintain full control over how it was presented to the audience and to ensure an authentic and tailored experience.

“There was interest going into the exhibition game, but I thought it was very important that we would be able to manage this ourselves without any other extra weight with other brands,” said Pearson. “This was meant to showcase the sport itself — not necessarily become just a marketing message for us.”

Nerf is also aware that college sports can carry as much impact as professional sports, especially because consumers like to follow college players’ journeys to the big leagues. With that in mind, Nerf wanted to tell the stories of its talent through short-form videos made for TikTok and YouTube Shorts with memorable highlights from the competition and behind-the-scenes content as a potential pathway to lead viewers and possible sponsors to check out the full match on Nerf’s website.

Nerf tapped college athletes from a variety of sports to create two teams for the competition, including volleyball, track, basketball, softball and lacrosse. All of the talent published content from the competition on their own social channels from Sept. 27 to Sept. 29. That content was also boosted by the brand through its paid spend. Aside from the college athletes’ posts, Nerf also invited members of the press to the taping of the competition, which took place on Sept. 22 and aired last week on Nerf’s website. Nerf also took to social media to organically build hype around the competition.

“We believe this sport in particular speaks to the modern generation,” said Adam Kleinman, svp and gm of global brands at Nerf and sports action. “It’s not as long as other sports as we built it as four minute quarters, so it plays relatively fast, which means that the viewing time is relatively fast.”

It is unclear how much of Hasbro’s advertising budget was allocated to this effort, as Kleinman and Pearson declined to share budget specifics. Hasbro has spent a little over $33 million on advertising so far this year, up from $29 million in 2022, according to Vivvix, including paid social data from Pathmatics. The data also showed that Hasbro advertised heavily on Meta platforms Instagram and Facebook this year, as well as on connected TV.

The Nerf event serves as an indicator of Hasbro’s long-term strategy regarding college athletes, particularly in light of the current developments in college football, such as Deion Sanders’ involvement in coaching college football games for the University of Colorado. And with the emergence of NIL regulations, athletes now have more opportunities to monetize their image and brand affiliations.

By positioning itself as a potential partner for these athletes, Nerf is not only tapping into the growing trend of athletes leveraging their personal brands, but it’s also signaling a commitment to embracing this shift in the sports landscape, according to Rob Schwartz, chair of TBWA/Chiat/Day NY Group. He added that this move suggests that Nerf aims to establish itself as a brand that champions and supports athletes as they navigate the evolving terrain of NIL endorsements and partnerships.

“Nerf and NIL make a lot of sense and college sports are more popular than ever,” he said. “The players probably grew up with Nerf, so the association is authentic. And best of all, think about the product placement and activations that could be produced around all that tailgating activity.”

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